Abu Dhabi Airport Catering and Duty Free managing director Mohammed Mounib takes the story down to the rank and file right away: the enterprise is fresh from winning the 2003’s Frontier Award – considered the duty free industry’s Oscars – for the best marketing campaign by a retailer, an award they’ve won three times in a row.
“The fact that the runner-up was BAA, that there are 80 million passengers in Europe and Abu Dhabi is still considered better, that motivates the staff,” he says as we watch the King of Morocco’s aircraft ready for take off through the picture window in Mounib’s office. Abu Dhabi Duty Free (ADDF) currently ranks number 28 in the world and second in the Middle East. 2003 saw the retailer rack up sales of $ 84 million (just over Dh300 million), with departing passengers spending an average of $36 (about Dh130) each as compared to a corresponding figure of $11 at London’s Heathrow airport. With a stress on service, on quality, on keeping the customer entertained, says Mounib, it hasn’t been difficult for the world to recognise his team’s work. “It’s not been easy, but it’s not been tough either.”
In telling it like it is, however, Mounib has to go back to what it used to be like. In 1984, he says, when he was appointed Inflight Catering Manager at Abu Dhabi airport, an area he oversees even today, he was given additional charge of a small side business, duty free, clearly only an adjunct to the catering trade.
“My first impression was of a huge waiting room with some shops and a fountain in the middle,” he says. “Nine or ten of the dozen outlets were closed, and only two were actually doing any business: one managed by us, one rented out, both selling exactly the same products.”
Actively encouraged by the new undersecretary to civil aviation, Sheikh Hamdan Bin Mubarak Al Nahyan and inspired by Dubai’s fledgling operation, which had just convinced downtown retailers to open branches within its airport, Mounib took to the tarmac, travelling to conferences and duty free outlets around the world. By Christmas 1985, their building blocks were in place and in their first year of operations, the enterprise turned five million dirhams.
“To reach $300 million, we’ve come a long way since - and without a committed airline to the emirate,” says Mounib. Today, the enterprise controls almost every aspect of commercial activity at the airport - from the sand golf course to the 40-room transit hotel to meet and assist operations to office rentals and other ground services, every area where service is a component, as Mounib puts it.
Among their achievements? Three years ago, Abu Dhabi set up the first land border duty free shop in the region, on its border with Saudi Arabia, selling everything except alcohol. Seven years ago, the first full downtown terminal with the City Terminal, which allows passengers to check in 24 hours before departure, leave their luggage, select their duty free purchases and travel unencumbered to their flight. And back in 1986, the emirate led the way with first arrival duty free shop in the emirate, an idea that struck Sheikh Hamdan as he himself was returning, says Mounib. If he felt the need to make a purchase on his way home, would not other travellers feel the same?
The innovations continue all the way into 2006, when the airport’s current expansion phase should be over and the enterprise’s current retail space of 3,450 square metres should more than triple with the addition of 4,000 square metres of space in the new departure lounge and another 3,000 square metres landside. Typically, Mounib’s mob isn’t throwing things onto the shelves in the hope that they’ll shift on their own. “We’ve called in experts and consultants from around the world to help us study the customer footprint and behaviour, we’re studying how shopping malls do business, we’re looking at the way traffic flows and then positioning shops rather than building the new terminal and the putting in the shops. We’re probably the first to look at how to start a business rather than how to handle an existing one,” says Mounib.
In fact, he says, his team sat down with retailers at the design stage and brought their input into the architectural plan. The result is a shopping mall-like satellite four floors high that has atrium and balconies both and mixes food and retail shops rather than placing them at opposite ends of the shop floors. “Plus, it connects logically with the other terminal, both transit and departing passengers are driven through the area, there’s no escape.”
Also in the construction is a 310-room hotel on the landside, which will cater to airlines and transit passengers. With occupancy at the current hotel inside the airport at 170 per cent, there’s a dire need for another, much larger property.
With the establishment of Abu Dhabi’s own airline, Ittihad, and with Gulf Traveller, Gulf Air’s low-cost arm, being based out of the emirate, November and December traffic surged 28 per cent - and figures for January and February, says Mounib, look as good.
And to keep those new customers dipping into their pockets, Mounib’s team has several more ideas. One was last year’s Summer Adventures, a one-off campaign that was so spectacularly successful, ADDF created a bite-sized Festive Adventures this season and is looking at other promotions such as Valentine’s Day. “The question is, why should the customer buy from me,” explains Mounib. “Unless I’m offering something special, he can buy it anywhere else. I sit with the manager of Bahrain and Dubai Duty Free to fix the items at the same price, but unless there is a buzz, unless people feel they are getting some benefit from shopping at Abu Dhabi Duty Free, they won’t. Everybody can sell a bottle of Chanel perfume, for example but at Abu Dhabi Duty Free, you’ll get a beach bag to go with it.”
Ergo, ideas like the Groovy Globetrotters Club for children, like the upscale champagne and caviar Piano Bar, like the soon-to-be-launched, and the mobile phone shop complete with specialised sales attendant. Any which way, 2004 is leading a boom period for the enterprise.
His teamwork forumla extends the other way, too - to his suppliers. “You bring me your business, I pass that benefit down to my supplier, who is then more eager to give you a better deal,” he says, citing the Summer Adventures, where all the shops at the airport put together a common prize pot in the region of a million dirhams. For its part, Abu Dhabi Duty Free matched that figure in advertising. The result?
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Business increased 20 per cent. “If I sell more, the supplier sells more.” Despite all of this, says Mounib, profit is not the number one criterion. “It comes down from Sheikh Hamdan. Quality and service are the most important, then comes profit. Profit cannot be the driving force.”
Duty Free shopping, Mounib rounds out, must be entertainment. “I remember a young fellow in China - and you know duty free in China is huge - who said the experience should be like watching a play at the theatre. People want to be entertained, and today, entertainment is part of the shopping experience, it helps salve the stress of the journey. An airport has to be entertaining to be successful, it strives to say when you come to me, I’ll give you what you imagine.”
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