QDF overtakes on the inside track

By Doug Newhouse |

Qatar Duty Free Vice President Keith Hunter talks to Doug Newhouse about the retail and F&B transformation at Hamad International Airport.


While the final touches are still being made to the retail and F&B offer at Hamad International Airport, Qatar Duty Free Senior Vice President Keith Hunter is extremely pleased with the circa 25,000sq m that opened on May 27 and is looking forward to opening the final 15,000sq m shortly. Doug Newhouse talked with him in Doha earlier this month following our comprehensive interview with Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker, who is also the Chairman of Qatar Duty Free.


What has the reaction been to the new airport from your brand partners and those who have now seen it?

So far they’ve been incredibly pleased by it. I think considering the environment and the scale of it, they’ve seen that they’ve been able to deliver. Ordinarily they would never get as much space or as much of an ability to realize their brand or their product offer in a travel retail environment, but here we’ve done it.


But it’s been a real joint effort to achieve that. I think on the whole they’re all very pleased with how their installations or their offers have been displayed. I think we’ve had an exceptional reaction on the skincare, perfume and cosmetics side and of course I’m going to say it, but I think it’s the most beautiful P&C space I’ve seen in travel retail and that’s quite a high claim to make.


I’ve been talking to the brands and seeing what they’ve managed to deliver elsewhere and this has stretched them further.I know for quite a few of the very large prominent houses they have their biggest spaces in the world and pretty much their highest investment in travel retail has been delivered here.


We don’t take it lightly that people bought into this vision once our partners understood what it was we were trying to deliver here. That’s been great and very encouraging for us.




What a world of difference though, going from the airport that you just left to one where you can actually see expanses of space ­– how gratifying is it to be working in that environment now?

It’s what everybody wants. That being said, we were very proud of what we had managed to deliver in the old airport in Doha International and per square metre, you can’t beat it.


I don’t think there’s anywhere else in the world that came close. It was so small though, but it had its attributes. It was far easier to shop than here, but with the volume of guests coming through we needed to have an offer that allowed them access to some of the world class brands that ordinarily we couldn’t have fitted in to Doha International Airport.



Keith Hunter, Senior Vice President, Qatar Duty Free

Not many retailers get the opportunity to do what you’ve just done though, do they?

No. We’ve all been given a heck of an opportunity and we’re all very proud to be part of it, from myself to the rest of the management team to the entire QDF staff.





There are many brand new retail concepts in the new airport, so when did you start this marathon of discovery by sending buyers off on these product discovery trips?

We’ve actually been working on this for the last five years and from a detailed product perspective it is really the last three years where we’ve been trying to pull together the right assortment of goods. Now that didn’t just involve the usual suspects that were available within travel retail.


We went outside to see what else could and should be present and what else might excite and delight our guests, because there are still plenty of brands who haven’t woken up to travel retail yet and that’s a great shame. A very close colleague of mine once said travel retail is the world’s best-kept secret and I think he was right. It’s surprising how many brands there are where it’s just never crossed their minds.


Of course, it’s not just a leap of faith on your part, but also one on the part of these new brands. While I know we are only talking about two months of trading so far, but to what degree have the brands themselves been surprised if that is a fair question?

Well there have been a few resounding successes, but I think it’s unfair to name names. There are certain brands that were already doing very well with us who might have been in the top five within their categories, who are already up by as much as 59% – I think this is the highest versus last year.





We’ve also had a couple of brands where the move hasn’t necessarily been as successful for them. But that being said, when you look at what else has happened, what else had been brought in, the pie was bound to be stretched and the mix bound to change.


All in all I think they’ll all be better off and I think so far that’s proving to be the case. However, when you start looking at brands or partners who KPI themselves on a percentage of overall mix, they’re going to have to change their expectations.


Qatar Duty Free has now entered a new level. We’ve expanded our range exponentially and we’ll continue to do it so long as there’s a passenger demand for it. We’re already having to rethink our targets and it’s a pleasant surprise in some cases and overall we’re very pleased.



Keith Hunter, Qatar Duty Free



This is Qatar Duty Free’s smart in-house electronics shop concept.



And you’ve got the same amount of space all over again coming up soon, haven’t you?

Not necessarily as much. I think right now we’ve got the equivalent of about 25,000sq m across retail and food and beverage, and they’ll be an additional 15,000 coming up in the additional phase. So all in all it’s quite a massive offer, but then this is a huge airport environment and it manages to do under one roof what several other locations might do under three or four terminal complexes.


Everything is within this building facility and this airport is designed to accommodate up to 50 million passengers. Now we’re on about 24 million.


You are also getting some interesting passenger profiles within your transit groups. Do you get a lot of Chinese now?

Yes, very much so and it is a big focus for us as well. The airlines are opening up increasingly in the Chinese market and we now have seven destinations. Obviously they rank throughout, but generally they’re right up there vying for dominance and they are  certainly within the premium spends with the Middle Eastern passengers.


As we have seen, they are very keen on items such as the premium fragrances, the exclusive collections, premium liquors, watches, jewellery and now fashion. We’ve gone into shoes here now and it’s been a very successful reception. So yeah, we’re covering all aspects of fashion now and that’s going to be quite a big category for us.





So who are the fastest growing top spending passenger nationalities today?

If you’d asked me that a year ago it would have been the Chinese who were still up and coming and growing, but now I would say it’s the Indian sub-continent traveller. You won’t necessarily see as much of a high spend on a single transaction such as premium watch, but you will see a high spend across multiple categories. So it’s a basket spend.


They are becoming more and more affluent and they’re spending as they travel and it’s a delight to have them coming through.


And Chinese spenders are also still up there?

Very much so. If you look for top spots on spends you’d be hard pushed between the Middle Eastern clientele and the Chinese. It varies from season to season, but generally we’re pleased to have both, and it’s not just your local Qatari population spending. The Emiratis, the Kuwaitis and the Saudis are all right up there and as a region very much near that top spot, if not in it.



Keith Hunter, Qatar Duty Free



An exterior view of the vast Hamad International Airport in Doha.



As Qatar Airways CEO Akbar Al Baker said this morning, people are going to be hearing a lot more about Hamad International Airport in future in terms of promotion?

Yes. As the CEO said there are active campaigns to promote the services on offer here both externally and internally and within our own product, using all the arms and tools at our disposal to get the message out there.


It is not overtly obvious what’s inside this building until you’re in it, but in order for us to be that transit hub of choice, we’ve got a lot of services to shout about and we intend to do it quite loudly.


So how difficult has it been finding quality staff for the fast growing Qatar Duty Free operation?

Well it’s always difficult when it comes to mass recruitment and we had to double our workforce in a very short space of time. Of course, you have to have a very in-depth interview process and a very wide reaching one, so the logistics behind organizing that with your recruitment team are absolutely enormous.


It has also been non-stop. We go on regular recruitment drives and we just continue to pull in anybody that we believe will complement our staff line up. On top of that it then takes an awful lot of orientation and training and we’ve invested heavily in improving our training facilities, but also expanding our training team.

Just three years ago we didn’t have one and now we have what I consider to be one of the best I’ve come across. I think levels of attention, follow-ups and training standards are excellent, but it is clearly an ongoing mission. As I said, doubling our work force within a year has been a heck of a challenge and the worry is always there that good people fall through the gaps and it can happen.




Keith Hunter, Qatar Duty Free



Hamad International International Airport is certainly not only about retail and F&B. This huge icon in the terminal building also doubles as a kid’s climbing frame, while there is also an Apple section where passengers can use internet services freely. Close to the lively Qatar Duty Free own concept Bumble tree toy shop the children even have their very own mini Tyrannosaurus rex and Pterodactyl who spend all day growling at each other when passenger movements ‘awaken them’.


I think the way we’re structured now is certainly more conducive to creating a world-class shopping experience as far as our training goes for customer service, but we’re always going to have a lot of work to do. We’re always going to challenge ourselves, push ourselves further and we’re never going to turn around and say, ‘we’re perfect’.


Often we find we are recruiting from the same pools as colleagues in other countries nearby, but we believe there’s an advantage in getting a certain mix of profiles of staff within the business, especially when it comes to the languages. That obviously means Chinese members of staff, Russians and Middle Eastern, so it’s quite a wide net that’s spread.


We believe we have a very competitive offer and we benchmark against the market and we keep a close eye on it. We think we’re more than fair if not better than most, but then you know, we also look at the opportunity here. It’s not just about the money and I think a lot of our staff are excited to come to a country that they’ve heard so much about and to a duty free offer that they’ve heard so much about.


[Qatar Duty Free does not like to talk about its sales turnover openly, but TRBusiness is confident that its annual sales turnover is now in the region of $400m. That makes QDF the second largest DF&TR operator in the region and we would expect that sales turnover to increase substantially over the next two years-Ed].

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