The airport experience in a post-COVID-19 world

Mignon Buckingham, corporate strategy officer at Collinson, describes what the new normal might be for F&B and retail at airports

Dubai airport, COVID-19

In recent years developments in the traveller airport experience have been encouraging. Airport operators and concessions have invested heavily in new services and innovative new dining and retail experiences.

Collinson’s Airport Experience research suggests that overall satisfaction with the airport has leapt from 50 percent in 2018 to 63 perfect in 2019. In the UAE, with four world leading airports, satisfaction was even higher at 75 percent in 2019. For the airport operator and their concession partners traveller satisfaction is critical. The same research suggests that satisfied UAE residents spend on average $28 more per departure than dissatisfied or ambivalent travellers. Simply put, happy travellers spend more.

Then COVID-19 hit, travel suddenly stopped and travellers are now understandably cautious about travelling to the airport and getting back on a plane. Beyond addressing the hygiene factors, such as social distancing, health checks and touch free environments, the emerging traveller is looking for a new sort of experience. They are going to need the right support and encouragement to open their wallet and start to enjoy the experience again. What will this new, post-COVID-19 passenger experience look like and how do airports and their concession partners need to respond to this new and possibly existential challenge?

Travellers will likely be spending more time at the airport. They’ll be reaching airports perhaps four or more hours before departure. Wait times are likely to be lengthy with social distancing and increased screening requirements. Travellers will be looking to research, plan their journeys and pre-book the services they want before they leave home.

This suggests that airports need to be engaging travellers well in advance of travel. Establishing the right sort of relationship, providing the right information, answering questions and access to services in advance of travel. The good news is that travellers are almost unanimously open to this idea. The same Collinson research suggests that 95 percent are interested in a formalised relationship with the airport, suggesting that there is a strong sense of loyalty to top airport brands.

The new standard for services will be seamless and contactless. This implies a mobile based approach to seamless access to all the services and facilities. Where passengers have needed to use 4-5 different sources to access the services and information they want, such a fragmented approach will not work for the future traveller.

With expectations firmly set by frictionless and one-touch off-airport e-commerce experiences, airports need to establish a common eco-system across the airport and unified approach to the access and delivery of services. All made simple and easy to use for the traveller. New services such as mobile food ordering and delivery and duty-free ordering and collection are taking hold and will firmly become the ‘new normal’ as wary travellers seek a touch free and contact free experience.

Even before COVID-19 hit, travellers were telling us this was the way to go. Collinson’s research indicates that 46 percent of travellers who spend over $200 at the airport would spend even more if they could shop via an app, for example, from an airport lounge and pick up their purchases at the gate. 45 percent of these travellers would spend more if the airport offered a home or destination delivery service for their purchases.

Priority services will be important items on the future travellers’ list.  With concerns about crowds and distancing top of mind, passengers have indicated that they are prepared to pay more for extra services and differentiation. These services include things like, fast track, lounge access, premium dining options, sleep pods or even spa and wellness services. This is a win-win for the traveller and the airport.

The traveller gets a better experience and for the airport an important source of ancillary revenue helping it to recover from expected downturn related shortfalls. Critically however, airports need to offer these services in advance, promoting them the right way not only to give travellers the time and space for these to be booked and purchased seamlessly but so they can efficiently capacity-manage their assets to drive ROI.

Whilst off-airport commerce has become almost completely data driven, many airports have lagged behind. With investments in traveller relationships, mobile apps and e-commerce, airports need to catch up and make full use of data. This will become core to the way they run their business. Beyond using big data to target effective promotions and personalise and customise the traveller experience, it also offers the airport operator deep insights into behaviour and performance across the airport.

These insights in turn need to be used to develop an even better airport experience. More than anything else, airports need to instil confidence in the returning traveller. Passengers need to feel that the journey is safe, the airport is communicating with them in advance and that travellers have the tools and applications they need to take control of their own journeys.

As strong and trusted brands, airports have both the opportunity and obligation to lead the way; engaging with passengers early, working with concessions and airport service providers to establish a seamless traveller-centric eco-system and easy to use experience. Such an approach will not only encourage travellers to return but will encourage them to start to spend and enjoy the airport experience once again.

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