"Inevitably, some of our number haven't been able to make the journey, but rather than dwelling on the absentees, let's focus on the people who are here and remember how, only a few months ago, a physical event seemed unattainable. And to those watching online, it's good to welcome you via the Conference livestream on our TFWA 365 digital platform."
Explaining that he wanted to do things a little differently this year, Singh kicked off his presentation with a video featuring many of the people and companies that had made TFWA Exhibition & Conference 2021 possible.
"I'd like to thank everyone who contributed to that compilation of views: Lisa Bauer, Vincent Boinay, Charles Chen, Vinay Golikeri, Max Heinemann, Ségolène Audras-Verdillon, Colm McLoughlin, Christian Münstermann, Dag Rasmussen and Patrick Bohl. Many of them are with us here in the auditorium, showing their support for our industry during these extremely difficult times.
"My deep gratitude also goes to the more than 260 companies who are exhibiting this week in the Palais des Festivals. It's when things get tough that true friends step forward, so I very much want to thank our exhibitors for showing faith, remaining patient and standing by us in such challenging circumstances."
Singh emphasised the importance of the industry working together and developing stronger business relationships during one of the most challenging periods in its history. "The last few months have convinced me that coming together and uniting as an industry is the surest way for duty free and travel retail to emerge from the current crisis. No single person, no one company has all the answers, but by closer collaboration, talking to each other and harnessing our collective efforts, we can remake our business for the post-pandemic era."
However, Singh also warned against complacency and falling back into old ways of thinking. He urged delegates to heed the words of Eugene Barry of Dubai Airports and "look beyond the airport retail box to changing attitudes and behaviours – don't assume that everything in 2022 will be the same as 2019".
"International travel has changed, and so have traveller expectations. To satisfy those, we shall have to be more agile and responsive, providing memorable experiences that are accessible across multiple channels, tailored to individual tastes by effective marketing based on shared traveller data. We must offer something exclusive that can't be found outside travel retail, and we must do all of this in a framework that prioritises sustainability and social equity."
Speaking as a brand owner reflecting on the events of the last two years, Singh said he had drawn three invaluable lessons from working through the pandemic. The first related to effective sharing of data among organisations: "When traveller numbers dropped dramatically, making our usual market-intelligence benchmarks less relevant, we learned to cast the net wider for alternative information sources. Flight data from air-traffic control organisations and passenger updates by airport authorities helped us make sense of who was flying where."
The second lesson concerned rationalisation of product ranges, with brands and travel retailers shifting their focus to lines they were confident of selling in a changed marketplace: "This generated efficiencies in our manufacturing and supply chain that helped our bottom line, while boosting sales and cutting costs for our retail partners."
Lastly, Singh said organisations used similar thinking to adapt their budget processes, creating more accurate sales forecasts and matching investment to the revised traffic base. "This more pragmatic, disciplined approach helped us perform better as a business, focusing resources where they could be used most effectively in a market that we understand more clearly."
While praising the industry's work in weathering the storm of the pandemic, Singh said discipline would be key in order to maintain this momentum in the coming months. He added that, pre-pandemic, duty free and travel retail had often been guilty of appearing out of touch, with strong passenger growth masking "haphazard planning and questionable investment decisions". He continued: "We weren't good at converting travellers into shoppers, and even when we managed to do so, spend per head was stagnating or in decline. Today we have fewer travellers overall, but conversion and spend rates are higher and still rising. If we can retain this discipline post-Covid, when people start to travel in numbers again, we shall all be winners."
Singh also called on businesses to provide greater access to traveller data and insight, something he believes will be crucial for the future success of the industry: "Until now, our industry's record of sharing such data has been less than impressive. Companies have been reluctant to reveal information they regard as commercially sensitive to those they trade with. Yet this is the very moment when our industry has the most to gain from a clearer understanding of traveller needs and how they've changed since 2019.
"Now is the time for brands, retailers and landlords to build on the relationships forged in adversity during the darkest days of Covid-19. By pooling our knowledge of the post-pandemic traveller, we all stand to gain, developing products and brands that will appeal to these new shoppers, tailoring the retail offer to their revised aspirations and creating a fresh sense of excitement as people begin to cross borders again."
With the return of TFWA World Exhibition & Conference as a physical event, Singh said he hoped the week would create a space in which insightful conversations would be shared and the spirit of co-operation would be strengthened in order to power the duty free and travel retail industry's recovery. "Our mission at TFWA is to provide a business platform for the global duty free and travel retail industry to prosper. This week in Cannes is a central plank of that platform.
"Singh highlighted new features that had been introduced to this year's event in Cannes such as TFWA Lounge, which will provide additional opportunities for industry colleagues and friends to meet face-to-face and strengthen bonds in a more informal setting. "Connections are what this week in Cannes is all about. Building relationships, making new contacts and swapping ideas with others are the lifeblood of a people-focused business like ours."
Beyond Cannes, Singh said TFWA would provide further opportunities to bring the trade together at the upcoming MEADFA Conference, taking place in Dubai from 21st to 23rd November. He added that plans for next year's TFWA Asia Pacific Exhibition & Conference – the Association's first event in Asia Pacific since 2019 – were "progressing well". He also described the return of the Duty Free World Council Academy in partnership with ACI as "excellent news because customer-facing skills will be essential as travellers return"
Concluding his speech, Singh repeated his thanks for all those who had managed to make it to Cannes for TFWA World Exhibition & Conference: "Apart from giving us the pleasure of finally meeting again face-to-face, your presence over the next few days will provide a vital opportunity for our industry to reconnect, exchange viewpoints and shape the recovery. It's an opportunity we must all seize with both hands."