‘Over to you’: Harding Retail’s James Prescott on navigating choppy waters

By Trb Editor |

Over to You guest columns logo leadExperienced travel retail executive and Harding Retail Managing Director James Prescott lends his thoughts on the coronavirus (Covid-19) crisis at hand, what it has meant for the business, and the possible impact on future cruise shopping in TRBusiness’ ‘Over to You’ guest column series…

This is the sort of crisis that will change the shape of our industry for years to come. As an eternal optimist, I think there is a real chance to change things for the better.

The cruise ‘halt’ was incredibly fast once it started. In early February, we saw a few small signs from what was happening in Asia. When the first cruise line called a halt on the 11 March, it was a giant snowball that saw the business come to a standstill within 48 hours.

I think our team were incredible in those early days – we acted quickly and on reflection I think we got the key decisions right. People, relationships and business processes got tested to the extreme. Communication, openness, honesty and inclusivity have been key.


James Prescott, Managing Director, Harding Retail: “We’re likely to see the seasoned cruisers on the established routes come back first, with those ‘new to cruise’ probably taking a little longer.”


Being a retailer in travel retail is a tough, lean margin business in good times, so when the entire business stops overnight in a year when you had 10 new ships to open, including several incredible flagships, its unbelievably tough.

On 21 February, we’d been in Dover onboard the Virgin Voyages Scarlet Lady (below right), a hugely emotional day. The culmination of three years’ work with an incredible team at Virgin Voyages finally coming to life. Just a few weeks later and the world changed, literally from one extreme to the other.

We’ve taken all the steps you’d expect us to take: salary reductions, furloughing circa 90% of the UK team, unfortunately having to let some good people go (US and Australia)… it’s been tough. But there is hope. Hope that on restart we will have stronger partnerships than before.

We’ve really been focusing on what’s essential: adding value and stopping what’s not. It’s forced a ruthless focus and changed how we’ve worked. The use of video calls has been surprisingly effective. It’s a very strange thing, but connecting with our teams, partners, from home, has actually been really good. It’s removed some of the ‘business formality’ and feels like we’re getting through this together. I really hope that’s not lost when the ‘new normal’ starts.

Quite what the new normal will be is a little hard to predict at this time. The recovery is likely to be gradual and things will be different. That’s what we’re putting our thinking and planning into now – how we can be ready when the world starts to open up again.

We’re likely to see the seasoned cruisers on the established routes come back first, with those ‘new to cruise’ probably taking a little longer. Some of the PR we’ve seen hasn’t been at all helpful, but the initiatives the cruise lines are talking about are very impressive and I’m sure once the dust settles, people will come to cruise as a ‘sensible’ holiday option.

Cruise has a lot to offer, with managed social distancing more practical than going on a plane and the numbers are relatively manageable in terms of testing,Scarlet-Lady-2020 controls, and distancing. There is no doubt that things will be very different at the beginning, but every challenge presents an opportunity.

Most people love shopping, so rather than the traditional events, a more curated and controlled experience will be needed and that does present an opportunity for a more personalised experience.

Our brand partners and incredible cruise line partners have been hugely supportive and I’d like to say a huge thank you to them.

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the columnist’s and do not necessarily reflect those of TRBusiness.

To read other columns in the series, click the relevant links below. Interested in getting involved? Please contact one of the editorial team at the following addresses: [email protected][email protected][email protected].

Kevin Brocklebank, Founder and MD, One Red Kite

Alain Maingreaud, President, TFWA

Tullia Ialongo, Business Development Partner, Wand Technology

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