Mei Mei Song, Brand and Product Transformation Director of Plaza Premium Group, shares insights into the future of airport hospitality and how the Group is re-engineering experiences for global travellers.
With the spread of coronavirus across the globe, air travellers are more cautious than ever. Hygiene and safety protocols have been taken to new heights and it is vital for airport hospitality providers to offer a worry-free environment and to provide services and facilities attuned to this ‘new normal’ to help rebuild confidence for air travel.
The last time I saw such a pivot in the travel industry was after 9/11, when tighter airport security became the new normal, but the fall out from 9/11 will pale in comparison to how COVID-19 will alter the airport experience. The global pandemic has drastically impacted travel as a whole, from travel demand, and customer expectation and behaviour, to the general business of travel. In preparing for what is to come, we [Plaza Premium Group] quickly grouped together with our industry partners to establish a clear picture of what the future of travel will look like.
The Outlook of the Travel Industry Post-Pandemic
It is important for all of us in the industry to work together to rebuild the confidence of passengers. The general sentiment is ‘cautious’ and if countries are able to take control of the pandemic, even without a vaccine, I believe travel will pick up, starting from essential travel, to domestic travel and then to the establishment of travel corridors – but as an industry, we have a responsibility to facilitate this pick-up.
With the pandemic, the offline to online integration to build the journey will be accelerated. Digitalisation is not only for the purpose of capturing data and enhancing personalisation, but also to address hygiene concerns with the promotion of contactless processes and transactions. We were all going in that direction, but the process has now been fast-tracked.
As for sustainability, it was previously for a select group, probably adopted more so out of convenience and requirement, but as a result of the events of 2020, travellers are paying more attention to the planet’s and their own wellbeing. With travellers at the forefront of everything we do in the industry, we too, as brands, will reflect these priorities in everything we do.
In light of the changing travel behaviour, we must be flexible, dynamic and ready to innovate products to fill in the inefficiency gaps and to uphold our commitment to the customer experience. You know with astoundingly low passenger traffic, everyone is reviewing costs, so cost efficiency is crucial to remain afloat in this trying time, but this should not be done at the expense of the experience.
Care for the New Travel Expectation
Thanks to our partners, our recent survey results have given us good insights into the future of airport hospitality. As I expected, airport lounges are still quintessential to the airport experience, but the short- to mid-term focus must be on offering a worry-free experience as hygiene is the “new” luxury.
Instead of looking at what variety of food is on the menu, considerations when going into a lounge will change to are there lots of people in the lounge, and can I find a safe space for me and my family to await the flight?
This is a critical time to assure travellers that their wellbeing is the top priority. Anyone flying in this uncertain period is doing it because they have to – just ask the hundreds of travellers dressed head to toe in protection wear, with bottles of sanitiser in their carry-ons. We must work on a programme to reassure travellers and dispel unease and worry; programmes like our We Care for Your Wellbeing initiative is crucial.
To safeguard both guests’ and staff members’ health, heightened hygiene and enhanced precautionary measurements such as body temperature checks, the provision of hand sanitisers, encouraging social distancing by reconfiguring zones into private spaces, frequent sanitisation of all public areas, and the provision of individual pre-portioned food items must be strictly practised.
The inability to travel has adverse effects on the general public too, made worse with curfews and stay at home orders from governments and the resulting daily anxiety. I think it is important to stay connected with our followers while they are staying home and to continue to spread comfort and support virtually as we did with our Let Love Travel social campaign, which was also designed to reinforce travellers’ faith that travel will resume soon.
With travel policies consistently changing, travel plans and flight schedules can be fickle; I’ve cancelled, rebooked and cancelled several flights myself. Here, empathy is important; we must offer flexibility and easy access to rebooking and refunds as part of a brand loyalty reinforcement exercise. No one wants to pay for a service that they did not use, and if you want a guest to love your brand, you must show them love first.
The Road to Recovery
Travel will resume in phases; domestic travel is already restarting in some markets. International travel will be observed depending on the development of COVID-19, the governments’ ability to contain the spread, and the development of a vaccine. Travel corridors or “air bridges” allowing passengers to travel on certain routes to and from countries with low COVID-19 infection rates will happen, it’s just matter of time, so we must be prepared now as prompt action is necessary in these challenging times.
We also foresee essential family travel will be the next to bounce back, with a quicker recovery compared to business travel. With international lockdowns, some families have been separated for months and once the travel ban is lifted, many will be eager to reunite and some will want to travel after months of lockdown. Business travel is anticipated to decrease and businessmen and women will be less inclined to travel, while companies will be more reluctant to send employees on corporate trips. Video conferencing over Teams and Zoom has become the norm, and companies are focused on digitalising communications to move forward.
Technology and digitalisation will become even more vital post-COVID, with the importance of technology continuing to grow stronger, and we must capture its potential and its implications. One of our recently-launched key initiatives is the app-based Smart Traveller, a global airport rewards programme designed with an easy-to-navigate interface to create a new way to enjoy rewards. It’s also a tool to better understand what our guests need, after all, to be a good host is to anticipate the needs of your guests. We created this programme to unite the airport community so altogether with airports, airlines and alliances, so we can make travel thrive again.
Reviving Essential Travel
To support the early revival of the travel industry, we have gradually reopened selected Plaza Premium Lounge and Aerotel locations globally to ensure travellers a worry-free journey. With low passenger traffic, our lounges are serving our guests, as well as those of our partner airlines, to help alleviate the stress of travel for all customers and businesses.
It has been a difficult six months for everyone, with the travel industry being impacted drastically. Now it’s crucial for our community to support one another, together with our airport, airline and industry partners, I hope to restore trust and assurance in travel. We are one community and together, we will make travel better again.