NORTH AMERICA. In our special series to close out 2020, we focus on the heroes and heroines who stood up as a global pandemic raged and ensured that airport, travel retail store and restaurant environments were safe and hygienic, that shelves were stocked and that customers – though few in number – could still enjoy a reassuring shopping, dining or general airport experience.

With the assistance and input of our industry partners, we present the stories of some of those individuals and teams who ensured that a pulse still beat through travel retail this year. As reported in The Moodie Davitt eZine, we salute these front line workers as our People of the Year, with our online coverage building on the pictorial in our year-end edition.

Here, we show how the brand ambassadors trained for airport retail by the Spark Group of Companies have kept smiling behind the mask, in this most challenging of years for the luxury retail brands they represent.

Keep smiling, keep shining: Heidi Van Roon has been lifting spirits for retail operators at Vancouver International Airport and in the wider world throughout the pandemic period

In a year spent searching for chinks of light in a very bleak picture for travel retail, the alacrity of one particular North American dynamo has often stood out.

Spark employees Shannon (left) and Jenny at Vancouver Airport, loaded up with treats to share on the shop floor, including masks and gloves

Spark Group of Companies Founder & President Heidi Van Roon, an expert in HR and sales in luxury airport retail, has always been quick to speak positively on behalf of the industry and look for signs of hope as the COVID-19 pandemic has raged, not least within social media communities such as LinkedIn.

Smiling behind the masks: Left to right, Jessie (representing Sisley), Anne (Hermès), Shannon (Amorepacific) and Jenny (Coty Fragrances) at a Spark team meeting in the pre-security area

Van Roon and her front line teams of retail brand ambassadors have quickly adapted their ways of working to the in-airport safety requirements brought forward by the pandemic. They have been keeping the retail sales of the brands they represent – such as Sisley, Coty, Amorepacific and Hermès at Vancouver International Airport, in partnership with retailer Dufry – moving, when travel conditions have permitted.

Jessie, the very first Spark team member to return to work in June after retail operations at Vancouver Airport were suspended for a period. “She did an amazing job selling to only one flight per shift yet still maintaining a high average sales per hour,” said Heidi.

While ecommerce and the digital path to travel retail sales has often dominated industry conversation in 2020, Van Roon has continued to spread a strong message about the vital role of sales staff in airport stores, even though their activities have at times been heavily curtailed in the face of COVID-19.

This peaked in her Shaken not Stirred Knowledge Hub session, delivered at the Moodie Davitt Virtual Travel Expo, where her company was a Silver Partner.

During a highly engaging talk, she said: “Of all the positions the most critical role will be the sales function. This is the role which differentiates physical retail from online retail. This role does what digital cannot do. It brings the brand to life and it creates that bespoke moment and genuine connection.”

Vancouver-based Van Roon says that even with the conditions brought forward by the pandemic, it is time to elevate the sales profession on the shop floor, “because every SKU, every brand, every retailer and every traveller in travel retail depends on the sales role”.

Van Roon adds: “We are in a season to change what we can no longer accept. The market has shifted and there really is no other choice than to boldly adapt. It is time for courage, for honesty, for collaboration and for accountability.”

Spark’s Holly at work in a Bulgari sales area at Vancouver Airport, without the use of samples and sporting PPE while selling

Such sentiments will bring hope to the tens of thousands of travel retail sales staff across the world who have lost their jobs this year in the fall out from COVID-19 due to no fault of their own, for when the rebound comes.

Leading from the front: Heidi Van Roon has helped keep travel retail industry spirits lifted with highly-engaging, upbeat videos from the floor of Vancouver Airport on LinkedIn