Philip Handley

Let me start with a confession. My brilliant strategy team at CircleSquare had written a surprising, witty and punchy think-piece to kick off our new monthly column for The Moodie Davitt Report; full of wonderful ideas to make airport retail experiences ‘irresistible’ to passengers. As you can imagine, given the brutal times experienced by so many friends and colleagues in the industry over the past two weeks, I had no option but to pull the article and write something from the heart. So here goes…

It’s the end of ‘Week Three’ of working from home here at CircleSquare’s London Studio, some way behind our studios in Hong Kong, Singapore and Dubai, but I’m pleased to say we’ve all settled into our new routines admirably.

Incredibly, our admin boffins in London managed to relocate some fifty creative types (not always the easiest people to relocate anywhere, in my experience) and by 9am the following morning we were all up and running, not skipping a single beat. We have always had a team of ‘digital natives’ so our new online studio was always going to be a doddle. But it has not all been fun and games.

You only need to glance upwards to see a sky completely devoid of aircraft to know something devastating has happened to our lovely, familiar world. To give you an idea of how far we have come in such a short space of time, a helicopter flew over my garden yesterday afternoon and my children, so shocked to see something in the sky, jumped up in excitement and started waving at it as though they had never seen one before.

The reality has kicked in. Passenger numbers have dropped off a cliff, sales are non-existent (meaning budgets have been slashed, projects cancelled, spending suspended and installations postponed) which in turn leads to businesses crumbling, staff being laid-off and dreams being crushed. These are the toughest of times and the worst may yet be to come.

I was asked a poignant question this week: “You’re an ideas person, Philip. You are paid to come up with creative solutions to problems, so what’s your solution?” I was blank, dumbstruck even, which is an extremely rare occurrence (as many industry veterans will attest). Since that moment, however, I have thought of very little else.

Idea Generation: A creative team in the CircleSquare London studio work together to design fixtures and activation spaces

The solution appears to start with the green shoots of recovery in China that we are beginning to see. This week the BBC reported from Shenzhen, one of the manufacturing heartlands of China, that demand for steel is back to previous levels and road traffic is rapidly approaching pre-lock down numbers. Bloomberg identified that the use of coal in the five major Chinese utilities have doubled since a low on 10th February and by mid March 90% of markets, shops and malls had reopened. This publication’s Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie reported recently about the US$21 million tourist rejuvenation plan for Hainan and the re-opening of the stores in Haitang Bay in Sanya.

This is only the start and there is a long way to go yet. Three months on and China’s borders still remain closed, but it is undeniable things are moving in the right direction. In a further three months, the rest of the world should have caught up and the borders will be able to reopen.

Photoshoot at the workshop

This is music to the ears of all those retailers who have seen profits nose-dive and brands whose products are still sitting on the shelves, sales targets only a distant memory. It offers the chance to recoup some of the losses, make the targets look healthier and start over in a new, more positive way than ever before. It is vital that this opportunity is seized.

It won’t just be me, but I’m sure many of you have noticed the coincidental pattern hidden within the timings? It looks like it will take about six months from the beginning of the China lock-down to the floodgates opening, which just so happens to be the length of time it takes to create activations, experiences, permanent furniture, store fit-outs etc.

So if a retailer or brand wants to genuinely capitalise, they will need to start working with their creative agencies now on strategic planning and the briefing of creative projects or else they risk missing the start of the race.

With agencies like CircleSquare still being fully operational, we can spend time now ensuring your creative designs are game-changing and that the ideas are brought to life. CircleSquare Hong Kong informed me this week that the factories we use in China are now fully operational, enabling us to deliver these irresistible experiences, while the slightly longer lead times will allow us to group production and fabrication to generate economies of scale. There is also still time to put all materials on the ‘slow boat’ out of China, saving huge sums on logistics. Finally, installations can be staggered and combined with other clients’ projects to find further cost savings. It is more cost-effective than ever to be ready.

Bringing the creative concepts to life through photography, film and digital

So maybe it’s time to draw those curtains wide open and let some inspiration in. Use this downtime to clear out that cupboard labelled ‘things we’ve always done before’ and re-fill it with exciting new opportunities and great creative solutions to engage consumers better than ever before. Let’s meet this brave new world with brave new ideas.

I’ve come to learn that we are a resilient family in global travel retail, one that is full of fight. Together we will see the back of this and come back stronger.

Stay safe and keep busy.



Click here to find the original column in The Moodie Davitt Report.