Running the UAE’s biggest market during a global pandemic

Lachlan Gyde on keeping The Waterfront Market ahead of the curve
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The Waterfront Market in Dubai
The Waterfront Market in Dubai

Almost twenty years ago, I witnessed how SARS affected Singapore and how quick action helped to stem the spread when I was working as vice president retail at Capital Land. At the beginning of this year, I watched anxiously as Covid-19 emerged, and began to think about how we could prepare here in the Middle East in case the disease spread globally.

At Ithra, our quick response to the pandemic across the entire business, and especially at the Waterfront Market, enabled us to re-open sooner rather than later. Even before the UAE’s lockdown was announced, we began to stock up on the essential safety equipment and started to adjust our operating policies. As a result of this, the Waterfront Market was probably one of the first public venues to buy thermal cameras and stock up on PPE to protect its staff and customers.

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The Waterfront Market has always been an essential service to the food industry in the UAE. On an average day we offer our consumers approximately 465 tons of imported and local food items including; 250 tons of fish, 200 tons of fruits, vegetables, and dates, and 15 tons of meat. At our daily auctions 60% of seafood is purchased by restaurants, hotels, supermarkets and food exporters in the UAE exporting to KSA, Oman and Egypt and 40% is purchased by the Waterfront Market tenants for retail sale in the fish market. Offering the freshest seafood and fish in Dubai at the most competitive prices, the fish market attracts renowned names from the hospitality and food and beverage industries, such as Lulu Hypermarkets and Al Madina Hypermarkets, hotels such as Radisson Blu and Atlantis, and even Emirates airlines. Aside from our food offering, it is also a place where the local community comes together to connect and touch base. We are basically a huge family that serves the community.

When we closed due to the lockdown, it quickly became apparent that there was the potential for a shortage of fish across the UAE. We were inundated with calls and enquiries, asking when normal service would resume. So, we took the initiative to speak to the key government authorities and proposed a variety of proactive hygiene measures in order to create a safe shopping environment for everyone. This included; a dedicated team assigned to implement a 24-hour cleaning programme, thermal cameras installed at all entrances to monitor staff and customer’s temperatures, numerous fixed hand sanitizer units at multiple locations, stickers indicating the correct amount of space for physical distancing, additional security personnel and compulsory masks and gloves for all customers and staff. Since re-opening we have over 30 members of Ithra Dubai’s Management team volunteering to help each weekend with the smooth operation of the market, in light of these new measures.

Our precautionary measures worked very well and we re-opened the market after only 10 days of being closed. We had to quickly retrain all of the Waterfront Market’s staff and tenants to comply with the new measures. Creating a safe space to shop for good quality fresh food was our main priority, and we needed the co-operation from everyone to make it work. Our tenants and stallholders have been fantastic and as a result, the community reaction has been extremely positive. We have seen our old clientele return each week, as well as a new wave of customers that have discovered that WFM offers fresh produce that is value for money, and they feel safe knowing they can purchase their produce direct from the source in modern, clean and controlled surroundings.

The past few months have been a serious learning curve for everyone at the Waterfront Market.  We have worked closely with our vendors to ensure they adhere to the re-opening rules and practice social distancing, we’ve listened to what our customers need and feel, and we’ve focused on staff and customer safety, as well as continuing to offer the best quality fresh food at value prices. This has spread through word of mouth as we are seeing people coming to visit the market for the first time and I’m cautiously optimistic for the future.

We have exciting plans to introduce new entertainment zones and play areas for our younger visitors to WFM, as well as expanding our event calendar to further connect with our community, but we have had to put everything on pause due to Covid-19. Once the restrictions ease sufficiently, we will revisit these plans and look forward to welcoming back all ages of our community. In the meantime, we will continue to support our tenants and customers, and ensure that the UAE’s restaurants continue to receive their fresh produce as they begin to reopen and get back on their feet. We are hopeful that our thriving market and Dubai’s retail and food and beverage sector will be back to normal very soon.

by Lachlan Gyde, executive director, asset management, ITHRA Dubai

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