TRBusiness ‘TR Talent Pool Profile’: Zachary Sulkes, cruise retail executive

By Andrew Pentol |

In the third edition of the new ‘TR Talent Pool Profile’ series, TRBusiness speaks to cruise specialist and former Bacardi DF&TR executive Zachary Sulkes. After embarking on a management training programme with Norwegian Cruise Line, he began working for the Bacardi Global Travel Retail team with responsibility for cruise lines and forged strong relationships along the way.

In July 2020, TRBusiness and Bluedog Productions announced the creation of the ‘TR Talent Pool’ Initiative, helping the travel retail industry grow during unprecedented levels of upheaval for its workforce. We continue to support those who have lost their jobs as a result of the global pandemic with this new series, shining a spotlight on individuals that this industry simply cannot afford to lose.

Can you please tell us how you first entered duty free and travel retail and those early years in the industry?

After completing my MBA studies, I got a job with Norwegian Cruise Line in a management training programme. This involved spending one year moving through the company and completing projects in various key departments. The programme also included a month onboard the ships.

This gave me keen insight into the cruise channel from many different perspectives. After this year, I was placed in a department that oversaw all the onboard revenue for the ships (bar, retail and shore excursions etc).

After six years, I was working with Bacardi on some onboard programming for the bars and shops and an opportunity came to join Bacardi in their travel retail team looking after the cruise lines. Obviously, I jumped at the chance and that was 14 years ago last December.

The implementation of the Bacardi Bar on Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island named Great Stirrup Cay is among Zachary Sulkes’ (pictured second from left) career highlights.

How has your career evolved in the channel?

I began at Bacardi as an Area Manager, looking after about half the US-based cruise lines’ bar programmes and Starboard, the largest onboard retailer.  The role expanded into a more comprehensive Regional Manager position where I was responsible for all US-based cruise lines, ship chandlers, Starboard and the US-based customers that operated the inflight duty free programmes (DFASS/now known as 3Sixty Duty Free, Duty Free World and Duty Free Partners, etc).

After much success in that role, my position expanded into a global one and completely focused on the cruise channel. I had overall responsibility for the global profit and loss of all cruise lines, ship chandlers, and cruise retailers.

Zachary believes it would make most sense if his next role was with a supplier looking to grow its business in the cruise channel.

What have been the high-points and low-points of your career and why?

High-points include 14 years of double-digit growth in the cruise lines’ on-trade channel; the successful development and implementation of the Bacardi Bar on Norwegian Cruise Line’s private island (Great Stirrup Cay); growing Bacardi’s market share in the cruise lines’ on-trade programmes to be number one or number two with all major cruise lines; and gaining inclusion of the cruise/ferry lines’ bartenders in the Bacardi Legacy Global Cocktail Competition. Previously, this was only open to domestic bartenders.

Finally, making so many good friends in the beverage and GTR industries was among the high-points.

Zachary Sulkes (pictured far-left) is proud to have made many ‘good friends’ in the global travel retail and beverage industries.

The elimination of my position last summer after 14 years of being laser-focused on making Bacardi the preferred supplier in the cruise was the main low-point.

A close second would be the 14 March 2020, the day the cruise industry went on an extended pause due to Covid-19 and cruise lines and suppliers began eliminating roles. The pause effected so many very good people who have been instrumental in the growth and success of the beverage programmes.

What were the main challenges you have been forced to overcome and how did you do so?

The biggest challenge was getting most of the GTR community to understand the existing value and future potential of the cruise line channel.  The on-trade is where brands are built and called for and unfortunately, this gets lost a lot in GTR due to the focus on the airport retail channel.  I was able to begin to overcome this by creating a global cruise channel strategy and getting board level approval for its implementation and execution.

Zachary Sulkes had been working with Bacardi for around 14 years until being relieved of his duties in 2020.

How has the cruise duty free and travel retail channel evolved with spirits in mind?

Until the Covid-19 pandemic, cruise and airport channels were on a consistent path of focusing more and more on premiumisation. Within cruise specifically, this meant not only the products themselves, but the delivery of products (the levels of training and creation and delivery of cocktails have improved dramatically).

While this will continue in the long-term, the short-term prognosis for the cruise channel will be focused on cost reduction and control through sku rationalisation, etc.

How would you assess the future outlook of the cruise duty free and DF&TR spirits business, which are both close to your heart and why?

It will obviously take some time to recover, however, the demand for cruising remains very strong and as MSC and Costa have shown in Europe, it can be done very safely.  Thankfully, people like to consume alcoholic beverages and like to be on holiday, so when more of the ships start to sail again, the consumer demand to get on them and to consume spirits will be strong.

I believe that the cruise industry will return to 2019 numbers by 2023, however I don’t expect the airport channel get back to those levels for many more years.  The concept of business travel has been changed forever as businesses have developed the ability to continue to thrive without nearly as much personal interaction. Business travel will come back soon, but not nearly as much as leisure travel. This will ultimately hold back the airport channel’s growth potential.

What type of role would be most suited to you and why?

Given my 20 years’ cruise and GTR experience, the role that makes the most sense would be one with a supplier who wants to grow their business in the cruise channel. Ultimately, I’d be best suited for a role with a supplier or retailer (domestic or GTR) where I can utilise the sales, marketing and strategic planning skills I have honed over the past 20 years.

Zachary can be contacted at: [email protected]

To read the first edition of the TR Talent Pool series featuring Jonathan Corbett, click here. The second edition of this popular series featured Joanne Willey.

Interested in getting involved with the TR Talent Pool series? Contact: [email protected][email protected]

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