May 21 2024  |  Retailers

QDF’s Thabet Musleh speaks on customer-service focus, trendsetting & everyday luxury

By Wendy Morley

Pictured here with GTR Magazine's Editorial Director, Wendy Morley, QDF Senior Vice President Thabet Musleh pushes his team to be the best, a strategy that has once again awarded HIA the prestigious accolade of “World's Best Airport Shopping” in the Skytrax World Airport Awards 2024. “The Skytrax award is really special to us because it’s voted by the customers,” he says. “This is not a panel of people deciding you’re the best. This is your customers giving their say.”

In an ambitious fusion of wellness, travel and luxury, Dior has unveiled its first-ever airport spa at Hamad International Airport in Doha, marking a significant milestone in the evolution of airport amenities. The Dior Luxury Beauty Retreat, inaugurated on May 7, 2024 with a grand ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Thabet Musleh, Senior Vice President of Qatar Duty Free, and Véronique Courtois, CEO of Parfums Christian Dior, represents a groundbreaking step in redefining the travel experience.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony featuring Thabet Musleh, Senior Vice President of Qatar Duty Free, and Véronique Courtois, CEO of Parfums Christian Dior

The Dior Luxury Beauty Retreat is just one example showcasing Musleh’s transformative vision of making luxury an everyday reality for travelers. “Luxury brands are now lifestyle,” Musleh says, adding that this is a far cry from the past, when products like a bottle of Dior fragrance were aspirational, typically reserved for special occasions like Christmas gifts.

Creating the customer experience

Given that Hamad International has an exceptionally high number of male travelers, Musleh and Dior created the unique barber shop experience on offer at the new spa. “We have 71% male traffic going through the airport, a high number of which is business traffic,” says Musleh. “One of the services we were missing in this airport was a barber.” That this thinking resulted in the creation of the barbershop demonstrates that Qatar Duty Free (QDF) offerings are not just luxurious, but also practical and relevant.

This exclusive spa is designed not just as a service but as an integral part of the traveler’s journey, blending high-end luxury with the practicality of travel needs. Situated near ORCHARD, the airport’s indoor tropical garden, the spa extends an invitation to indulgence in an otherwise bustling environment. Offering a range of treatments including the signature two-hour “Escale à Doha,” the spa caters to a diverse clientele, ensuring a personalized experience of relaxation and rejuvenation

The broader vision behind these innovations is to transform the airport into a lifestyle hub rather than just a travel stop, according to Musleh, “When you’re creating a concept like this, it allows you to say okay, we need this, we need that, you put a business case together and, as the French would say, voilà!”

This approach is not just about filling gaps; it’s about crafting an experience so cohesive and integrated that it transcends the traditional airport vibe. Indeed, it’s easy to forget you’re in an airport at HIA, especially within ORCHARD.

Hamad International does not feel like an airport, especially in ORCHARD, an area that exudes relaxation

“And that doesn’t come easy,” Musleh responds to this observation. “That’s a lot of hard work from a lot of people with a lot of functions. The credit is not to me; the credit is to my team.” This humble acknowledgment highlights a leadership style that values collaboration and collective achievement.

Expansion, strategy and service

While HIA has undergone significant growth since opening to passengers in 2014 and especially since preparations began for Qatar’s hosting of the FIFA World Cup in 2022, the airport – and QDF alongside – remains set for significant expansion, with plans that promise to elevate both the airport’s capacity and its customer experience. Current airport capacity is 50 million, and by end of 2025 it will be 60 to 70 million, according to Musleh. This planned growth includes strategic enhancement of the airport’s infrastructure that supports the increasing passenger numbers while committing to maintain the high-quality standards QDF is known for.

“Customer service is part of our DNA. It’s what we do. Everything we do is linked back to customer service and as long as we don’t change our DNA we will deliver that,” Musleh explains. “We don’t go for volume. We’re not the biggest, we won’t ever be the biggest and we don’t want to be the biggest. We want to be the best,” he asserts, adding that this comes from prioritizing quality in every facet, from staff training to customer interactions.

Among other recent openings is the first permanent Lacoste shop in HIA, which opened in April, offering men’s, women’s and kids’ clothing and accessories

Customer feedback is a pivotal element in shaping the services at Qatar Duty Free, playing a crucial role in the organization’s continuous improvement and adaptation to evolving market demands. Musleh emphasizes the significance of staying connected with customers through various feedback mechanisms. “We constantly have surveys. We do a lot of surveys at the airport and also pre- and post-travel, so we know what people want,” he shares.

Proactive team management, innovation and customer feedback join exemplary customer service as the recipe for success, with traditional “sales” showing no appearance on the list. “We want people to leave here blown away by the service,” he says. “Even if they don’t buy anything. For me, if you don’t buy anything if you go into my shop, it’s because we don’t have what you want. That’s my fault, not your fault.”

When a client is welcomed into the Dior Spa waiting lounge, he or she is treated with the utmost sense of luxury and care, and is offered a signature drink such as the delicious grapefruit caviar "shot" 

Musleh does not want his customers to experience any hard selling. If his team somehow missed the mark with their offer, he wants the customer to still feel content to come back. “As a shopper, there is no worse feeling than if you get home and look in your bag and think, ‘Why did I buy that? Why did I let him convince me to buy that?’” he says. “That’s not what we’re about. We want to deliver quality and not quantity.”

Setting trends

Not only is Qatar Duty Free is in constant communication with its customers, before, during and after travel, but it stays ahead of trends. “My team – we have our ear to the ground,” he says. “We can see trends happening outside before anyone else. And we know our customer profile. We know what our customer wants and what will work well in an airport.”

The direct impact of this proactive approach is the continuous improvement and innovation at QDF. “We see trends early and we pick them up, and that’s what makes us different from everybody else,” Musleh adds.

A lovely and ethereal harpist welcomed visitors to the Dior Luxury Beauty Retreat opening

Qatar Duty Free is not just becoming a trendsetter in discovering and offering what travelers want, Musleh believes it’s already there. “We don’t follow anyone. It’s nice when other airports follow our lead, but it’s not about that. It’s about what the industry wants. And if my team at QDF can set the standard, then I’m super happy about what the team will deliver. And I think they have – from a retail point of view, from an F&B point of view, from a service point of view, I think my team has done a great job and I’m very lucky,” he continues.

Transforming airport dynamics

Musleh’s customer service mentality effortlessly aligns with the dynamic joint environment of Qatar Airways, Hamad International and QDF. “When you have a customer service mentality and a customer service culture, it’s super easy to do what we do,” he says, explaining that traditional business models, driven by maximum annual guarantees (MAGs) and tight margin negotiations, restrict innovation. Musleh emphasizes the need for flexibility to take risks. “When you’re driven by MAGs, when you’re driven by percentage rents, when you’re driven by margin negotiations, it’s very difficult to do what you need to do,” he says.

He believes firmly in the success of projects that are truly customer-centric, even in the face of potential financial risks. “If you’re doing something and you want to deliver to the customer and you really, truly believe in it, it will work.”

Musleh is committed to maintaining a significant lead over competitors, pushing his team toward continuous improvement and innovation. “I keep pushing my team. I have a great team but I’m a tough boss. The gap between us and our competitor needs to be so big that no one can catch us,” he states confidently. His approach combines rigorous leadership with a clear vision for the future. He acknowledges with a humorous twinkle in his eye that there is still much work to be done. “No, we’re not there yet. They need to push harder,” he says, only half joking.

Anticipating the future, Musleh hints at several projects in the pipeline that promise to propel QDF forward. “Oh, there’ll be more coming. We’ve got two or three more things this year and next year we’ve got three or four in the pipeline so … it’s coming.” His strategy revolves around evolving QDF around customer needs, a philosophy that ensures continued success and innovation. “The key to a successful business is evolving around your customer needs. That’s what we do.”

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