September 24 2020  |  Associations

Martin Moodie talks Virtual TR Expo & Virtual Summit of the Americas

By Hibah Noor

Some faces you might recognize from a number of duty free events! From left: Martin Moodie from the The Moodie Davitt Report, Hibah Noor and Jas Ryat from Americas, Asia & Gulf-Africa Duty Free Magazine and the lovely Breeda McLoughlin with partner in crime Dubai Duty Free’s Colm McLoughlin at last year’s Summit of the Americas show in Orlando

Recently I had the chance to catch up with well-known and much-respected colleague Martin Moodie, founder of The Moodie Davitt Report and The Trinity Forum. This year we can also call him the founder of the Virtual Travel Retail Expo, as he and his team have produced a truly novel platform to help fill the void created in anticipation of other industry events being canceled.

Duty Free & Travel Retail magazines: How did the idea of the Virtual Expo come about? Were you confident about it succeeding?

Martin Moodie: Innovation born of necessity! Having lived and run a business through the dark days of SARS, I knew as soon as the reports started coming out of Wuhan about this then-mystery virus that it was going to be serious. We had a dedicated daily COVID-19 column running by 21st January, so we were on the case extremely early.

We held a webinar in February with Dr. David Heymann, who headed the global response to SARS in 2003. Dr. Heyman was adamant that large-scale physical gatherings would be seriously compromised for some time to come. He suggested that the travel retail industry might have to relearn some of its practices for the foreseeable future. I remember conducting that webinar in a small Parisian hotel room and thinking that I had to do something about this quickly or my business of 18 years – wholly reliant on travel retail advertising, sponsorship and physical event revenue – would be dangerously exposed.

It was clear to me that our own events – FAB in Istanbul in June and The Trinity Forum in Beijing in October – simply would not happen. I was convinced that none of the other major sector trade shows would either, and I was proven right.

We looked at replacing our own shows with webinar-type activity but we felt that wasn’t enough and that it would not help our financial plight. Instead we identified a real opportunity to create something groundbreaking in the virtual realm – especially as it was clear no one else planned to.

Was I confident of it succeeding? No, but that gave me and my team enormous energy to do everything we could to ensure it did. I suppose I was the original disruptor to the travel retail B2B media landscape back in 2002 when I launched The Moodie Report, as it was then known. The media business was based entirely on a legacy print model. Few gave me a chance of succeeding with what back then was a pure-play digital model. Yet we were the market leader in under two years.

And here’s the thing. It’s my belief that what is happening with the MICE industry this year represents a reprise of when digital met print. While virtual will not wholly replace physical, it will at worst complement it, at times replace it and simultaneously stretch the boundaries of what trade shows can achieve.

DF&TR: As of today, how many exhibitors have signed up? Are there any particular suppliers you’d like to highlight?

MM: We’re delighted to say that we will close with 122 exhibitors drawn from all sectors of industry.

We’ve got some of the biggest names in travel retail, including as Platinum Partners AOE, Bacardi, Beam Suntory, Camus, Changi Airport Group, Clarins, Diageo, Dior, Dubai Duty Free, Duty Free Global, JTI, KrisShop, Kweichow Moutai, Luxottica, Pernod Ricard, PMI, Puig, Shiseido, SK-II, Whyte & Mackay, plus China Duty Free, Qatar Duty Free and The SEVA Group as Diamond Partners. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as we’ve attracted a stellar line-up of independents, SMEs and other prominent industry names. We’re very excited too that Hainan International Development Bureau is a Platinum Partner.

While we appreciate our Diamond and Platinum Partners, however, we don’t really want to single out names. Each exhibitor is a business partner and we’re intent on ensuring that the show works for each and every one of them.

DF&TR: Can you walk us through the program?

MM: Briefly, there are three key components. The Exhibition Hub, where buyer meets seller but without either party having to leave their home or office; The Knowledge Hub, which is an amazing five-day line-up of thought leaders; and the Experience Hub, which includes an Engagement Lounge featuring four platforms to launch, promote and educate about products through virtual master classes, tastings and demonstrations. Either live or pre-recorded, these 30-minute segments will be streamed to a global audience, including the option to invite a number of KOLs and category influencers who we have signed up to attend, plus B2B and B2C press.

It’s a fantastic mix to ensure this is not some cold, digital experience.

DF&TR: You’ve created some excellent synergies with Dubai Duty Free and Qatar Duty Free. What type of feedback have you received?

MM: Besides being a Diamond Partner, Qatar Duty Free is hosting a brilliant innovation called The QDF Factor in association with us. It is a competition open to all brands and concepts, both within and outside the travel retail channel, that offers a top prize of a complimentary six-month listing and high-profile promotion with Qatar Duty Free at Hamad International Airport, Doha and a six-month US$50,000 multi-media advertising campaign with The Moodie Davitt Report. I can tell you that we have been flooded with entries, which proves that our industry’s innate sense of innovation has not been dulled by the pandemic.

Dubai Duty Free, as you know, is always a good supporter of the industry media. They have been offering two tickets each week in their Millennium Millionaire and Finest Surprise car draws to registered visitors and it’s been a great talking point – and motivation to register – ever since it started.

DF&TR: You announced the Expo prior to TFWA canceling their annual Cannes event. What was the thought process in making that decision early?

MM: Yes and I don’t apologize for that. It was clear that TFWA, understandably, wanted to buy time in the hope that the COVID-19 crisis would ease in time for the Cannes show to happen. I just didn’t believe that would be possible, as evidenced by our very early cancellation of The Trinity Forum due to be held in late October. I could not simply wait and wither on the vine. In crises you have to innovate and adapt to survive and that is what we did.

As I have said before, our event did not stop the Cannes show from happening; COVID-19 did! We’re very hopeful that the TFWA events will return next year. Remember, they’re good business for us too, but more importantly are good for the industry.

DF&TR: As you’re aware, our respected colleagues at TRBusiness are also putting on a similar event. How do you feel about this? Is there room for two similar events just a few weeks apart?

MM: With respect to our friends at TRB, the events are not similar at all. Our software program, which was the best-in-class we could procure, has been taken to a whole new level by FILTR, our Singapore- and London-based partners for the Expo. They have curated an overall digital architecture and brought individual virtual stands to a level that I don’t think has happened in the virtual exhibition world before. You will see it with your own eyes – the brands are really knocking this out of the park.

The reaction of the trade to the two shows speaks for itself in terms of the respective number of exhibitors and we’ll let that fact do our talking. Brands of the caliber I mentioned earlier are not easily convinced to make such investments in this desperately difficult year so we think the scale of what we have created has paid off.

Is there room for two events? Put it this way: I don’t think it’s sensible, but you can’t stop competition. TRB is fighting for its survival like everyone in the industry, so I am not going to blame or criticize them for belatedly announcing their event and positioning it two weeks in front of ours. We’ll cover their event and wish them well.

DF&TR: When things get back to “normal” next year and physical tradeshows are back (fingers crossed), what are the plans for your future virtual expos?

MM: Great question. My fingers are crossed too! But as mentioned I see a continued and growing role for virtual expos, and most certainly next year when I believe sector recovery from COVID-19 will be slow. Between us and FILTR we have put something like 7,000 man- and woman-hours into creating this event, and we’re certainly not going to waste that investment by treating it as a one-year wonder. We’re keen to work with various trade associations, notably of course ACI – our partner in The Trinity Forum – to ensure credible, successful events take place, and we are open to all parties for discussions. And we’re very excited to have announced this month that we’re working with ASUTIL and IAADFS to create the Virtual Summit of the Americas next April.

On that note, it’s important to emphasize that it was our suggestion to both associations that the event’s press room – and therefore ability to showcase digital editions – should be open to all media such as yourselves Hibah, even our friends at TRB and so on. This is about maximizing exposure for the associations and helping them generate revenue, not about us.

The Moodie Davitt Report has created a new company to develop the virtual expo concept further and we’re taking our first exciting steps outside travel retail with a wellbeing event, an alcoholic spirits event and one more to be named in late September. And that is just the start. For the Virtual Travel Retail Expo, we want to work with the industry – including all relevant trade associations – to see how and when our event fits into the calendar.

DF&TR: We’re all in the same boat at the moment where companies are losing money daily. Can you talk about the resources and funding that went into pulling off such a grand and professional event? Surely, all this comes with a hefty price tag! Is there a ROI for you?

MM: Indeed, it’s been a terrible year, one in which we’ve seen so many companies retrench – or worse. So many talented people have lost their jobs and there has been so much hardship throughout the industry. Your company, Hibah, mine and any other publisher are clearly not immune to any of that hardship; in fact we are probably among the most vulnerable.

People tend to think because we are the market leader and we are highly visible during the crisis that we are somehow ok. The reality is that we have had to let a lot of good people go. We are running on severely depleted resources, and my business partner Dermot Davitt and I are practically working around the clock to maintain our coverage, which, perversely, is generating record traffic. I have not had a single day off this year nor many hours within those days!

But just defending and cutting costs is not my way, and anyway those steps would not see us through a crisis that runs for a long time as this one might. So you have to take some risks, follow your instincts and go with what you feel is right in terms of innovation. So, yes, this has been costly, but equally it has been rewarded with tremendous industry support and has spurred us to create a whole new operation and to work with some of the world’s best brands on an incredibly exciting project. There’s your ROI!

Martin Moodie and his team have changed the game by thinking ahead with the introduction of the Virtual Travel Retail Expo

DF&TR: Can you talk a bit about the state of our industry? We’ve all heard that we can be waiting up to three or four years to return to 2019 levels but what are your thoughts?

MM: I would avoid generalizations. I think the recovery is going to be stuttering (i.e. two steps forward, one back) and selective. Hainan, China is already beyond “recovery.” Their year-on-year numbers are extraordinary. South Korea is much better than anyone expected despite its borders basically being closed – the daigou effect. Travel bubbles will emerge, particularly in short-haul intra-Asia travel.

Elsewhere, much depends on the timing of vaccines and appropriate treatments. Things could move fast once those breakthroughs happen, and they will. People’s need and desire to travel has not diminished during this sustained crisis; in fact it has increased. The human need to discover, to sojourn, to learn, to enjoy human encounters will never be quenched. I am very confident about the future of travel retail but all of us – airports, retailers, F&B operators, trade associations, publishers – must be able to flex quickly to different realities and not simply revert to type. That would be fatal.

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