Each year since our founding in 2002 The Moodie Davitt Report has recognised those individuals who by their deeds, attitudes and behaviour have most advanced our industry’s cause and reputation. This year our selection features men and women nominated for leadership amid crisis, thought innovation, critical social and corporate principles, and being voices of progression and positivity in difficult times.

Akbar Al Baker

Qatar Airways Group Chief Executive, His Excellency Mr. Akbar Al Baker has been one of the most influential figures in global aviation for over 20 years. That influence has been heightened through the industry’s greatest crisis, as this charismatic, deeply driven business leader has helped elevate Qatar Airways as a premium international airline; Hamad International (HIA) as a hub between east and west; Qatar Duty Free as a powerhouse of travel retail; and (more latterly) Qatar as one of the world’s most exciting tourism destinations.

During the pandemic, the group repatriated more stranded travellers than any other airline – around 3 million – and maintained routes when others shut them down. HIA was named Skytrax Best Airport in the World in 2021, Qatar Airways won a similar accolade for Best Airline, and Qatar Duty Free embarked on – and completed – an ambitious series of openings that cut across channels from retail to dining, and categories from luxury to beauty.

The philosophy to invest and to keep investing, led from the top, has resulted in Qatar Duty Free sales and spends surpassing 2019 levels in the second half even before traffic had fully recovered. It also underpins plans for the next phase of transformation, with an exciting expansion of HIA to be completed in 2022 in time for the FIFA World Cup, which takes place in Qatar in November and December.

Talking leadership: H.E. Akbar Al Baker in conversation with Martin Moodie at Hamad International in August

The strategy that has led the group out of crisis is also closely related to the leadership provided by Al Baker – and his attention to detail.

In a telling comment, he told Martin Moodie in an interview in August: “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.”

In another telling insight, he said: “We will never stop investing. Investment is what will give you the returns. If you just stay stagnant, people will get bored of you, people will not give you the kind of return that you are looking for.”

There’s little chance of boredom when Al Baker is around. Clarity, consistency and coolness amid crisis – leadership qualities that have helped establish Qatar Airways Group on the global aviation map over the past two decades – earmark him as an irresistible choice as one of our People of the Year.

Charles Chen

“Let’s work together to explore China’s travel retail market and create new patterns in the global travel retail industry, with openness, communication, cooperation and innovation.” Few voices have resonated with as much inspiration and encouragement to the rest of the industry over the past two years as that of China Duty Free Group (CDFG) President Charles Chen.

In the darkest of times, in March 2020, when CDFG was already in recovery mode, he exhorted brand partners to explore the China domestic duty paid and Hainan offshore duty free opportunities when virtually no other sales outlets existed worldwide. Since then, CDFG has taken on a true leadership role within travel retail.

Guiding hand: Charles Chen has been highly influential in China Duty Free Group’s recent expansion and its leap to market leadership

How? By setting new benchmarks for physical and digital activations with its partners. By investing in raising the standard of its own retail real estate, on- and off-airport, both for today and for tomorrow – the new Haikou International Duty Free City will be a landmark for Chinese and global travel retail when it opens next year. And by reaching new heights in sales terms. Amid the pandemic CDFG has attained the status of world’s number one travel retailer, a position it will surely occupy for years to come, even as the global market recovers, such has been its impressive performance in 2020 and 2021.

CDFG has helped its industry partners build volume and reach during COVID times, delivering with quality, professionalism and an intimate knowledge of its consumers. The guiding hand of Charles Chen has been instrumental in its achievements to date, and the promise of much more to come.

Thabet Musleh

Two figures from Qatar in this year’s list? Most certainly and here’s why. The vision laid down by the CEO requires energy, drive and passion to execute, and Qatar Duty Free Vice President Operations Thabet Musleh has shown those qualities in abundance over the past 12 months.

In 2021, the retailer raised its reputation on the global stage to a new level, introducing multiple world-first and exclusive products, and adding diversity and surprise to the offer in both retail and F&B, alongside some blockbuster brand campaigns at Hamad International Airport (HIA).

And there’s much more to come in 2022, from brand and concept firsts to fresh experiences that aim to wow the consumer.

Ensuring that the commercial space in the existing terminal and the HIA extension is correctly tailored to the mix of travellers, allocated and positioned appropriately to suit brand, retailer and shopper is no easy task. But it is one that Musleh and his first-rate and dedicated team have managed to pull off with their own blend of passion, effervescence and hard work.

He walks and talks (and probably sleeps) his zeal for the role, and for the sheer positivity that he brings to a sector in which that quality has been in chronically short supply since the pandemic began, Musleh richly deserves this recognition.

Silvia Camarota

“What we try to do with Women in Travel Thrive (WITT) is to bring the gender equality conversation to the table and take one step forward for change, so that the small things we do today can have a larger impact tomorrow. This community was founded on the premise that there shouldn’t be a barrier for women to enter and progress in the travel industry.”

Silvia Camarota neatly sums up how WITT (a separate organisation from the equally admirable Women in Travel Retail/WITR), which she founded during the pandemic, has found its niche not just as an organisation but as a movement for women in the wider travel ecosystem.

As Senior Director for Expedia Group North American Market Management & Lodging, she – along with a network of like-minded friends and colleagues – became deeply concerned about the disproportionate impact the pandemic was having on women and their careers.

WITT was created to help reduce and redress that impact. Today the organisation plays a vital role in keeping women connected, offering a support system for those faced with compounded financial and emotional stress.

Camarota says, “This community was founded at the peak of the pandemic when everyone felt isolated. Women were leaving the workforce at four times the rate of men at that period.

“Across the industry, we wanted to reach out, connect with each other, offer words of support and encouragement, and find a way to create a special connection in these virtual times.”

She and her colleagues have certainly done that, offering inspiration (along with fellow WITT member, Aer Rianta International Retail Analytics Manager Mary Wyse) in a memorable Knowledge Hub session at the recent Virtual Travel Retail Expo.

On how the travel retail industry can become more inclusive, Camarota says: “Travel is a force of good. We have an immense social responsibility and the more we speak about this, the more we can become a role model for other industries and lead the way.”

Camarota has shown that leadership, along with support, kinship and encouragement for women across the industry, as WITT helps to educate and connect people through and beyond this pandemic.

Jennifer Cords

Every industry needs voices of progress and positivity, that chime with the spirit of the times, that offer thought leadership and urge movement in a new direction. In 2021, one of those voices in our view was that of Dr. Jennifer Cords, Director, Corporate Affairs, Business Compliance & Corporate Responsibility at Gebr. Heinemann.

At the ETRC Business Forum in January, she struck just the right note in highlighting how companies and individuals in our industry should ‘role model’ travelling when borders reopened.

“If we are not the explorers and adventurers of travel, who will do it?” she asked pointedly. “It must be the frequent travellers – once it is appropriate. Everyone here has access to travel budgets and we think it’s wrong if companies strike these out. Even if it takes extra effort, let’s do it. Let’s not put ourselves into hibernation.”

In a refreshing contribution at the same event, Cords also openly questioned how our sector is seen from the outside, asking whether travel retail has an ‘identity crisis?’ She said: “The big learning for us is that politics is more local than we ever would have thought. So we have to tell the travel retail story locally and make it fit for politicians locally. It should not be a defensive story but about the money it generates. Even saying ‘non-aeronautical’ revenue sounds defensive. We are not airline nor airport. So we need a better selling story about who we are.

“We are good on position papers and corporate communications, but where is the overlap to the selling story? Can we all agree on the same wording about creating jobs or other messages? These are simple messages that can be translated into all languages.”

From the start of the year to the end, when Cords’ superb contribution at the MEADFA Conference in Dubai in November offered another stirring note to guests and to the wider travel retail community, as she addressed sustainability within the context of ‘future proofing’ our sector.

“What needs to change in every company? Whether you are an airport, airline retailer or brand, you need to find the right ambassadors for sustainability, that matrix thinking. Sustainability is not a project, it’s a brain pool, and everybody in your organisation can contribute to your goal.”

Principles of progress: Gebr Heinemann recently published its UN Global Compact update, setting out achievements to date and sustainability ambitions for the decade ahead

In a compelling aside that should make everyone think afresh about how they employ, she added: “I’m super impressed by the young people who are protesting around the globe for a better future. They know exactly about the science, they know better than we do in our corporate structures.

“We need to hire the hippies, we need to hire the youngsters, the protesters, the tree huggers and the vegans because they know better than we do as corporations [about sustainability].”

On taking brave forward, Cords said: “Imagine together with me that future-proofed companies only work in the future with other future-proofed companies [that are sustainable across their operations]. You could have compliance discussions about that. Or what if voluntary actions become a requirement, in a tender process for example?

“And what if competition is the best ever, most-wanted thing to happen for sustainability? We should all compete to do better, we should be triggered by that. If I know that a certain retailer or a company is doing better, doing more, having more ambitious goals [on sustainability], we should compete with them in a positive way.

“This is something that we need to digest together because sustainability should not sit in communication. It should not sit in marketing. It should fit in the boardroom.”

These are important messages that surely must resonate across our business, from boardroom to shop floor, and that will need addressing for our channel to remain relevant and resilient. Gebr. Heinemann has shown leadership in voicing them, with Dr. Jennifer Cords an eloquent and able spokesperson.

Stephenie Rodriguez

“She was the archetypal Sydney socialite – working hard and playing hard, with a shoe collection to match,” wrote Andrew Hornery in The Sydney Morning Herald this month. “Then a trip to Africa left Stephenie Rodriguez fighting for her life – and, eventually, losing her feet.”

For those of you who do not know Stephenie, she is a long-time specialist in digital media and the founder and champion of WanderSafe, a personal safety electronic device and app especially suitable for women in lone travel or other potentially vulnerable situations.

Stephenie Rodriguez: WanderSafe meets Wonderwoman (Photo: Tim Bauer)

WanderSafe, launched into travel retail in 2018, had got off to a promising start. Stephenie was doing everything in her power to champion it, culminating in that ill-fated business trip to Kenya in September 2019, where she was bitten by mosquitos during a photo-session. At first there was no adverse reaction.

That duly arrived at Boston Logan Airport later that month, when Stephenie fell desperately ill as she was about to depart for Australia following a short trip to the US. Soon after she fell into a coma, having contracted cerebral malaria.

Over the ensuing week in a Boston hospital she had the last rites administered three times, having suffered acute septic shock and organ failure. In a desperate effort to save her, the medics increased the vasopressors – drugs that cause the blood vessels to contract in cases of severely low blood pressure.

The treatment saved her life but affect the body’s extremities. The consequences would be immense. As The Sydney Morning Herald story relates, Stephenie spent most of 2020 in Sydney hospitals in a battle to save her dying feet and hands, including 28 operations to her feet. Nothing worked. Her heel bones were dying.

She contacted Professor Munjed Al Muderis, a Sydney-based world leader in transcutaneous osseointegration technology, who develops robotic artificial limbs designed to be as close to the human anatomy as possible. He could help her walk again, he pledged, but at a cost.

“If I wanted to get out of the wheelchair and walk again, I would have to trade my dead, sore feet in for some bionic ones,” she recalled in the interview with Hornery. On 31 March 2021, Stephenie had both feet amputated and titanium rods inserted into her shinbones, before spending eight weeks with physiotherapists learning how to walk again.

She has done that and more. On 17 December Stephenie took her first international flight in over two years. She is even giving a TED talk in South Africa in March. “I am definitely ‘back on the field’,” she told The Moodie Davitt Report this month. “We are looking at how WanderSafe meets the needs of travellers in the ‘new normal’. We’re ready to ensure that WanderSafe is stocked in travel retail all around the world.”

The new normal for travellers indeed, and a new normal for Stephenie Rodriguez. WanderSafe meets wonderwoman.

Colin Evans

Few companies in the wider travel ecosystem have pivoted so fast, so coherently and so decisively during the pandemic as Collinson Group, the UK-headquartered specialist travel services group. And for that, Colin Evans, the man who has been at its ownership helm for 36 years, deserves immense credit and his place in our 2021 roll-call of outstanding industry contributors.

During the past wretched 22 months or so as the pandemic has raged across geographies and gripped all sectors of the travel industry, Collinson has adapted its heritage of providing medical and security assistance to travellers to becoming a prime player in the testing area, for example, as well as adapting and boosting its wider product portfolio.

Like Akbar Al Baker’s commitment at Qatar Airways to keep the world flying, Collinson has focused throughout the pandemic on helping to get the world travelling safely. The company has partnered with serial travel industry stakeholders, including airlines, airports and governments, in reaching for that goal and partnered with IATA, VeriFLY and CommonPass on the concept of digital passports.

Just before we went to press, Collinson joined with Virgin Atlantic and the Pacific Asia Travel Association (PATA) to kick off the Global Travel Sector Vaccine Coalition, a pan-industry initiative to ensure that everyone, no matter where they are in the world, has access to the COVID-19 vaccine.

That coalition’s critical focus is the Go Give One campaign to help fund COVID-19 vaccines worldwide. As Collinson Joint CEO David Evans put it: “The travel and tourism industry knows only too well how important it is for everyone, everywhere to have access to vaccines if we are to end the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s time to stamp out vaccine inequity.”

Besides its adaptability and focus on collaboration during crisis, Collinson has also invested strategically – for example in airport retail pre-order platform Inflyter and (together with existing partner Swissport) acquiring the No1 Lounges network.

Meeting Colin Evans, as we did a few months back, is an enriching experience. He has the classic family entrepreneur’s micro-knowledge of his business but also trusts his highly competent management team (led by his two sons David and Christopher) to get on with the job based on his long-held values of driving innovation and focusing relentlessly on product and strategic development. Few companies will honestly be able to say they are a stronger organisation at this point in the crisis than when it began. Collinson is a shining exception.

Heidi van Roon

Heidi Van Roon, President & Founder of the Spark Group of Companies, is one of the most dynamic and passionate individuals in the travel retail community, qualities that have shone like a beacon during the pandemic.

Her Vancouver-based company provides a wide array of market-leading recruitment and staffing services for luxury & airport retailers and brands. And it’s in this context that her voice is an important one for the role of frontline people in our increasingly digitalised and crisis-hit ecosystem.

Rather than painting a stark picture of a contactless future, van Roon contends that human engagement is actually more important than ever as travel recovers from the pandemic. She is a consistent champion of the vital role that sales personnel play in travel retail – even in the ‘new norm’.

A new approach to deploying well-trained, skilled people can still align with brand and retailer priorities, she contends. In-store sales and promotions should be centred around human interactions such as storytelling; retail theatre; theme parks; social media hot spots; compelling offers; travel exclusives and creative product presentations.

In this sense, digital is not the enemy, but a tool that complements what happens in the physical space, she insists.

Her philosophy is beautifully summed up in this interview with our own Mark Lane: “The standstill we have witnessed for international travel was hopefully the death of everything that needed to die for the new era of travel retail to emerge and succeed. Much like the dormancy in winter supports the vibrancy in spring, so the standstill has made way for a new season in travel retail.” Spark by company name, spark (and a very bright one) by human nature.

Adrian Pittaway

Like Heidi van Roon, the MSC Cruises Head of Retail has been a voice of constant optimism, common sense and determination not to be defeated in the face of what has sometimes appeared overwhelming odds for the travel retail sector, particularly the long-stricken cruise industry.

The MSC Cruises ‘retail family’, as Pittaway dubs his team, deservedly won ‘Travel Retail Team of the Year’ at the 2021 Frontier Awards and we add our plaudits here to the man who led from the bow.

Not a week goes by, it seems, without Pittaway taking to social media to laud a route re-opening, a new vessel launch or a retail initiative; to espouse the health measures adopted by MSC; or simply to issue a rallying call to the travel retail industry.

As the world learns to live with COVID – and, yes, we will get beyond Omicron – our industry will recover, albeit at different speeds according to channel and geography. It is clear that demand for cruising has been accentuated not eroded during the crisis and already that welcome reality is playing out.

For championing his company’s and his channel’s cause so passionately during the toughest, most prolonged crisis in travel retail’s and the cruise sector’s history, Adrian Pittaway is a worthy addition to our 2021 list.

Fraser Brown

In the face of the most challenging period in Heathrow Airport’s history, the retail team there have responded with openness, a proactive yet realistic approach to partnership and a drive to ensure a relatively ‘normal’ traveller experience.

That is in large part due to the leadership provided by Retail & Property Director Fraser Brown, who, like others in our list this year, has been a consistent champion of travel retail’s positive role in the wider journey.

Remaining positive has been no easy task. Heathrow’s recovery has been slower than that of many peer airports in Europe and worldwide, not least due to the complex, onerous and oft-changing travel restrictions imposed by the UK government. The airport served over 80 million passengers in 2019, a number expected to reach only 21.5 million this year, and Heathrow has slipped well down the global airport rankings, at least for now.

It has also been hurt by the impact of losing airside tax free sales since 1 January – another government-imposed blow – alongside a lack of financial support for aviation and the exit of some long-term concession partners who simply could not make business work. Heavy financial losses as a result of these factors put great strain on the business.

Yet Brown and his commercial team have done an outstanding job of working through the crisis with their partners, ensuring travellers can still have a good experience in well-ranged stores with eye-catching, energetic promotions, and strong messages about the value available, all supported by excellent staff.

There is the vital element of clarity to the rebuilding strategy, based around four pillars – digital, space, experience and offer – which comes from the retail team. It’s also clear from the promotions and displays that for many brands, Heathrow remains an attractive showcase. Many suppliers have continued to invest to try and capture the attention of a prized traveller demographic, even if their numbers are reduced.

Now Heathrow has reached a critical point in its revival journey, with more terminals and space opened than at any point since March 2020, and travel numbers growing. Omicron may have a big part to play in how 2022 shapes up but for now the airport is budgeting for around 43 million passengers. That’s well below 2019 levels, but even so, how many international airports will serve that many potential customers next year?

While Heathrow has seen some partners exit through COVID-19, other brands and retailers have stepped in, JD Sports at Terminal 2 among them

Brown also offers a voice of realism about the challenges of today and tomorrow.

“It is easy for us all to talk partnership in good times but we have had some really tough conversations over the last 18 months. I am really proud of the way that the team have faced into that with the brands and the retailers to have very honest, tough, adult conversations. And that’s when I think you test a partnership – in the tough times, not in the good times.”

It’s not a new message, but it’s an important one. Heathrow’s retail team has demonstrated agility and flexibility with its partners in ways that reflect the uncertainty of the times we live in. It has worked with them to find efficient and profitable solutions, while tempting the traveller to shop by providing a high-quality experience. That approach will be key next year and beyond as the industry recovers – as will leadership of the type that Fraser Brown has shown.