Sleepwalking to extinction: The Master Concession model shows travel retail has learned nothing

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By Marco Passoni

I have seen the phrase “Master Concession” make a return to travel retail headlines in recent months and it fills me with dread.

Coverage of last week’s AENA concession presentation in Cannes, heralded as the ‘biggest concession’ of the year, spoke of 55,000 sqm of retail space in 26 airports. This is a shining and exciting opportunity for the industry and one which could lead the way in how to do business as it shapes travel retail in Spain for the next decade.

But talk of a Master Concession is in the air. I hope this will not come to pass, because a return to the Master Concessions of old would be a terrifying sign that we have learned nothing from recent years.

We have to start looking at our business in a new way or our very future is under threat.

As a global industry, we spent most of the pandemic – and all of the ongoing recovery so far – talking about newness and excitement, promising unique and curated experiences for shoppers which speak to their travels and the location they are in. The creation of an industry and offer unlike any other.

A return to the Master Concessions of old would be a terrifying sign that we have learned nothing from recent years

Such promises can only be delivered with direct involvement from and engagement with the brands. They are the ones who can create, mould, and deliver such experiences. The return of the Master Concession model is a tumble back into the one-size-fits-all approach which was outdated before the pandemic. This idea should have been consigned to history as soon as shoppers were engaging with unique experiences on their phones and looking to see them replicated in the physical environment. It has absolutely no place in our sector today.

Make no mistake, operators and retailers are excellent at what they do. They are the backbone of our industry and create multi-brand duty-free and travel retail stores which enchant and drive sales by building cross-category integration and discovery – alongside ease of access for the harried traveller.

In fact, the Master Concession model may even have a future in smaller airports, where grab-and-go is king and dwell time is down.

But big Tier 1 and 2 city airports and international hubs deserve more. In fact, they need more – and shoppers will demand it. For me, to put the whole offer under a single umbrella speaks to a laziness and unwillingness to create something truly brilliant and bespoke for shoppers. Airports have the information about their shoppers and should seek out the retailers and brands which will suit all their needs and bring them together. There is no chance one company does all that for a major port. No chance at all.

A one-size-fits-all approach speaks to a laziness and unwillingness to create something truly brilliant and bespoke for shoppers

Even the biggest or best retailers in the world cannot do everything. Only brands, given direct control and flexibility through a working relationship with their landlord, can offer the targeted and bespoke retail that our industry craves if it is to thrive going forward. Retailers cannot bring these stories and experiences to life because they are not their stories and experiences.

If airport landlords are not willing to do the work to bring such an offer together then they are simply not willing to do their job.

Modern shoppers want so much more; we know this is the case because it is mentioned in every webinar, workshop and presentation. But the time for talking about it is long past. We need actions. The promises of new ideas and breaking down walls must be realised.

Any long-term plan that follows the old models of our business accompanied by vague promises of ‘innovation’ and ‘digital engagement’ is just sleepwalking back to the past, it is not innovating. And a failure to evolve and excite is the path to extinction.

Any long-term plan with just vague promises of ‘innovation’ and ‘digital engagement’ is simply sleepwalking back to the past

This industry has so much to offer and such potential to grow and thrive, but our offer must be new, fresh and truly bespoke – in-keeping with the demands of our customers. To do this is hard. It is much simpler to reapply the old ways with a fresh coat of paint. Genuine newness requires work, collaboration, and a willingness to change. These are all things we, as a collective, say we want and will deliver. It is time to put our money where our mouth is.

Put the old Master Concession model in the bin and look at the airport space anew: What potential can you see?

Marco Passoni has decades of experience in the travel retail sector. He has spent the majority of his career in senior leader positions throughout the market, including a 12-year tenure as CEO of a leading international Duty Free distribution company and a further 8 years running a retail firm that operated fashion mono-brand stores in several international airports.
Today, as Senior Executive VP and founding partner of 2.0 & Partners, he leads the company’s efforts in developing and innovating services which create new opportunities and partnerships for all members of the travel retail Trinity. A former elite-level sailor, with a World Championship to his name, Marco now spends much of his time airside, experiencing the changing travel retail industry first-hand, to better guide partners and clients on the best way to do business in this vibrant and unique market.