Harnessing the here and now: Tax Free World Association (TFWA) Asia Pacific Conference & Exhibition
This is part of the “Capturing Conversations content programme”, which looks at how effectively senior executives today capture insights from internal and external meetings, and how the meetings space has evolved to facilitate the sharing of knowledge and new ideas.
During international travel, when long security lines, grouchy immigration officers or inexplicable delays threaten to sour one’s mood, there is, in major ports at least, the respite of retail therapy through duty-free shopping. What may seem like a hodgepodge of stores is actually a carefully curated experience, the product of sophisticated dialogue and interactions between port operators, suppliers and designers. Helping coordinate all these stakeholders is the core objective of the Tax Free World Association (TFWA)—the world’s biggest duty-free travel retail association.
Founded in 1984, TFWA is a non-profit organisation with a membership of close to 500 firms representing the world’s most renowned brands and premium goods. Its mission is to foster dialogue within the industry through exhibitions, conferences, workshops and research; strengthen relationships between suppliers and port operators; and represent the interests of the industry at regulatory and other levels.
Duty-free discussions: from Cannes to Singapore
Today one of the association’s biggest events is the annual TFWA Asia Pacific Exhibition & Conference. According to Alain Maingreaud, TFWA’s managing director, this began as a “region-specific version of the highly-successful world exhibition that we’ve organised in Cannes for the past 31 years”.
TFWA’s concerted foray into Asia, with its first exhibition in 1995 in Singapore, was a harbinger of the broader shift in global economic growth from the West to Asia. “In the 1990s, tremendous growth in travel and tourism in Asia was predicted,” says Mr Maingreaud “and this prediction was correct, in spite of various geopolitical factors.”
Aside from a two-year hiatus in the late 1990s when the exhibition moved to Hong Kong, it has been held in Singapore annually ever since. Good connectivity, says Mr Maingreaud, makes Singapore an ideal base for an Asia Pacific-wide event. From 1995 through 2015, the event has roughly doubled in size, with some 2,655 participants comprised of a range of stakeholders from - landlords, retailers, distributors, and agent distributors for airlines and cruise lines, among others attended the most recent edition in May 2015, held at the Marina Bay Sands (MBS), Singapore.
The format of the event, which started out as a pure exhibition, has also evolved considerably. “Today it’s a balance between conference, workshops and exhibitions,” says Mr Maingreaud. “It’s been fine-tuned over the years.”
In 2015, a record 1,260 participants attended the conference and workshops on the first, intense day itself. The programme brought to the fore iconic regional executives to share their views, including keynote addresses by Liew Mun Leong, founding president and CEO of CapitaLand Group, and chairman of the board of directors at Changi Airport Group; and Andrew Wu, LVMH group president, Greater China.
Workshops on a range of critical issues from “Enhancing the customer experience” through omni-channel strategies, to exploring opportunities in Asia’s emerging travel retail markets—were set up to facilitate learning and discussion about best practices among the executives in attendance. With the combination of a conference and workshops, which feature industry barons and external experts, the three-day event is now regarded as a key source of industry knowledge—providing access to research and expertise while promoting the cross-fertilisation of ideas.
First impression is everything
As the name suggests, an integral component of the TFWA’s APAC Exhibition & Conference is the exhibition space itself. In 2015, roughly 300 exhibitors presented, and formed a good mix of “prestigious international brands, emerging brands, and some local Asia-Pacific companies”, said Mr Maingreaud.
With the unrelenting competition in the region, the exhibition serves as a launch pad for brands to attract buyers, which explains the immense investment made by exhibitors in their display, fittings, presentation and product packaging.
Elegant, chic tasting rooms by the likes of Godiva and Pernod Ricard provided a fitting contrast to the multi-coloured frenzies at the M&M and Skittles booths. Exhibition attendees were able to take a mid-day break at the in-hall sushi bar and then mingle at day’s end in the gorgeous TFWA Asia Pacific Bar, set up at one end of the tradeshow floor and offering wide, majestic views of the Marina Barrage and Singapore skyline.
Even with the most attractive exhibition stand, it can be difficult meeting a desired contact. To lubricate industry relationships further, in 2007 TFWA introduced a ONE2ONE meeting service that connects retailers, brands and other suppliers directly to senior executives from airports, airlines and cruise lines.
“This industry is based on relationships. It’s difficult for a new brand or exhibitor to enter this business if they don’t have the connection,” says Mr Maingreaud. “We set up a specific lounge where we can organise meetings to give an opportunity to all the stakeholders to meet each other.” In 2015 TFWA arranged a total of 330 ONE2ONE meetings.
Participants can also network at one of the many social events. In 2015 TFWA was able to plan a wonderful array of activities in Singapore, including a golf tournament at the Laguna National Golf & Country Club, a sprawling course on Singapore’s East Coast; a cocktail session and buffet at the iconic Raffles Hotel, a beacon of British colonial architecture; a chill-out party by the Mandarin Oriental’s rooftop pool; and a “Singapore Swing Party” utilising the amusement rides at Universal Studios and also featuring an incredible meal by Justin Quek, one of Singapore’s finest chefs.
In particular, Singapore’s ethnic and cultural diversity is cherished by TFWA and the event participants, says Mr Maingreaud, partly because it provides the base for unique cultural activities, such as the dawn tai chi session held on the roof of the MBS, the event venue, in 2015. That the varied peoples of Singapore use English as a lingua franca is, for Mr. Maingreaud, a boon, as it helps smooth communications and operations.
Digitising the experience
Even as it promotes face-to-face interactions between participants, TFWA has been investing heavily in online, technological advances to enrich the overall event experience. For instance, its glossy, functional website not only provides clear information about upcoming events months in advance, but also offers succinct yet stimulating reviews of past events, including video footage of speeches. Its conference and exhibition web app, optimised for every major mobile operating system, is a one-stop portal for event calendar, floor plans, exhibitor details and news updates.
In 20 years of organising its Asia Pacific Exhibition & Conference, TFWA has only once encountered a notable challenge. In 2013, just three months before the event, its venue partner had to undertake sudden renovations—it informed TFWA that the event would have to find a new venue. TFWA was understandably anxious, given the logistical complexity of moving such a massive event.
But the shift, ultimately, was effortless. MBS entered the fray and, along with TFWA’s other logistical partners in Singapore, did such a good job that the event has been held there ever since.
“Within three months we had to redo everything from scratch,” says Mr Maingreaud. “It worked incredibly well, and I think it’s thanks to the relationship we have with all our members and visitors but also with our partners in Singapore.”
TFWA’s experience is proof that even as Singapore has become more cosmopolitan, more fun, and its people more adventurous, the country has not lost any of its trademark stability and efficiency. This combination of qualities means that event organisers here can both revel in life’s delights while maintaining peace of mind.