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RETAIL/F&B Last modified on May 28, 2012

Recipe for success

Humanising the F&B experience at airports can boost customer satisfaction levels and profits, writes Mark Kassapian.

We instinctively know great service when we experience it. What constitutes good service has not changed, and the age-old rules of how to welcome a customer still apply.

But how that service can be delivered in the modern travel environment has changed dramatically.

Great service is timely, whether you want a coffee to drink ‘on the run’ in 30 seconds or the first dish of the three-course lunch, served in ten minutes.

It puts the customer at ease, offers them an environment in which they can relax. It is efficient – the customer is given what they want by knowledgeable and engaging staff – and is founded on strong personal relationships that allow genuine and meaningful two-way communication.

So how do we go about offering the very best service, and what are the techniques now at our disposal to do it?

Time on their hands – not in ours
Time has never been more precious – we have less of it, and we want to spend it in more productive and enjoyable ways.

It is a commodity, and people are prepared to pay for it. There’s nothing new about saying speedy service matters in the travel environment, but we do need to think about new ways of delivering it.

What constitutes quick and efficient service, of course, will not be the same for the passenger who wants to pick up a sandwich to carry onto a flight as the traveller who chooses to enjoy a three-course dinner to start their journey. But even at a high-end restaurant, careful menu design means the time-pressed customer can eat well without settling for second rate.

At the new Le Grand Comptoir bistro at Oslo, for example, SSP offers a number of dishes, including a bouillabaisse and slow-cooked lamb shanks, which are prepared in advance, but finished just before serving, so we can guarantee to serve the customer in less than ten minutes.

We need to look at how to make each interaction as easy as possible to smooth the process. For example, Pizza Express customers can now pay by PayPal, putting control and time management in the hands of the customer.

Similarly, using brands that are intrinsically suitable for quick service can help. Concepts such as YO! Sushi, where customers help themselves to food instantly from a kaiten conveyor belt, or La Moraga restaurant at Malaga Airport serving tapas – which can be eaten as a quick snack or enjoyed as part of a larger meal – have speed in their DNA and need no dilution of their character to work in the travel environment.

These brands also put customers back in control, as customers know what they are committing to before they take a seat.

Stress-free service
Putting customers at ease also means keeping them informed. The travel retail industry has long understood the importance of providing flight information screens in restaurants, and informing customers of
distances to gates. Now, we have a wealth of technologies to communicate this information.

An inability to be connected to the outside world can also make a passenger feel uneasy. Customers may not need to have Internet access, but they need to know that they can. This isn’t just a matter of supplying Wi-Fi and power points, we must also think about table design, seating and lighting to create technology-friendly spaces.

Service style must be integrated in a way that allows customers to get on with their lives in the way they choose.

The human touch
Technology, whether that’s online booking and check-in, automated bag drops, boarding pass readers, or iris recognition passport control, has automated the travel experience. This is all for the good, but as customers interact with airport staff less and less frequently, the relationships they do have are becoming even more important and we need to make the best of every interaction.

Smart upselling is sometimes seen as a nuisance, but when done imaginatively and sensitively, it is actively welcomed as it can help customers make choices when time is limited.

When carried out well, it is also effective at increasing sales. For example, if a customer is asked “Would you like anything else?”, the average spend is not increased. However, if they are asked “Would you like anything else to eat or drink?”, average spend increases by 7%.

And, if they are offered an additional, carefully chosen product that complements their order, that increase rises to 20%.

Up close and personal

Personal service should always extend to the way that the dish/food is served to customers as everyone wants to have their burger, steak, omelette or coffee served ‘their way’.

We need to think about innovative ways of going further in providing a personalised experience, whether that’s icing on a cookie, or latte art that shows customers it really is a pleasure to serve them.

Starbucks is now writing customers’ names on their cups, which not only ensures that customers get the correct drinks, but also welcomes the customer personally; a visit to a coffee shop may be that customer’s first contact with a brand or even another person that day.

‘Personal’ also means bringing the comforts of home to what is often the highly ‘impersonal’ world of the airport terminal. The almost@home lounge at Helsinki offers a warm and cosy environment, featuring individually selected furnishings and home-cooked food, plus, attentive and knowledgeable service, allowing passengers to relax before their flight. 

Special events, such as SSP’s wine tasting evenings at London City Airport, or gastronomic festivals at Geneva Airport are creative ways of bringing the airport dining experience alive and extending the relationship between a brand and its customers.

In general, customers want to connect with the outlet/brand on an ever-growing number of platforms, be they online or face-to-face.

From broadcast to dialogue
An emphasis on personal service doesn’t, however, preclude the use of technology. Rather, we need to use it to enhance those personal relationships, giving our customers a voice and letting them know that we are listening.

There was a time when the world’s big brands told their customers what they were going to do, and then waited for their grateful thanks. Businesses now have a plethora of tools at their disposal to access instant feedback on what their customers want, allowing them to react and plan their next moves with unprecedented speed. 

However, jumping on a technology bandwagon and ‘introducing an app’ because it’s the fashionable thing to do is a mistake. Bombarding customers with irrelevant or over-complex information merely confuses.

Introducing an app, sophisticated EPOS systems, or QR codes should be a carefully considered development of good customer service, rather than a gratuitous bolt-on.

Technology shouldn’t necessarily change what we do, but it does give us better ways of doing it.

Customer loyalty schemes for example are not novel, but now we have smarter ways of bringing customers offers that are really relevant to them, extending the technology used on the high-street into the complex international airport market.

SSP is currently trialling an app for its TravelWise consumer value programme in Geneva. TravelWise, which was originally launched in response to the recession of 2008, has been refined over the years, and
the app is an evolution of a tried and tested loyalty scheme that customers already understand.  

Nevertheless, it’s important to consider the real consumer benefits of any scheme. While we need to embrace the new technological tools at our disposal, we mustn’t make assumptions and we need to provide choice, as not everyone will want to use them.

We have to be certain that any changes we make attract not alienate, and we need to communicate via the channel of the consumer’s choice not ours – TravelWise, for example, is being introduced as an app, but a physical card is still available for customers who prefer them.

Technology can never be used to replace good service, and we must never underestimate the importance of a welcoming smile.

However, we now have the power to understand our customers, communicate with them and build lifetime loyalty in ways previously unimaginable. Service, as a result, can only get better.

About the author
Mark Kassapian is communications director for airport food and beverage specialists, SSP.

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