Templemere PR’s Clare Williams Fannin takes a look at what airports can do to respond to changing passenger demands for retail, F&B and lounge services across their terminals.
Non-aeronautical revenues have long been an important line in the airport budget. Closed shops and empty restaurants are clearly not good news for any airport operator.
But as we dare to hope for recovery, there are perhaps some upsides and learnings to be had from what is undoubtedly the worst ever crisis to hit the travel sector.
As passenger numbers plummeted, airport retailers reported catastrophic falls in sales. There’s little doubt that retailers are having to up their game to survive let alone thrive, and the crisis has accelerated the pace of change when it comes to meeting the expectations of the airport shopper.
Alain Maingreaud, president of duty free and travel retail trade association, TFWA, explains: “For some time now, the airport retailer has had to compete on more than price. The ease with which prices can be checked online means that customers will know exactly when they are getting a bargain and when they are not.
“The COVID-19 crisis has meant that consumers are now even more comfortable in an online world. There are even more online shopping services, and consumers have become more willing, and more able, to use these services.
“Now retailers will have to provide something even more special if they are to compete – be that outstanding service, a spectacular environment or exclusive products that aren’t available on the high street.”
Maingreaud believes that convenience has also become an even higher priority for the airport shopper. He says: “Since the beginning of the COVID-19 lockdowns, the ability to browse online and the option to have shopping delivered where you want it, when you want it, is now expected as standard.
“Airport shoppers want a service that blends the best of online with a great retail experience, along with the choice of having
their purchases sent to their gate, their destination airport or even their home.”
There’s also been dramatic shifts in what passengers want from food and beverage at the airport. Jeremy Fennell, CEO Nordics at F&B operator, SSP, notes: “Customers have been buying more food to go, either to eat in the terminals or to take onboard, where in many cases the inflight food service has been reduced or removed.”
With fewer passengers passing through the terminals, many airports have reduced the number of outlets that are open, and operators such as SSP put measures in place to help speed of service and maintain efficiency, for example, by condensing menus.
This, according to Fennell, isn’t necessarily a bad thing as he believes that the crisis could give the industry a chance to build and improve the way it operates.
“Airports want to include a large range in their F&B offer, but with passenger numbers at such a low, restaurant operations have had to be rationalised and reduced.
“Passengers don’t want to dwell for long in airport restaurants, especially under the present circumstances. Clearly defined, well recognised offers with simple, shorter menus, including all the best-sellers, have been well received by our customers.”
Like Maingreaud, Fennell believes that the crisis has added more urgency to changes that were already planned.
“We’ve been introducing order at table technology. But COVID has meant we’re now rolling it out at a much faster pace,” he comments.
Jeff Livney, chief experience officer at airport e-commerce platform Grab, which provides this technology to SSP among others, says the crisis means that contactless ordering and payment has moved on from being a nice-to-have.
“Before COVID-19, this technology was seen as an option that provided convenience and speed for the time-pressed traveller,” says Livney. “Now, however, the demand for these services is clearly driven much more by the greater need for safe ways for staff and customers to interact.”
Grab services such as Order @ Table can be created in the airport’s own livery, as they have been at London Luton Airport where they have been branded as part of the airport’s LLA Marketplace.
They can also be incorporated into an airport’s own digital marketplace strategy, as they have been at Los Angeles, where online F&B ordering is part of the airport’s LAXOrderNow.com offer.
Online ordering, supplemented with delivery services, means food can be delivered anywhere in the airport. At Philadelphia International Airport, for example, Grab has joined forces with in-airport delivery service AtYourGate to provide a service which allows passengers to order food and have it delivered on the go.
“This has the double advantage of allowing more customers to be served in the safe environments they look for, while making it easier to provide for social distancing within the restaurant itself,” says Livney.
Technology can’t however replace good service. “We’ve always maintained that technology should be used to enhance the hospitality experience, not replace it,” continues Livney.
“This is certainly still the case, and facilities such as our Order @ Table, free staff to focus on welcoming customers and the other elements that make for great service.”
Exemplary service is very much expected as standard in the lounge sector, and here too, the crisis has also prompted an increase in demand for ‘contactless’ ways of providing it.
Errol McGlothan, managing director of lounge and experience operator Airport Dimensions, says that in addition to the compulsory measures required by legislation, his guests are definitely looking for contact-free options for how they are welcomed, or for how they spend their time in the lounge.
Yet again, rather than resulting in a downgrade of the experience, the crisis has given McGlothan and his team a window to think about new ways to provide an even better service.
“We communicate with our guests online to help prepare them for their visit and they can check-in to our lounges using contactless technology,” says McGlothan.
“We also offer digital media, rather than printed newspapers and magazines, which means that guests now have an even greater choice of reading materials. We’re also trialling a digital at-table ordering system called Ready 2 Order, (from Grab and Collinson), which means customers don’t have to move around the lounge and have more time to relax.
“Across our lounges, our guests have been enjoying table service rather than buffets, and customer ratings have been the highest we’ve seen.”
As a result, he notes that some of the changes that were made in response to very specific circumstances may well, therefore, become permanent.
“We’ve seen the impact of table service on the overall guest experience and perceived value, for example, and this is something to review for the future, alongside technology support to streamline our overall offer,” admits McGlothan.
Our industry has a long way to go before we can say we’re out of the woods. But with a little imaginative thinking, we might be able to offer passengers an even better experience, and emerge a stronger, more resilient and more profitable business.