Duty free legend says farewell

12 June, 2024

Colm McLoughlin, chief executive of Dubai Duty Free and one of travel retail’s most high-profile figures, has announced his retirement after four decades in the industry. Joe Bates looks back at the Irishman’s extraordinary career.

The names of duty free retailers don’t trip off the tongue of the average international traveller. Avolta, the new corporate name for Swiss travel retail giant Dufry, which sounds more like a Tango dance step, is a case in point.

Would there be a flicker of recognition with the names of other industry giants such as Gebr Heinemann, DFS Group and Duty Free Americas? I very much doubt it.

It’s the luxury brands inside the stores that generate consumer excitement, not the names on the doors outside. Yet Dubai Duty Free is the exception to the rule. A canny marketing strategy focusing on high-profile sports sponsorships such as the Dubai Duty Free Tennis Championships, Dubai-based golf tournaments and UK horse races such as the Shergar Cup at Ascot have built this well-funded UAE travel retailer an unmatched international public profile.

The long-running Millennium Millionaire and Finest Surprise promotions, which have given away millions of dollars and countless luxury cars over the years, have also helped Dubai Duty Free’s consumer profile to grow, as has the charitable Dubai Duty Free Foundation. Over two decades, the charity has supported multiple worthy causes, whether building a school sports complex after the Haitian earthquake of 2010 or restoring the sight of nearly 900,000 people in India in partnership with Sight Savers.

The man who has done so much to steer Dubai Duty Free to such global prominence is Galway-born executive vice chairman & chief executive Colm McLoughlin, who announced his retirement last month after 41 years. The self-effacing, softly spoken Irishman, the star turn at so many industry events over the years and the recipient of 86 industry awards, is the nearest thing the duty free industry has to a superstar.

McLoughlin arrived with a team from Ireland’s airport operator Aer Rianta to start a new duty free operation at Dubai airport in 1983, when the sandy city-state was a far cry from today’s gleaming metropolis. Under his stewardship and backed by chairman HH.Sheikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, Dubai Duty Free grew to become the world’s single largest duty free operation with sales of $2.16bn last year. It’s a four-decade success story closely interwoven with Dubai’s transformation into a global centre for tourism, finance and business.

Global transport hub

Despite operating in a Muslim state, Dubai Duty Free has proved a star performer for the spirits business. Demand has come from Dubai’s hard-working army of ex-pats from the Indian subcontinent, many of them whisky drinkers; the growing number of overseas tourists visiting the Emirate; and finally, Dubai Airport’s unchallenged position as the world’s most important international transit hub, a mid-route stopping point for millions of affluent consumers.

In fact, liquor was Dubai Duty Free’s second largest product category after fragrances last year with sales reaching $310m and taking a 14% share of the retailer’s overall business. With over 2.3 million bottles of whisky sold in 2023 alone, Dubai Duty Free has become a hugely important sales location for brands such as Johnnie Walker and Jack Daniel’s.

In recent years, the growing number of Chinese travellers flying through Dubai airport – a trend only temporarily halted by the pandemic – has seen malt whisky producers increasingly target the travel retailer too. To celebrate Dubai Duty Free’s 40th anniversary last year, for instance, The Glenlivet, Bowmore, Brown-Forman’s Glenglassaugh and Bushmills all released limited exclusive malts for the retailer to celebrate the milestone.

McLoughlin, a long-time Dubai resident, will retain his position as the chairman of the Dubai Duty Free Foundation, but the role of managing director has now gone to his successor and the former chief operating officer Ramesh Cidambi, who is now assisted by deputy managing director Salah Tahlak, previously joint chief operating officer. Cidambi is an experienced set of hands, having joined Dubai Duty Free in 1987.

The next few years are set to be very busy ones for Cidambi and his 5,600-strong team. In April, it was announced that Dubai Airport will move its operations from its current site to the city-state’s second, sprawling Al Maktoum International Airport within the next decade. Once completed, the five-runway airport will be the world’s biggest, capable of handling 260 million passengers a year.

With such an ambitious relocation project lying ahead, Dubai Duty Free’s story has surely many more chapters to be written, but for now, at least, I suspect many travel retail drinks executives around the world will want to raise a toast in McLoughlin’s honour and reflect on his remarkable career.

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