Interview: ARI-Middle East CEO Rob Marriott on people power and the value proposition
Rob Marriott took on the role of Chief Executive at Aer Rianta International Middle East (ARIME) on 3 May, replacing the retiring Richard Gray. He talks to Dermot Davitt about his first 100-plus days in the job, the key markets and his priorities.
In May Rob Marriott moved from a hands-on role at a single location, Muscat Duty Free, to a job with much wider reach and regional responsibility as Chief Executive at Aer Rianta International Middle East (ARIME). It is one in which he faces the challenge of business development in a competitive environment, managing multiple operations through the recovery and developing close relationships with the group’s partners, who have played such a vital role in ARI’s long history in the Middle East.
While the job he began on 3 May is very different, he says his previous life – 30 years in retail including leadership roles at Morrisons and Safeway in the UK, before joining ARI in 2019 – were a good platform.
“I had a great handover from Richard Gray, which helped. And for me it came at the right time to take on another challenge. In the past I have been in roles where stakeholder management and relationships were really important. In fact Muscat was probably the first single-site role I had had in around 25 years. So while I enjoyed immensely being back at the coalface I have been able to use my past experience in running a multi-site business.
“I have also worked three years in the region, which has helped me understand cultural differences versus Europe for example. The lesson is that everywhere is different. And you have to invest the time to understand each location, not just visiting the shops, but meeting the people, getting to know the cities and spending time with the partners.”
ARI’s success in the Middle East over 30 years has been built on the ability of pioneering, entrepreneurial executives to establish and maintain good partner relations. That remains as important today, Marriott acknowledges.
“The combination of ARI and of [ARIME Chairman] Abdulla Buhindi as local shareholder is a powerful one. That allows me and the team to drive the business forward in the right way.”
Rob Marriott: “Everywhere is different”
His leadership style he describes as being “all about team”. He adds: “My job is all about how we forge a really progressive forward-thinking Middle East team. I have been impressed and enthused by the quality of people we have.
“We have work to do to build a progressive pipeline for that talent. That is a big priority. We have got to have players on the pitch, people on the bench and as opportunities arise people ready to step into the roles we need filled. There are some great things happening in our locations but we want to widen it to the region, and allow talent to move and flourish.”
Opening opportunities through a strong diversity & inclusion ethos is one platform. When Marriott was in Muscat Duty Free he moved the makeup of the executive management team from 100% male to 40% female. “Lots of locations in the Middle East have made great strides in this area but the journey goes on. Being fair and consistent with our people is so important to me. And people want to go in that direction. I speak a lot to ARI General Counsel & Executive Sponsor for Diversity & Inclusion Gareth Byrne about what more we in the Middle East can do.”
Bahrain Duty Free: A signature retail complex for ARI in the Middle East
Beyond his priority to develop teams, Marriott lays out the items that top his business agenda. “We want to retain what we have got, grow where we can in new locations – building on our reputation – and ensure our offer is appropriate for each location. And the other element is to be fit for the new world.”
This is all about delivering the ARI Customer Value Proposition (CVP), outlined in detail in a recent interview. The key elements include service, value, convenience, connectivity, sustainability and people.
“We are only as good as our people. And the last three years have shown us this, where we couldn’t do as much training or where we have lost people. In that situation how do we ensure we have a workforce which delivers exceptional customer service at all times, in every shop in every location? It’s a lot easier said than done.”
Of the other CVP principles, value represents a big area of opportunity. Marriott says: “In travel retail we don’t always do a good enough job showing the value to the consumer, or educating them about what a great proposition we have. We can do better.”
Treating every traveller like a VIP is a key element of the service proposition
Sense of Place is a core principle underpinning the development of the shopping offer across the estate, with Larnaka Airport a true showcase
Another challenge industry-wide is supply chain. “We have to adapt our ranges and search for supply elsewhere,” he says. “On the brands side we know they are challenged, Some have been very agile and quick to react, others have been slower. Ultimately every company had to place their own bet on when they thought recovery would happen. Not everyone has got it right.
“But looking ahead we have to be watchful about how we maintain value for the shopper. Everyone’s costs are rising and that is difficult. Some of those costs will come down but then the question is where you meet the swing of the pendulum with the decisions you have made. The sensible thing is to not meet it too high. Inflation could impact our business in a big way over the next couple of years if we don’t make the right decisions now. And there will be some negotiations to be had. We will have to work together as increasing prices over time in the face of these challenges is not sustainable.”
Big investment: The beauty hall at Larnaka Airport
Marriott also comments in brief on each of the major locations that come under his remit. “Cyprus has undergone a big investment which looks wonderful, but business wise we were concerned back in May due to its former dependence on Russian and Ukrainian holidaymakers. But the government did a great job to attract others, led by the British as number one but also Scandinavians, Poles and other visitors that made for a successful Summer. It’s in a good place. Our next redevelopment will be in Pafos, and that needs to happen given the strong projections for Cyprus arrivals.”
Muscat Duty Free is doing well though has yet to reach 2019 levels of traffic or business. “We hope for some uplift there in November and December with the FIFA World Cup [in nearby Qatar -Ed]. We are also changing some layouts and ranges to ensure they are appropriate. Recent changes include moving jewellery in with luxury watches, and that space in turn devoted to perfumes.”
Bahrain Duty Free goes from strength to strength, he adds, with luxury watches among the stand-out performers. An additional liquor & tobacco store is also planned to maximise the opportunity.
Beirut Duty Free: Difficult times but a resilient market and strong local team
The Saudi duty paid business in Riyadh was robust through COVID and continues to grow. Beirut remains difficult given the problems with the social and economic turmoil there today; Marriott pays tribute to the teams that continue to keep the stores going. Just before this story was published, ARI and partner Phoenicia had good news with a four-year extension to its contract for Beirut Duty Free.
Across the operations, ‘revenge spending’ was a factor driving sales early on but this has tempered without dropping too steeply, and average spends remain high, says Marriott.
“It is so critical that we talk about the great value we offer. We need to communicate this and if we do, we’ll continue to do well. It’s not about being cheap, it’s about representing good value for all parties. We cannot dilute the consumer view of this channel.”
What’s the outlook then for the wider Middle East business and what dynamics will drive the ARIME business in the years ahead?
“It’s four things,” says Marriott. “It’s creating value. It’s being safe and legal, which is so important to our channel’s reputation post-COVID. There’s creating exceptional service – you cannot have an off day in retail – and number four, none of that works without highly trained colleagues, So you need to invest in your pipeline, your recruitment and ensure the great talent we have can flourish.”
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