Looking at the airport’s senior management team gathered in the boardroom, The new CEO said: “So, tell me, what does this airport stand for? What makes us unique? What’s our strategy?”
The questions are met with blank looks and a stony silence from all in the boardroom.
“Tell me this, then,” continued the CEO. “If we don’t know where we’re going, how can we ever expect to get there?”
It is, of course, possible that the management has never been asked these types of questions before. It’s also possible that the new CEO may need to make some changes to his management team over time. But the best place to begin in taking a new direction is by defining a strategy. And a strategy begins with a vision statement.
A well-crafted vision statement – one that clearly, succinctly, and memorably defines the business’ sense of direction – does matter to
Airports operate in an increasingly competitive environment for passengers, airlines and businesses. For instance, two-thirds of all Europeans live within a two-hour drive of more than one airport. What will be behind the decision to use Airport A instead of Airport B?
To thrive, an airport needs to start to say not only what it stands for today, but also where it’s going, why that’s important, and how it will know when it gets there. The vision sets the strategy and, when communicated effectively, pulls stakeholders together in a common cause.
But a vision statement needs to be more than a tagline or a motto on a marble plaque – it drives the airport’s strategy and sets the course to achieve this strategy.
Get it wrong and disgruntled employees snigger at it; get it right and it becomes the rallying cry for all airport stakeholders, binding the airport staff, local community, customers and management to a single, achievable goal.
If key stakeholders don’t collectively buy into the strategy, it probably will fail. A clearly defined vision can unify a management team, breaking them out of their functional or organisational siloes and bringing them together on a common platform from which a more detailed strategy can be developed.
It can also build stronger connections with customers, employees, local communities and political leaders.
Taking the vision statement seriously, combining the aspirations of all stakeholders, is a litmus test of management leadership. The key to achieving this is instilling a sense of pride in the people whose lives are entwined with the fate of the airport.
A regional airport catering for mainly low-cost carriers may not have the cachet of the world’s busiest hub, but it still has a vital role to play in the regional and national economy.
Why have a vision statement and a mission statement?
First, what a vision statement is not: it’s not a replacement for a strategy. It is a concise expression of the strategy, setting the direction for the airport.
A vision is not a brand, which is the ensemble of the ways that a customer experiences the airport.
A tagline in the vision is frequently used to communicate what the brand represents to customers.
The vision statement ideally says where the airport is heading, and the mission statement says how it intends to get there.
Both should work together, and the words used in each should reflect the culture of the organisation. The vision statement focuses everyone’s attention on their own aspirations for the airport and their own part in the process – what they think is achievable and worth working towards. The mission statement – the ‘how we get there’ part – is equally significant.
In examining different airport vision statements, Exambela Consulting has observed that a successful airport vision statement needs to have a least three characteristics:
• It needs to be unique to the airport
• it needs to be measurable in one form or another
• It needs to be memorable – originality helps.
Without careful consideration of these success factors, the vision statement risks becoming just an illuminated plaque behind the airport headquarters’ entrance, all too easily overlooked and ignored.
To be avoided are vision statements that are three paragraphs long or are so general they could apply to any airport in the world. For example: “To be a world-class airport providing the highest level of customer service” as no one is going to argue, but no one is going to take much notice either.
Lessons learned from outside the airport sector
Before looking at airport vision statements, it’s interesting to look at the vision and mission statements of some successful companies outside of the airport industry.
• Apple: To change the world.
• Starbucks: Our mission: to inspire and nurture the human spirit – one person, one cup and one neighbourhood at a time.
• L’Oréal: To help men and women around the world realise their beauty aspiration, and express their individual personalities to the fullest.
• Disney: To make people happy.
• Kraft: Vision – Helping people around the world eat and live better.
Mission – Make today delicious.
• Southwest: The mission of Southwest is dedication to the highest quality of customer service delivered with a sense of warmth, friendliness, individual pride, and the company spirit.
Excluding Apple, all of these statements are very specific to the company and its industry. And they are memorable.
An employee on the shop floor could clearly remember them, and so could a shareholder in any of these companies. For a loyal customer, these vision statements would resonate and probably encourage greater loyalty.
How should this be applied to the airport environment, with all the diverse businesses and functions that can be found there?
Only by recognising that the airport is a unique community and that the service levels of all businesses there reflect directly on the success of the overall operation. The restaurant concession employee might not report to the airport manager, but making passengers smile is an integral part of what differentiates one airport over another.
Successful airport vision statements, successful airports
In our experience, a vision statement should not focus on areas such as safety and security, which airlines and passengers should (rightly) take for granted. Do food manufacturers mention that their chocolate bars are safe to eat?
Instead, ask yourself: How will your airport stand out from the crowd? Examples of airports/airport operators getting their vision statement’s right include Amsterdam Schiphol, Dubai Airports, Mumbai–Chhatrapati Shivaji and TAV Airports.
Amsterdam Schiphol states: “Schiphol Group views an airport as an airport city, a dynamic hub integrating people and businesses, logistics and shops, information and entertainment.”
Dubai Airports says: “We are driven to change the course of aviation history, and to achieve our vision of being the world’s leading airport company.”
Chhatrapati Shivaji declares: “To be one of the world’s best airports that consistently deliights customers and to be the pride of Mumbai.”
TAV Airports states: “A diversified and integrated business in airports, which will create connectivity ending up with productivity.”
Why do we like the examples above? Because they say clearly what the airport is; they think in the long-term, without sounding generic; and they focus on those areas where their airports compete and can make a difference.
In addition they have a specific objective: for example, in terms of market, of customer satisfaction, or of size/performance; they are inspiring and challenging, with a desirable goal; and they keep it simple.
Something in the vision has to be specific to the airport, going beyond the generic and reflecting the character and aspirations of the city the airport serves. Amsterdam Schiphol, for instance, was one of the pioneers of the airport city concept, and its vision statement clearly reflects this core identity.
Dubai Airport, on the other hand, focuses on its game-changing role in the global air transport sector. And even though it talks about being the world’s leading airport company – what seems like a generic statement – in the case of Dubai, it’s possible; it reflects what, in fact, Dubai Airport and Emirates Airlines are doing.
For the shareholders of the GVK-led Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport Ltd, which acquired the concession to develop and manage Mumbai’s airport, it was extremely important to set a new bar in quality, but they also wanted to create a sense of pride that was historically lacking for India’s largest city.
While in its vision statement TAV Airports emphasises its strategy to develop synergies with its portfolio of airports and airport services companies.
How will you measure success?
Being ‘world-class’ cannot be measured, yet the phrase is used all too often. So, too, are generic adjectives and superlatives such as the world’s ‘best’ or ‘biggest’, which are usually meaningless.
Indeed, passengers and airlines value concrete achievements such as ‘America’s most on-time airport airport’ far more than being the world’s best.
A relatively new trend is for airports to come up with very specific goals in their vision statements.
In 2010, for example, Munich Airport set a clear five-year time frame and established three criteria – to be one of the most attractive, efficient and sustainable hub airports in the world – for which the airport detailed how success would be measured.
An ambitious goal, certainly, but by 2014 it became evident through the various measures that the airport had put in place that it was going to achieve its goal.
Consequently, the airport leadership set the new goal of becoming Europe’s five-star airport in the Skytrax survey.
Warsaw Chopin Airport provides another example of a measurable airport vision statement. Here again, its vision statement – to be the leading East Central European airport with respect to the quality of service, number of passengers and performance by 2020 – contains a specific time frame, a specific market and specific goals.
Make it memorable
Keep it simple. If an employee can’t remember the vision statement, chances are it won’t work. And if a vision statement is more than one sentence, chances are an employee can’t remember it.
Embracing this concept, Bahrain Airport came up with ‘A friendly, efficient airport for a proud country’, easy-to-understand and easy-to-remember vision that positions the airport in a unique way, compared to neighbouring super hubs such as Dubai.
Indeed, this short vision statement successfully turns the focus on three keywords: friendly, efficient and proud. All employees in their everyday work can keep these in mind, and all are very specific to Bahrain.
Another good example of being short and succinct is Copenhagen Airport’s one time vision of ‘Largest in Scandinavia, most efficient in Europe, best in the world’.
Why? Because the objectives are clear and simple, and even if ‘best in the world’ is slightly tongue-in-cheek, it sets the tone; it’s definitely memorable for its ambition. Everyone from the employee on the ramp to the Board knows where the airport wants to be.
Arguably just as memorable is Denver International Airport’s ‘To be America’s favourite connecting hub, where the Rocky Mountains meet the world’.
Its statement is based on the realisation that much of its growth potential comes from capitalising on its strategic location at the heart of the US, ample capacity to expand and relatively modern facilities to further develop its route network.
Now the hard part begins
Developing a compelling vision statement is hard work. It requires multiple rounds and a lot of frank discussion. Then, if the vision has any chance of being realised, a robust three to five year strategic plan also needs to be developed.
The next step in the process is even harder: it involves communicating this vision and translating it into clear, measurable objectives.
This means working together and making sure department-by-department, year-by-year objectives and key performance indicators (KPIs) filter down through the organisation. It also means tracking the measures constantly.
The problem is that it’s all too easy to avoid the hard work and slip back into the day-to-day, managing the crisis of the moment. After all, what manager was hired to write a vision statement?
In actuality, this is when vision statements truly come into their own. They become reminders of what the real goals are for the organisation, so the ever-longer list of priorities and projects can be constantly re-framed within the context of the overall vision or, in some cases, junked altogether because they do not add value.
Reaching for the stars…one step at a time
When it comes to picking the winners in today’s increasingly competitive airport environment, there is no such thing as ‘one-size-fits-all’. While some parts of the world, such as China and India, are witnessing an era of unprecedented airport growth, others like Europe have entered an era of unprecedented airport contraction.
A compelling vision statement can be a pivotal part of the process of defining what will make your airport come out on top. It brings everyone together to define, plan and then implement a focused and concrete strategy.
If you do it well, the result will be that everyone gains a new understanding of their contribution and value to the overall success of the business.
The airport’s goals which, at first, seemed abstract and remote, become gratifyingly real and definitely achievable
In that way, the vision statement becomes much more than just the plaque behind the entrance.