Day one of the MEADFA Conference, which is taking place at The Art Hotel & Resort on Amwaj Islands in Bahrain from 27-29 November, brought together leading stakeholders from the region to share their views on some of the most pertinent topics on the radar, from restoring business to 2019 levels and beyond to unlocking the potential of West Africa.
MEADFA President Sherif Toulan set the scene for the day with his welcome address, during which he underscored how “MEADFA is going to play an important role in the resurgence of the duty free and travel retail industry in the region”.
For the first session, titled ‘Bahrain: leading the recovery’, Bahrain Airport Company CEO Mohamed Yousif Al Binfalah commanded the room as he described the unique appeal of the new passenger terminal at Bahrain International Airport.
Operations were transferred there in January 2021 (a notable achievement during the pandemic) and the new terminal has increased passenger capacity at the hub to an impressive 14 million people per year.
Describing its ‘boutique’; appeal, he said: “We have the speed and convenience of a smaller airport with the commercial appeal of a larger one. We focused on quality rather than size, ensuring it is distinctive and easy to navigate and passengers can spend more time discovering the amenities, including the wide range of duty free shopping from luxury brands.”
With 3,300 sqm of duty free space in departures and 541 sqm in arrivals, the retail offering “caters to the needs of all types of passengers,” said Al Binfalah, with a mixture of local and international brands.
Among the highlights is the souk style area, which brings Bahraini heritage to life.
“The Kingdom of Bahrain is well placed to help recover international tourism in the region,” he said. “It will take collaboration to ensure we are emerging more agile than before.”
Leading the way in the Middle East & Africa
The second session, the Middle East & Africa Leaders Panel, assessed the current and future state of the market with data-rich presentations from Dufry, Dubai Duty Free and Aer Rianta International-Middle East.
Isabel Zarza, COO North & Central Europe, Russia & Africa at Dufry Group provided an overview of how passenger traffic in the Middle East and Africa region is outperforming the global bounce back.
Looking at the regional performance for Dufry, she highlighted how the EMEA region has seen organic growth in Q3 2022 of 86.4% versus 2021.
During the summer months, the best performance came from Turkey, Greece, the Middle East, Southern Europe and Africa, driven by leisure demand, against a backdrop of flight disruptions and capacity cuts across European airports and airlines.
She also shared the details of three new traveller personas the company has identified: Working Wanderers (people who are working more remotely and fulfilling their travel ambitions as a result); Experience Seekers (those looking for premium, personalised travel experiences); and Young Explorers (tech savvy young travellers who are looking for social, meaningful, joyful moments without neglecting their sustainable and ethical values).
The key message from Rob Marriott, CEO of Aer Rianta International-Middle East was that the industry has “reason to be optimistic” moving forward.
He discussed the business outlook, revealing that last week was the busiest week the retailer had experienced so far this year, compared to 2019.
He underscored the importance of a bespoke approach to retail rather than a ‘one size fits all’ approach and championed a brighter future ahead, despite the cost of living crisis and geopolitical challenges.
“There are headwinds, and we need to be brave, but there are lots of reasons why we will see 2022 as the year we moved forward,” he said.
Ramesh Cidambi, COO of Dubai Duty Free, ran though the key statistics, including how Dubai International is expecting 78 million pax in 2023, 87.4 in 2024, and 93.3 in 2025 when the airport hopes to exceed 2019 levels (of 88 million).
The retail business is expected to hit US$1,494.85 in 2022 – that’s -15.4% on 2019 (US$1,767.19). He noted how the retail penetration rate had decreased in 2022, partly due to the appetite to revenge spend waning, and highlighted the influence of Russian travellers, whose spend is up 48.6% in 2022 compared to 2019.
Cidambi also emphasised the strong performance of the fashion category, with the average spend of shoppers in the category up by 71.8% compared to 2019.
The impact of price increases on the business was also a hot topic, with Cidambi emphasising how the industry should be mindful of how rising prices could lead to consumers spending less in the middle of next year.
“At some point, the effect will start to bite, and the consumer will pay less,” he said.
“It’s like a car approaching the cliff. We don’t want a situation where, in the middle of next year, we have consumers starting to spend less, which will lead to discounts and promotions.
“We have a role to play in it and the brands have a role too.”
Unlocking the potential of West Africa
The ‘West Africa: unlocking the potential’ session at the MEADFA Conference took a deep dive into the untapped potential of West Africa, and what needs to happen for the region’s potential to be unlocked.
Gordon Clark, Vice President Business Development, ForwardKeys, presented the latest travel data for the African continent.
He raised how Africa was one of the first destinations to relax Covid restrictions. As such, “Africa is catching up with the Americas and the Middle East” in terms of international worldwide arrivals, with long haul travellers driving the recovery faster in West and Central Africa this year.
France, Spain, and the US were highlighted at the top three source markets leading the travel recovery in West Africa.
In terms of what that looks like, these travellers are staying longer when visiting and are flying in more premium cabins, revealed Clark.
Long stays among travellers to West Africa are up 106% for the period 1 January to 12 November 2022, compared to 2019 levels.
Further to this, there has been a 29% hike in the number of international arrivals into West Africa who are booking premium cabin classes in Q4 2022, as of 18 November (versus 2019 levels), with the largest share (+37%) coming from Ghana.
He also highlighted how “seamless connectivity is vital for encouraging travellers” to make those trips. “You create the routes and people will move,” he said. “We’d rather have bookers than lookers.”
Kojo Bentum Williams, Founder and publisher, VoyagesAfriq Travel Media and Lead Communications, UNWTO Africa, joined the conversation, spotlighting how connectivity within West Africa is crucial for driving leisure tourism, for which he says there is big, untapped potential.
“I think Nigeria is a huge market for duty free,” he added. “If we can develop the infrastructure around that, it is a market that has a lot of potential but we need to understand the value of it.”
Williams also described how the contemporary African traveller is looking for a global shopping experience.
Following on from this, the ‘Smart futures’ session looked at how the evolution of smart cities (with smart airports at their heart) is enabling new forms of sustainable air transport to emerge, bringing with it new opportunities for brands and retailers.
Waleed Khalaf, CEO of Smart Way Consultancy described the features of smart cities and the technology that is filtering through to the travel experience, from smart ticketing to augmented reality for destinations.
A case study featuring BA’s biometric check-in project at Heathrow T5 highlighted how tech can help the travel experience to evolve.
François Bourienne, Chief Commercial Officer at Abu Dhabi Airports offered his perspective on how technologies are impacting on the travel experience. When asked if a more seamless travel experience could be a positive for the commercial side of operations, Bourienne said that it “gives more time airside for the retailers.”
Pushing boundaries in the industry
Ending the day one conference sessions was the ‘Defending our industry’ session.
Sarah Branquinho, President of the Duty Free World Council (DFWC) rallied stakeholders in the region to be proactive in helping to address key issues, spotlighting discussions around counterfeiting and illicit trade ahead of the third session of the Meeting of the Parties to the Protocol to Eliminate Trade in Tobacco Products (MOP3), which will take place next year in Panama.
“Effective advocacy is really important, and it really is making us stronger if we are all working together,” she said. “It’s more than about defending the industry – it’s about pushing boundaries in the industry to create better conditions for us all to work in.”
She drew the audiences’ attention to the ‘Duty Free: Trusted, Transparent, Secure’ global campaign against illicit trade, counterfeit goods and intellectual property theft (launched by DFWC and TFWA together with the industry’s regional associations in July).
“Our industry has one of the most secure and transparent supply chains in the world,” she said.
Branquinho called on MEADFA for further support and leadership in engaging with decision makers in the region.
She also highlighted the potential for the duty free industry in Africa, referencing her call to action to not just defend the industry but to be proactive, drawing on the example of Latin America (where duty free allowances have been extended in some destinations and home delivery is being offered to shoppers) as a case in point.
Also on the panel was Chair of the MEADFA Advocacy Working Group Rob Marriott and MEADFA Board Members Roger Jackson and Mazen Kaddoura, who updated delegates on recent progress on regulatory and other challenges and highlighted the work of the three task forces on tobacco, liquor and confectionery.
As Marriott summarised: “We need to make sure that people shopping in our stores know that they are buying a genuine product.”