On 03 Feb. 2009, when Delhi International Airport Limited (DIAL) unveiled its ambitious commercial plans for its much-awaited upcoming integrated Third Terminal in 2010 (popularly known as “T3”), almost everyone who is anyone in the Travel Retail Industry was present. The company named the retail space as “Skyline Avenue – Destination You”, a first in Indian Travel Retail history. Not many airports worldwide actually believe in creating a separate identity to its commercial offering, but the team at DIAL went ahead with such an arduous task. While the overall proposal covering 20,000 sqm of Travel Retail space was welcomed by the Industry, it came with some surprises: that the participating operators must be willing to form a 49% joint-venture with DIAL to operate the business was just one. While such a decision was probably logical, given the fact that a huge investment is already being made by the Airport Operator, very few (Retail/F&B operators) apparently were enthusiastic in sharing the Board Room with an Airport Operator. Although there are very few such examples worldwide, both models have their own pros and cons. With stringent FDI guidelines (in Indian Retail) and the operator already having to manage the issues with forming such a JV, it was an exciting story in the making. And it ended up with more surprises. To begin with, The Nuance Group (with two Airports in its kitty at the moment at Blr & Hyd) not participating in the Tender process, HMSHost (with three Airports at Blr, Hyd and Bom) aggressively pursuing more ground and a few new Domestic and International names, from India and abroad, the finish was rather a nail-biting one.
The Retail Tender was won by Aer Rianta International (ARI) in a JV this time with IDFS, a popular Indian company in the Duty Free business (their earlier JV with Flemingo was short-lived) and the F&B Tender was won (in four different packages) by SSP International (two packages), Devyani Group, and Travel Food Services (one package each).
That The Nuance Group did not bid and HMSHost did not win in Delhi makes it worth a case to analyse. So, what does it mean to the nascent Indian Travel Retail Industry? Firstly, the estimated INR 200 Crore (~USD 45 million) Indian Duty Free business gets quite well fragmented; with Flemingo and ITDC holding more contracts than any other operator, it leaves with just two contracts for Nuance and one for ARI. Currently, the Top six Airports (DEL, MUM, BLR, HYD, MAS, and CCU) would probably have over 50% market share by value and the rest is distributed within the other Airports.
If there is anyone who’s probably going to have the best of times, it’s the one who feeds us everyday – The Customer. With more choices and competitive pricing across key International Airports, it would be worth seeing which Airport this “passenger” chooses to travel from. Doesn’t look like a reality in the short-run by a few of my sceptical colleagues in the Industry, but sooner than later, I am confident that this will happen. The next best one to get benefitted (from such an industry fragmentation) is the Supplier. Over the past few decades, not more than half a dozen suppliers (including leading Brands) were providing goods to the erstwhile Duty Free Operators. This has changed quite a lot over the past five years which has already seen three new International operators. While their pedigree certainly helps in getting better margins, the power of consolidation (some call it monopoly, hic!) fizzles out. Each airport is located in a peculiar zone such that what sells the most in one may not even find a significant place in others. So, there is a lot of work to do by the Suppliers and Retailers to ensure that the right product at the right price at the right time is going to be available. Looks easier said than done, as understanding the ever-changing needs of the constantly evolving Customers through research and other methodologies is not just an expensive affair, but also a time-staking exercise.
And the other member of the Trinity, the Airport(s) would actually find the going just fine, may or may not be too turbulent but certainly not a great time, given the reduction in number of passengers that provides them their direct income and dwindling overall passenger (commercial) spends. With the six major Airports actively competing among themselves and with others in the region, to lure the passengers to pass through their airports with better connections and then make them spend as much at their respective locations with better layouts and enhanced facilities, this is one unique competition that’s worth following. And the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation’s plans to modernise over two dozen Airports in the next few years is another opportunity (or rather a new competition that's brewing).
Everyone knows that Competition alone does not mean competitive prices (for customers). In that case, every operator in India would look at maximising their returns as the number of touch-points (Read: Airports) is just a handful and short term and more Operators waiting in the fray to enter the country, not to forget that passengers may not be spending more in the coming years although the total number of passengers is expected to increase significantly. So, it may not be just possible to offer best prices all the while. While it is difficult to say what a fragmented market means to the stakeholders, it certainly does not provide a comfort factor for those who prefer to operate in a silo. A quick comparison at neighbouring airports is interesting. At Dubai, the single Operator is Govt. owned and hence no question of direct competition expect for, from the Middle Eastern region; Ditto in Bahrain and Kuala Lumpur. At Bangkok, notwithstanding all the controversies over the past two years, it is still a single operator. At Hong Kong and Singapore, the two Big Operators (one in L&T and one for P&C) have gained considerable ground over the years. Heathrow and Frankfurt have strong operators for quite long. The above mentioned airports cover more than 70% of inbound and outbound traffic from India. But one must note that the prices at these airports have always been competitive (for some reason, I hate to use the word “Cheaper”).
In F&B, while world leader HMSHost has brought certain standards at key Indian Airports, they have also showed that it is certainly possible to ensure passengers are spending quite well, as long as they see “Value” in what is offered. With innovative concepts (not necessarily established QSR names) and Five Star services at affordable prices, the “spend” per passenger across their various outlets have been healthy and growing consistently. While newer operators (in Travel Retail) are still honing their skills, it would be sometime till they can catch up with the more established ones (like HMS). But the race is a long drawn one, with millions of passengers to be fed every year! Hopefully, more the merrier, atleast in this case!
So, will more Competition bring better Prices for Indian Customers? Too early to say; but, will the existing Operators try to increase or consolidate their presence? Certainly! For their own benefit. The Indian Travel Retail Business is not just too big a promise but a sure-shot opportunity over the next decade. With the present 110 million passengers expected to double within the next ten years, this is one market that cannot be missed – for those within and for those outside, watching with keen interest.