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Martin Moodie, Chairman and Founder of The Moodie Davitt Report. Visionair and Shapeshifter.

Introduction by: Peter Marshall
It’s not often that Martin Moodie and I can exchange frank views about industry matters. When we do, our thinking is often aligned, but we also have some healthy differences, too. So when he and Dermot Davitt launched Virtual Travel Retail Expo 2020, I felt it incumbent, with my trunblocked.com hat on, to ask Martin for an in-depth interview that would shed light on a project that, in a few short months, has genuinely rocked the industry and will most probably be the benchmark for many of the industry’s events in the years to come.
No punches are pulled in this head to head. The interview provides a clear rationale and back story to the launch, what Virtual Expo is designed to achieve and how it will work. Yes, we cover some of the reaction from the trade, too. Martin’s responses provide compelling reading.
But the interview offers much more than just underpinning the rationale for this shape-shifting industry project. It also offers an appreciation and understanding of what makes Martin tick as an individual. In that sense it is a deeply personal interview and is all the better for it.

PM: Martin, what were the principal drivers behind The Moodie Davitt Report establishing Virtual Expo? Survival, an appreciation of the way the business needs to move forward, or both?

MM: All of the above Peter! I saw the COVID-19 threat to travel retail and to our business early – we started covering it on January 6th and we had a dedicated daily COVID-19 column by 21st January.
Having run a business through SARS, I knew that the newest coronavirus had serious implications both for the channel in general but also for my business which, as a ‘free to air’ product, is heavily reliant on advertising and physical events. We had our Airport Food & Beverage (FAB) Conference and Awards planned for June and the Trinity Forum (with ACI and ACI Asia-Pacific) in October, respectively. In our February webinar, Dr. David Heymann, who headed the global response to SARS in 2003, made it abundantly clear that mass physical face-to-face meetings would be seriously compromised for some time to come. The travel retail industry would have to relearn some of its practices for the foreseeable future in terms of large meetings, he said. You don’t ignore such messages.
While vowing that my publishing business would shine through the crisis – which I believe it has – I knew that our business model would mean massive pressures on revenues. After all, our income comes from advertising and physical events. We have never charged the industry a single cent in subscription fees despite the quality of service we try to provide.
Those were the defensive motivations if you like. But I also saw the need for the industry to meet in a more cost-effective and time-effective way – without any risk of health compromise, to help stimulate the business as it reached towards some semblance of recovery. The answer was obvious. It had to be virtual.

PM: Looking at the build of the site, it’s still new, unproven territory for all. Do you think that you might be cluttering it now with too many zones? What research did you employ to get to this?

MM: It’s not cluttered at all. Quite the opposite. It’s clean, logically segmented and well sign-posted, and in fact a whole lot easier to navigate than a physical trade show. But people should stop comparing one with the other – the virtual and the physical. They should be complementary. In this year, however, virtual is all there is, so embrace it.

Research? I backed my instinct and we spoke to the industry. And we’re still speaking. The zones are evolving, by the way, and we have some brilliant surprises in store from companies of all sizes. The people we are speaking within the many brand partners who have already committed include some of the best digital minds you will meet. They are pushing us constantly and also exciting us with what they plan to bring to the Virtual Expo.
You are right though, it’s all unproven. So was Netflix, so was Uber, so was Air BnB. And, as you well know Peter, so was digital media. When I started The Moodie Davitt Report as a pure-play digital media in late 2002 against the then powerhouse of DFNI and its closest competitor TRB, few gave me a chance. By 2004 we were the leader not only in digital but overall. People believe in us as innovators and we won’t let them down.

PM: What about the editorial content? I think people viewing are going to expect to see something very different from the usual talking heads. They also will not expect to see any ‘puff’. Watching something virtual to attending a conference is a very different indeed. It’s de-personalised for a start. And watching a computer screen all day is hard work. What can the audience expect?

MM: Come on Peter, you worked with me on the original Trinity Forum back in 2003. Did I ever do ‘puff’? Put me out to pasture please if I do. And people won’t be ‘watching a computer screen all day’. The ‘Knowledge Hub’, where various presentations, debates and workshops will take place, is not going to be your typical formula of a solid block over a half-day or full-day. Not that we are criticising that approach – it is needed for physical events. But for our Virtual format we are going to have activities taking place all week in a combination of formats – some live, some pre-recorded and all available ‘on demand’ as well for delegates to dip in and out of the various activities while still working away in the comfort of their homes or offices. And the integrated broadcast system will keep visitors aware of when and where new activities are starting with the Expo.
There will be some great video work in there, too. I’ll be filming in Champagne and China. I should thank you, as the industry’s leading filmmaker, for offering your services at a special Virtual TR Expo rate to speakers and exhibitors who need video content. Are you planning on doing ‘puff’?

PM: Of course not, that’s not our style.

MM: Didn’t think so.

PM: Moving on, there has been chatter about you looking to monetise an event that effectively displaces what TFWA have been doing for years. How would you answer that?

MM: Peter, there is no TFWA show this year. So how can I be effectively displacing it? Am I seeking to monetise our event? Heck, yes!
Would you suggest that I stand quietly by and at 64 years of age watch the business I have built with blood, sweat and tears simply be eroded by this terrible crisis? In crisis you also have to innovate. I did not stop anyone else from innovating. I did not stop the Cannes show from happening. COVID-19 did!!
And the monetisation you speak of can only succeed if you offer a high-class product, underpinned by the right values, including a strong CSR platform which this event has. For every exhibitor we will fund a life-changing cleft operation for a child through The Smile Train; for every registered retailer we will plant a tree under The Trinity Forest Project; and our Expo partners, FILTR, are supporting WITR’s 2020 nominated charity, ImpactHK, a Hong Kong charity that supports the homeless with a particular focus on women and the aged.
Do you really think the calibre of brands, retail operators, airports, airlines, omni-channel specialists and others that have signed up for our event – and there will be many more named in the coming days – will be onboard if they didn’t agree? Budgets are super tight, Peter. You have to wage a compelling argument to attract every cent. And that is exactly as it should be.
But I want to put this matter to rest. No one else either saw or wanted the Virtual ground, so we took it. I do not apologise for that. So the argument I’ve heard from some quarters that we are in some way taking revenue from others simply doesn’t hold water.

PM: It might not for 2020, Martin. What about 2021 and beyond?

MM: That’s a different matter.
PM: So what’s the answer?
MM: It’a a fair question. Together with our partner FILTR we have poured something like 4000 women and man hours into this project to date. We have taken a software platform and curated it to what we think is a very impressive standard. And it’s evolving constantly. We have already agreed to host one non-travel retail Exhibition as an Expo contractor in September, and we will do others in that capacity next year. As you know, we have also created the Moodie Davitt Virtual Expo Company, which is taking us outside travel retail with three events already announced – Wellbeing World, World of Spirits and Beauty Inclusive. And there will be a rolling programme of year-round events.

A new company for a virtual world

PM: But you haven’t answered the question, Martin

MM: I was coming to that! The point is that we did not do this all simply to have a one-off show to protect 2020 revenues. Together with FILTR, who have been amazing, we have created something special, something that will only get better. It’s hugely cost-effective and time-effective and we know it’s got permanence. But we’re very open-minded about how it should sit both time-wise and positioning-wise with other industry events, Peter, including the one you have already mentioned.
Back to your original point, it is NOT our intention to kill off the TFWA show or any association show. Why would we do that? It would simply be bad business for one thing. We have a strong publishing presence at all those shows. Secondly, all the trade associations – including our close partners in Trinity, ACI and ACI Asia-Pacific – play critical roles in defending and advancing our industry. And their physical events help fund that work. We also work closely with various leading associations – with TFWA’s conference in Singapore and with their Handbook; with TFWA and MEADFA in the Middle East; with IAADFS and ASUTIL at their workshops in Orlando; with the FDFA in sponsoring their awards; with APTRA at Trinity last year in hosting a forum and at this year’s Virtual Travel Retail Expo.
We’re all hoping that these physical shows will return next year, but I suspect change will be required in the number of events and the formats and locations they embrace. We are heading into an austerity era, in which all investments by exhibitors and delegates will be closely scrutinised in terms of return.That’s precisely the way it should be.
We’re open to all ideas, including collaboration. It’s no time for silos and we don’t plan to sit in one. I speak regularly to the various trade associations and they all know that we’re flexible in our thinking about 2021.
PM: I fully agree on the number of events, formats and locations. But, returning to Virtual Expo, another area of seeming push back is the price of entry for brands to a wholly unproven media entity. It’s great to see the support and traction that you are getting, but what are the elements that will constitute the price tag?
MM: Not sure about the push back, Peter – that’s certainly not the message we’ve been receiving. The rates are highly accessible and we have beaten every target. We’ve got the world’s biggest brands on board in spirits; many of them in beauty and confectionery; some amazing omni-channel companies; and a brilliant combination of established and emergent brands across all categories. We’ve got Diamond Partners in China Duty Free Group and The SEVA Group and a host of Platinum, Gold and several other partners.
Every exhibitor gets complimentary advertising in the Expo Guide – when did that last happen? – and tremendous visibility from our media and that of our Preferred Media Partners across both B2B and B2C sectors. Every exhibitor gets their own individual account manager from FILTR to support them through the process from go to over a 4-5 month period. That’s built into the price. Every exhibitor gets their own individual media account manager from The Moodie Davitt Report, too, to ensure maximum visibility before and after the show – again built into the price.

PM: Everyone will be looking at this with a very close eye. Not just the technical execution, but the quality of the overall content, the take out of the ‘engagement’ and, of equal importance, the viewing data.

MM: Precisely. And that’s just as it should be. We are confident on all fronts. The Knowledge Hub is going to feature some simply outstanding content and our brand partners are promising some amazing work in the Exhibition Hub and Experience Hub. We don’t say ‘booth’, we say ‘Virtual Stand & Experience’. And that’s what it’s going to be.
Viewing data? Yep. Every exhibitor will have access to a full set of analytics, which details metrics on delegate interaction throughout the system, including touchpoint engagement, download history, dwell time as well as key lead details.

PM: Well, others are going the virtual route, too. ‘Copycat’ is a word that has been bandied about, most notably with what TRB have launched. Any neutral observer would look at some of their text and it seems to echo yours. It’s not terribly surprising because what other options do they and others have but to ‘adapt and survive’. This could be a meal ticket for them, too, and I have a certain sympathy with that. I am not sure whether being ahead of you may give them some advantage. But traction will be difficult, there’s only so much in the pot to be shared. Any comments you want to share?

MM: I don’t blame anyone for trying to survive in this crisis. The loss of the trade shows this year will have hurt their business badly, as it has ours. So they’re trying something. I’ve no problem with that. Like everyone, we have no divine right of ownership. I assume some cheap criticism in their literature, referring to ‘gimmicks’, extortionate costs’, and ‘computer game style virtual world’, is aimed at us, but it really couldn’t be wider of the mark. We are not in the business of extortion, and that’s not only an insult to me but to our brand partners’ intelligence and choice of investment!
On the timing of the Virtual Travel Retail Expo, we consulted with major industry stakeholders. There was unanimous feeling that an event later than our original dates of 7-11 September – avoiding important Chinese and Jewish holidays in September and early October and giving more time for the industry to get back on track – had significant merit. So we changed to a ‘live’ event of 12 – 16 October with a 30-day follow up access. We’re not focused on being chronologically first – although we pioneered this concept first. Instead, our relentless focus is on being the best and adding the most value. Same principles as our media and they’ve served us pretty well.

PM: OK. The Virtual Expos represent exceptional, entrepreneurial projects. But as you’ve covered, they number more than one. Two questions arise here. Are you morphing the company into a different organisation – effectively creating a full-on, new media enterprise that clearly steps outside the traditional parameters of trade media (as you are thought of now, even though you don’t like this). This is because the Virtual Expos are a direct move into consumer space, too. And, secondly, do you see the Virtual Expo route as a replacement for print publishing down the line or complementary?

MM: I am used to asking the tough questions, not answering them, Peter! You’re doing a very good job with TRunblocked.com in challenging the status quo and poking at a few sacred cows, so you know better than most the need for organisations and institutions to evolve. Disruptor (positive) or disruptee? I know which I’d rather be.
So, yes, I am morphing the company into a different organisation. In fact, we’ve created one – the Moodie Davitt Virtual Expo Company. Not only is it our first move outside travel retail but, as you note, many of its events will serve the consumer – not simply the trade. And that really excites me.
Our expos will complement not replace our publishing. I noticed you emphasised print. We see our future in both virtual and physical events – remember we expect to come roaring back in 2021 with the Trinity Forum, along with our great partners ACI and ACI Asia-Pacific, as well as our very successful FAB Conference & Awards – and digital publishing. Print? As we’ve told our partners, we’re not printing magazines during the crisis. Do you really want to open a magazine from a wrapper that been through goodness knows how many hands and has caused its own carbon footprint? We offer local print on demand services with no carbon footprint for those who like print. We’ll review the position once the crisis is over but we believe the future of publishing is largely digital.

The Trinity Forum is the world’s leading airport commercial revenue conference

PM: So what will you do if this doesn’t all work out? What’s the backstop position?

MM: There is always my garden shed where I started what was then The Moodie Report in 2002, Peter. But seriously, I don’t think about backstops, I only think about going forward. I have a zillion ideas a week, most of them a bit crazy. But some stick. And I am surrounded by great people like Dermot Davitt, my business partner since 2015, who keeps the ship steady and me on track, and Matt Willey, our Chief Technology Officer, who gets my vision, adds plenty to it and makes it all work. Like I said Peter, I’m 64. I got there way earlier than The Beatles song in losing my hair. I’ve beaten stomach cancer in 2010, a near fatal heart attack in 2015, a prolonged period with the ‘black dog’ of depression and I’m ‘still vertical’ in the words of the lovely Richard Ashworth (ex-Camus), rest his soul. With the hair gone, what else is there to lose?
And I’ve got other plans. I’m working on a social project about the Children of 2020; I’ve penned one yet-to-be published biography of a leading industry player with another one in the pipeline: I’ve got a lovely wife, four great children, and I will be a grandfather at last sometime in the coming month. They’re the front stop! ‘Ooooh, what a lucky man he was’, as Emerson Lake and Palmer sang. And that reference probably shows my age!
PM: Any final thoughts you want to leave with our audience?
MM: Yes, I’m so sad about what’s happened to our industry over the past few months. I know so many good people who are out of work, so many good companies that have been imperilled and some that simply won’t make it.
But I also know that people will travel again and in great numbers. Back in late 2010, early 2011, when the nausea from my chemo post my stomach removal surgery kept me awake night and day and I was down to 50kg, I used to tell myself over and over again: ‘all things will pass’. And they will. I remember having to do my work standing up because I was too weak and it was simply too painful to sit down. Standing up for my Christmas dinner with my kids because I couldn’t sit. Going into a trauma (they have an unpleasant name for it called ‘dumping syndrome’) after each and every meal as my body adapted to having no stomach. For once in my life I used to dread big stories breaking as the concentration was so difficult to muster amid the chemo fog and nausea. I used to almost spit out every word on my laptop. One word, then the next; reading out loud to keep me on track. Write short. Make. Every. Word. Count. All things, will pass, Peter. All things will pass.
The human desire to travel, to explore, to encounter and embrace foreign cultures, to let the spirit soar with the liberty and joy of discovering or revisiting far-off places, has not been dampened by this crisis. It has been enhanced. Look at the surging viewing figures for travel and cooking programmes during the various lockdowns. I actually foresee a new golden age of travel. If people feel safe – about their route and method of transport (from airport to airlines to cruise liner) – and if or when they can afford to travel, then they will. I cannot wait to get back on a plane, to travel to my favourite Greek island, Symi, or my homeland of New Zealand, or my wife’s city of Busan, South Korea; to my second base in Hong Kong; or to see my many friends in Doha, Beijing, Seoul, Dubai, heck, everywhere. I cannot wait to go through security check-in. I might just burst out singing while they pat me down. Just get me on a plane!

Peter Marshall

Founder: trunblocked.com/Marshall Arts

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