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  Official magazine of ACI
Monday, 31 December 2012 06:00

Food for thought

Written by  Joe Waller
HMSHost’s Joe Waller reflects on the importance of embracing innovation, listening to customers and moving with the times for today’s airport F&B operator.
In San Francisco there is a billboard with a brutally honest message: ‘Business as Usual is Dead’. Though perhaps a slight overstatement, when making a decision in today’s world, those five words are arguably more important to remember than any ‘mission statement’ cooked up at the last senior staff retreat. 

The cold hard truth is that the world is changing at an unprecedented pace.  People are communicating differently, eating differently and, in some cases, even thinking differently than they did just a few years ago. 

Put simply, the target of your ‘mission statement’ – your clients – are changing and, regardless of whether you run an airport or make your living serving travellers, you ignore that change at your peril. 

Stick with ‘Business as Usual’ and odds are you will be left behind, out hustled and beaten by your competition. But for those willing to innovate and rethink how they do business, this rapidly changing world presents a glorious opportunity. 

At HMSHost, we are pursuing that opportunity by redefining how we do business. We created B4 YOU BOARD, the first smartphone app that allows travellers to order a meal and have it delivered to them hot and fresh at the gate where they are awaiting their flight. 

And, with the culinary tastes of passengers becoming more sophisticated, we are working with the world’s premier culinary school, world class celebrity chefs and local restaurateurs to deliver meals that are on-trend, fresh and, most important of all, really good.    

The evidence
The pace of change in consumer behaviour and the way traditional retailers are adapting to that change it is evident in Black Friday sales statistics. In 2011, Black Friday sales were 6% higher than the prior year.

Not bad given the state of the economy, but that growth pales in comparison to the growth in purchases made on the Internet. That same year, Black Friday Internet sales jumped a remarkable 28% over the 2010 level. 

Significantly, not all of these sales were captured by pure Internet retailers like Amazon. Spurred by competition from online retailers, department stores like Macy’s and Nordstrom in the US have invested heavily in building an Internet presence and educating their customers about the advantages of online shopping with a store that has a physical presence in their community. 

The end result was that traditional brick and mortar department stores saw a 58% increase in Internet sales on Black Friday 2011.

As of this writing, complete data for Black Friday 2012 is not yet available, but one key statistic that is available shows how much consumer behaviour has changed:  According to the Wall Street Journal, this year more than 50% of consumers reported shopping online on Black Friday. 

Think about that for a moment. In 2000, fewer than 50% of American adults even had access to the Internet. Now, just 12 years later, a majority of consumers are shopping online on a single day.
That is an extraordinary change in consumer behaviour.  

The Internet is not the only area where consumer behaviour – and expectations – have changed. Twenty years ago if you asked someone to name three famous US chefs, most people would have become stuck after Julia Child and Chef Boyardee. The world could not be more different now.

Entire television networks are dedicated to the preparation, eating and appreciation of food and drink. Competitions between chefs are primetime entertainment and the audience crosses all social, economic and gender lines. 

Even fast food restaurants like Dominos and Taco Bell, which have traditionally touted their speed and convenience, are building entire marketing campaigns around their chefs. 

The message is clear: in today’s world, being fast and convenient is not enough.  You also have to convince people that the food you are serving has been thoughtfully prepared and is really, really good!

Is there an app for that?
For those of us who make our living in the air travel industry, the Black Friday statistics above should not come as a surprise. Surveys, customer intercepts and focus groups conducted by HMSHost over the years have consistently shown that our customers were far more likely than the general population to have smartphones and other wireless technology. 

Armed with that information, roughly three years ago HMSHost began working to create a smartphone app that would both drive sales and enhance customer service.

We began the process by asking our customers this question: Would you be more likely to purchase food at the airport if you could use your smartphone to order food and have it delivered to the gate where you are awaiting your flight?

A full 77% of travellers with smartphones said ‘yes’. At a time when it is difficult to get more than 50% of society to agree on anything, that was an astonishing result.

Equally interesting was that business passengers were only slightly more likely to say ‘yes’ to that question than leisure travellers. Clearly a broad segment of passengers liked this idea. Now the question was how to give it to them.

Creating B4 YOU BOARD is a classic example of a task that can only be performed by a multi-disciplinary team working together. We had to combine software development with culinary expertise and create something that would (a) be easy to use; (b) work with our existing technological infrastructure; and, (c) operate in the extremely complex airport environment.  

The task was made easier by the fact that the Airside Mobile team understood the unique challenges operating in an airport creates, but that was only one element of the project.

We pulled in our restaurant operations leaders and front line restaurant managers to get their input, consulted with our clients about hurdles they could foresee and worked with our marketing team to create the look and name.  Ultimately, all of this expertise was stitched together and B4 YOU BOARD was born. 

Yes, there is an app for that!
The response to B4 YOU BOARD since it was launched in May 2011 far exceeded our expectations. Almost immediately the Apple App Store picked B4 YOU BOARD for its ‘New and Noteworthy’ list. 

Then, on January 12, 2012, USA Today named B4 YOU BOARD one of the ‘5 Apps Every Flyer Should Have’, and the US’s National Restaurant Association named it one of the three most significant technological innovations in the restaurant industry for 2012. 

With each of these accolades, more travellers downloaded and began using it. Just as in the early days of the Internet, when Amazon began getting people to start changing how they shop, our current customer base is made up of early adaptors – those adventurous souls who are at the leading edge of trends. 

That footprint will grow as we offer B4 YOU BOARD at more airports and launch the next generation of the app, which will have new features and be even easier to use than the original.

A word of caution
The world is changing, but not all of our customers are changing. As exciting as it is to provide travellers meals created by world renowned chefs and offer the latest technology, it is important to remember that one size does not fit all. 

The young parents who have saved up to take their kids to Disneyland want something that is quick, relatively inexpensive and, most of all, familiar. Likewise, the older couple flying to see their grandkids, don’t want to have to figure out how to use an iPad in order to buy a meal. 

So, just as it is unwise to ignore changing customer preferences, it is equally unwise to ignore that segment of the travelling public who just wants a hamburger and fries from a familiar national brand.

About the author
Joe Waller is HMSHost's vice president for business development. He can be contacted at joe.waller@hmshost.com

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