Virtual Travel Retail Expo
“Our airport is a destination”
Qatar Airways Group CEO His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker talks about raising the quality bar still further on the ground and in the air in this interview with Martin Moodie.
One of the most inspirational leadership figures in world aviation addressed the Virtual Travel Retail Expo in a live highlight of day one. His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker, Group Chief Executive Officer, Qatar Airways Group – who also leads Hamad International Airport (HIA) and Qatar Duty Free – shared his forthright and insightful views on the current world of travel (full broadcast below).
On the wider outlook for the sector, he told The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie: “It is still difficult. I’m glad that countries are opening up but there remains confusion on testing, on PCR certificates, and we need to ensure consistency on protocols as the many changes by different governments means people are unsure if they can go from A to B without the hassle of quarantine. Things are not clear still. I hope that in coming months those things that create confusion are ironed out and people will travel again. People are fed up not being able to meet their families, friends or conduct their businesses. They are waiting to travel.”
He added: “We need to be pulling in the same direction, working with each other to ensure everybody is aligned with the same vision to reactivate our industry, to provide jobs, livelihoods and develop business.”
“We need something for all, which is how we tailor-make our duty free, how we plan our shop floor.”
His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker, Group Chief Executive Officer, Qatar Airways Group
On the group’s approach to recovery, and his leadership in that period, Al Baker said: “We could not accept the grounding of our aircraft for such a long period, In the early days we had 85% of our fleet grounded. When we started carrying the 3.2 million stranded people back to their loved ones, we saw pockets of demand, people still had to get home.
“We were approached by governments and individuals and we delivered safe passage at a time when nobody really knew what the impact of the pandemic would be. We were the first airline to have our staff don PPE, ask passengers to wear masks and take other precautions, introduce contactless check-in and boarding gates and so on.
“We have shown that we put our passenger and staff safety first. We did everything during the pandemic to protect our people and our guests, and we became the biggest long-haul operator in the world as well as the largest cargo operator.”
From the sky to the ground, Al Baker updated viewers on the ambition for the expansion of HIA. “We are just celebrating the 21st anniversary of Qatar Duty Free, with many new openings and firsts for the business,” he said.
He highlighted the recent opening of the luxury avenue Viale di Lusso as one of the key projects of the year in retail. This houses the first airport boutique in the Middle East for fashion designer Valentino, as well as stores representing designer names Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Chloe, Jimmy Choo, Emporio Armani and Pucci, which build on QDF’s existing collection of high-end brands.
The Emporio Armani Ristorante and Emporio Armani Caffè is a world first for an airport, with a high-quality menu inspired by Italy and many premium design touches. Next door, a Starbucks Reserve coffeehouse offers coffee connoisseurs the chance to discover new creations and rare, single-origin selections of unique roasts.
Al Baker said: “We want to make the experience at Qatar Duty Free second to none, and have embarked on an expansion that will be completed in time for the FIFA World Cup, which takes place in my country.
“We don’t just want to add shops and restaurants, we want to do it with style and quality. We want to innovate ways to promote our duty free and our airport. Our airport is a destination, a place to spend time. People come three, four, five hours ahead of their flights to enjoy the airport.”
A strong service philosophy of the group is to ensure there is “something for everyone”.
Viale di Lusso, unveiled in August, takes the presentation of luxury retail to a new level at Hamad International
Al Baker said: “We are a hub taking people from east to west and from north to south. It is very important to focus on the inflight service as we don’t want to differentiate between people at the front and the back of the cabin. When they land, we need an offer for them wherever they come from, regardless of spending power, or how affluent they are. We need something for all, which is how we tailor-make our duty free, how we plan our shop floor. People who want one type of product can go to one area, others can go to the other area. We don’t want to create confusion and the shops are laid out so you can identify how to shop in each category, meaning we don’t waste people’s time.”
On improving standards still further, he said: “You need to raise the bar. There is no relaxing from continuously improving the product and service we have set, which makes us the best airport in the world. That [Skytrax] award is a huge accolade to the dedication of our people who are so dedicated.”
With passenger traffic recovering strongly, Qatar Duty Free has become the number one airport door for many brands. “The offerings we have are different from other airports,” said Al Baker. “When you offer a huge selection for everybody, it entices people to buy. When our passengers numbers are less than half of 2019, for our sales to catch up is a clear indication that what we are doing is correct, and giving good returns on the investment.”
Something for everyone: The recently opened Qatar Duty Free budget concept Big Value
The strategy that has led the group out of crisis is also closely related to the leadership provided by Al Baker – with his attention to detail a key element.
In a telling comment, he said: “It makes a big difference when the leader is visible. You can lock yourself in the office and not be on the floor. But when you are around, it gives a boost to the staff and at the same time it lets management know there is oversight, and that everyone must deliver on the vision for airport and airline.
“I’m lucky enough to run both organisations, so am responsible for total customer experi-ence on the ground and in the air, This is a unique model of operating, and HIA and Qatar Airways are the only two entities that are fortunate in this matter. I won’t say we will not make mistakes, or have a miscarriage of service. The issue is that when the ball is dropped, that we recover, and this is what we do.”
The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 302 | 22 October 2021
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