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Airport hospitality: Click and go!


Clare Williams Fannin of Templemere PR explores how innovative tech is transforming the airport passenger experience.

By definition, airports are tech-forward spaces. But technology shouldn’t only be reserved for the complex processes of managing flights. It also has a role to play in helping to deliver the best possible experience to passengers.

Mark Smith, chief digital and technology officer, at food and beverage operator, SSP, says that airport passengers are happy to engage with technology when it makes the experience more efficient, but can be frustrated if the technology is too complicated or doesn’t work.

“We know that peoples’ stress levels can often be heightened at airports, which is why tech needs to do what it promises, and providing things like charging points and good quality Wi-Fi are basic hygiene factors that the customer now expects,” he notes.

Using technology to give passengers information that puts them in control of the time they spend in the terminal is important, according to Smith, and SSP is introducing a number of initiatives, such as screens displaying current kitchen wait times on orders, which give customers the comfort of knowing how long they will need to wait for their food.

The need for speed and convenience at the airport means it’s an environment that is particularly suited to self-service propositions. These have now been elevated to new levels of sophistication. SSP, for example, plans to open a number of convenience stores that operate completely autonomously.

Shoppers simply scan a credit card to enter the store, take what they want, walk out and their card is charged accordingly. Similarly, refined vending options can provide solutions in areas of the airport where there is not enough passenger traffic to run a manned store 100% of the time.

Encouraging pre-ordering has long been a priority for SSP, but new technologies are making this a much more viable option. “‘Hot hold fridges’ are now available that can keep hot food fresh for a longer period of time, so collecting food for your flight at a gate is now a possibility,” says Smith.

“The acceptance of services such as Deliveroo and Just Eat on the high street means these options are likely to be similarly well received compared to just a few short years ago.”

Smith cautions that we need to be mindful that technologies that appear to be outlandish now may well be welcomed sooner than we think, particularly as Gen Z becomes an ever-larger percentage of our customer base.

“Only a few short months ago, very few people had heard of ChatGPT. Now, however, there will be no Gen Z who haven’t at least played with the artificial intelligence chatbot,” he comments.

“We mustn’t underestimate our passengers’ appetite to use and enjoy technology. When we introduced our service robots at Belfast Airport last October, for example, we knew they would improve efficiency and free staff to focus on serving customers, but we thought passengers might be put off by them.

“And so, we had the robots deliver to a central point in the restaurant for waiting staff to carry the plates to the customer. But the feedback we had was that customers really loved the robots and actually wanted them to bring their food to their table.”

The tech-enabled lounge

There is plenty of scope for technology and AI to improve the lounge space, too. With demand currently high for lounge facilities and more passengers happy to pay for access, lounge operator, Airport Dimensions, is now using technology to monitor and manage entry.

“Passengers can book their lounge visit before they arrive at the airport, and keep tabs on what access is available,” says Tommy Planson, the company’s chief technology officer. “Virtual queueing systems mean that passengers can check in with the lounge, and then enjoy some shopping, for instance, before they return to relax at the lounge.”

Airport Dimensions has also had considerable success with its Connecta In-Lounge Experience platform, which allows guests to access a range of services from their phones. At each location, it can be tailored to offer anything from F&B ordering for delivery to seats, to the option to book services such as showers or business pods, as well as access to a range of online media including newspapers, magazines and podcasts which can be curated for the location of the airport.

The platform has been well received, and the company has seen take up of over 90% where it’s offered.

Planson believes the scope to build on these offers is boundless. He says: “The next stage of digital innovation to improve the guest experience at the airport is to use AI to hyper-personalise the offer we bring to the lounge customers.

“AI can provide broad insight, which allows us to offer menu items or retail opportunities that are perfectly suited to each of our guest’s needs – whether that’s showing them retail offers that perfectly meet their individual travel needs, remembering they are allergic to dairy, or suggesting product combinations that are based on a genuine understanding of who that customer is and what their tastes are.

“This will give us an incredibly sophisticated way of keeping satisfaction high, while also boosting revenue throughvery intelligent upselling.”

While these are strong examples of tech improving the customer experience, again they’re a bi-product of this increased operational efficiency.

Planson adds: “Camera-based AI can be used to make the team’s lives easier by, for example, monitoring how often the bathrooms are used, so staff know when cleaning is required, or sending notifications when food areas need attention, freeing frontline team-members to deliver great service.

“In a similar way to how AI is used in high-street retail, footfall analytics can be used by airport staff to place products and F&B strategically, and reconfigure the lounge space according to day parts that fit the needs of passengers as they flow through the space.

“When this tech is used accurately to keep track of capacity, lounge operators are able to utilise dynamic price imaging depending on how busy the spaces are, ensuring revenue is maximised.”

Digital solutions to a paper problem

One thing that will take the shine off any airport experience, no matter how welcoming the hospitality, is a delayed flight.

But managing that delay as smoothly as possible can help to alleviate some of the pain. And again, technology has a role to play here, according to Richard Bye, CEO of digital vouchering platform, iCoupon.

“Transferring any compensation value digitally to a boarding pass can go a long way towards taking away some of the stress of a delay and improving satisfaction at a difficult point in the journey,” says Bye, noting that there are a number of reasons why this is the case.

“Digital vouchering technology doesn’t ask passengers to adapt their behaviour or learn anything new,” States Bye. “Travellers simply have to show their boarding pass as they will have done many times before.”

Digital vouchering also means passengers don’t have their time at the airport disrupted, and they don’t have to go anywhere else, so they can carry on shopping or enjoying their meal. This convenience for the passenger improves the experience, but it can also be commercially advantageous for the airport.

Bye says: “Digital vouchers are much more likely to end up in the airport’s tills. With no time wasted queuing or navigating complicated e-wallet solutions, passengers have more time, and more inclination to spend their compensation.”

And with only around 35% of paper vouchers redeemed at the airport, this can make a significant difference to revenue, something Bye says ensures “a win-win for both passengers and airports.”

Technology cannot and should not replace old-fashioned hospitality – it should enhance it. It shouldn’t make the passenger’s experience more complex – it should make it less stressful.

If these caveats are heeded – it can make a real difference to how much passengers enjoy their time at the airport.

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