Dubai Duty Free: marking the 30 year leap from $20 million to $1.8 billion

Published December 18th, 2013 - 09:34 GMT
Dubai Duty Free began operations in 1983. (Image credit: Nadezhda1906 /
Dubai Duty Free began operations in 1983. (Image credit: Nadezhda1906 /

In December 2013, Dubai Duty Free (DDF) celebrates its 30th anniversary and marks the year with record sales of $1.8 billion compared with $20 million in year one. This turnover places DDF in a prime position in the world in this category. Undoubtedly, the secret of DDF’s success is its commitment to quality, leadership, technology and innovation not forgetting customer satisfaction.

The story behind this success started early in 1983 with an advertisement for an airport fire-tender placed on the instructions of the then Director General of Dubai’s Department of Civil Aviation (DCA), Mohi-Din Binhendi and was spotted by Michael Geoghagan, Manager of Irish airports operator Aer Rianta, who was returning home via Dubai from a business trip to the Far East.

A happy shopper at Dubai Duty Free

Geoghagan left a collection of Aer Rianta brochures with the airport Operations Manager Norman Turnbull and these were passed on to the director general whose attention was switched from fire-tenders to the fact that Aer Rianta ran duty free operations at Shannon airport. Subsequently, Aer Rianta won a six-month contract to get DDF running with an initial funding of Dh3 million.
A 10-man team from Aer Rianta arrived in the emirates. Colm McLoughlin, the Executive Vice Chairman, Dubai Duty Free, and George Horan, President, Dubai Duty Free, chose to stay on in Dubai even after the end of the contract.

The team came here from the Irish Airport for a six-month project in 1983 to work for DCA and set up Dubai Duty Free. Staff had to be recruited. The merchandise and the systems had to be put in place according to an article in Khaleej Times.

Though the initial years saw a lot of challenges, the DDF management and marketing staff continued to spread the word about DDF by taking part in industry fairs and conferences at venues around the world. In less than two years, DDF won its first laurels and shortly after was labelled as the leader of the duty free revolution in the Middle East and a shining star in the industry. Without the support of the Government of Dubai and Shaikh Ahmed bin Saeed Al Maktoum, President of Dubai Civil Aviation Authority and Chairman of Dubai Duty Free, this growth would not have been possible. The concerted effort and hard work of every member of the DDF staff has ensured the facility’s ongoing success.

DDF’s first award was in October 1985. It was the beginning of the Duty Free Oscars called the Frontier Marketing Awards, which DDF received at the very start, just 18 months in operation. DDF was voted “Airport Retailer of the Year”. DDF won several awards since then, some a number of times, now totaling around 300.

“When I first came here I knew nothing about the city. When we, my wife and I, first went to Cannes, which was where the Duty Free exhibition was held in Europe every year, representing DDF in 1984, many people we met, mainly suppliers, did not know where Dubai was. Some of them thought that it was vaguely near Saudi Arabia. I remember meeting an English lady who thought that it was near Louisiana. Slowly, with all the marketing that has been going on in Dubai with tennis, horse racing and golf, this trend has changed and there is a big influx of tourists,” remembers McLoughlin. 

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