Airport concessions continue to evolve in content and concept, by Carroll McCormick.
Having already evolved considerably from prosaic ‘take it or leave it’ survival fare, food & beverage (F&B) concessions continue to improve their offerings. Both concessionaires and North American airports keep upping the ante: Any shake-up of an airport’s F&B programme is bound to include demands for better food, more variety and an overall more exciting environment that will improve non-aeronautical revenues.
“I think virtually all airports, when they are able to, are looking to upgrade and enhance their programmes. Revenue production is more important than ever,” observes Mark Knight, President of Pittsburgh-based AIRMALL USA, an airport retail developer. “Outdated concepts such as generic bars, restaurants and shops, stores that don’t offer quality or that are overpriced will become less tolerated and less desirable.”
‘Buzz’ can be brought in by tying up with local sports or local celebrity chefs and restaurants. For example, Air Ventures LLC signed leases with AIRMALL this year to bring two Burgh Sportz Pub locations into the Pittsburgh International Airport. Designed to tap into Pittsburgh’s enthusiastic sports culture, passengers get the food, can see sports memorabilia and can purchase glasses honouring the city’s championship franchises.
AIRMALL also added Bar Symon to Pittsburgh’s concessions programme this year, which carries the name of the restaurateur Michael Symon. “Brands; for example, celebrity chefs, are becoming more important,” Mr Knight says. “From our standpoint we try to provide the best combination of hot retail brands.”
Tapping into famous local restaurants is hot. Take the San Diego International Airport, where big changes are afoot in its concession programme. Master concessionaire SSP won two agreements with the airport last October and one of its new offerings is Vin de Syrah, a concession from the Cohen Restaurant Group. It will offer spirits, unique beers, and wine by the glass. Pat Murray, Executive Vice-President, SSP America, says: “The Cohen restaurants are the most sought after in the San Diego area. This is a reflection of the city and an opportunity to bring some local flare into the airport.”
SSP believes in pushing the frontiers of F&B, offering food that can “help you enjoy your experience,” as Mr Murray puts it. Take its Camden food co. convenience store. Launched in 2008, SSP built its 12th Camden food co. at San Diego’s airport. “It is healthy, whimsical and guarantees 100 foods sourced within 100 miles of the business.” Mr Murray acknowledges that a concession that is a little outside the norm carries some risk, but Camden has proven itself. “It is stepping out a bit. No one really knows the market size for, say, gluten-free foods.”
Sit-down dining has become more desirable as wait times have increased. “This trend is very appealing,” says Susan Goyette, Senior Director of Communications & Public Relations, HMSHost. Part of the experience is architecture that reflects local culture and cuisine. Ms Goyette cites Javi’s in the John Wayne Airport in California as an example of a restaurant built to reflect Javier’s Cantina, its so-called ‘street side’ inspiration. “Airports more and more are looking to create a strong sense of place with the dining programme,” Ms Goyette notes. “The change in airport dining is also about interesting, flavour-full, chef-created fare.”
The physical spaces offer special promise, Mr Murray notes. “They let consumers escape the airport location.” Take the SSP-developed URBANCRAVE bar. “URBANCRAVE has developed a bit of a cult following. It is built to be reminiscent of an urban environment, like a city bar or loft. The menu is geared towards more street-type food. People can forget about the transit a bit and go in and relax. It has ‘personality’ and ‘life’. Years ago this would have been just a ‘bar’.”
Another difference is that the SSP establishments are all wired with power for the convenience of e-device users. “All of our full-service facilities have electrical outlets. Speaking broadly for the business, if we want to keep passengers in our facilities as opposed to in the departure lounges, we want to install power,” Mr Murray says.
Years ago, food offerings were more homogeneous, but that has changed with astonishing speed, he says. “From ten years ago to today the types of concepts have grown exponentially. Consumers have a taste for a wide variety of demands.” Thai, Japanese, Mexican, barbecue, artisanal coffees, high-end wines, gourmet burgers, wraps, brownies… the sky is the limit.
Airport terminals are evolving ecosystems, where new species gradually replace those that can no longer compete. So where are the dinosaurs? “They are not that hard to find,” Mr Murray explains. “The traditional fast food out of the box is less attractive and becoming passé. It is being replaced by ‘quick casual’. Food prepared on site, cooked to order but served over the counter, such as gourmet burgers and high-end thin crust pizzas, are two of the hottest trends of the past five years. Often the businesses let you see how they make the food. The consumer is both willing to wait and pay for the product it wants.”
To that, Mr Knight adds: “Healthy food, healthier options and healthier concepts are becoming much more important. This thinking has evolved.”
A traditionally very strong retail venue is also feeling a shift that is more a falling away of the ground from beneath it. “The news and gift business is going through a major evolution, adjusting to the trend that books and reading material are going away, in the traditional sense. These products are increasingly being sold electronically. The percentage of sales is shrinking and the space is being updated by other things,” Mr Knight observes. He cites electronics and technology as examples. “The products and accessories and support are necessary and need to be available.”
A more radical departure than what is on offer, is how it is promoted, or delivered. The tool – part of the current communications revolution – is apps.
SSP is piggybacking off large apps like foursquare and GateGuru, which provide users with information such as the locations of concessions and other amenities in airports. SSP is studying the apps world, and according to Mr Murray, has key questions. “How does a consumer know to use it? How will they use it? What can we do with it?” SSP is developing an app called Travelwise, that will educate passengers about concessions, but details about whether coupons or points will be used to draw them, is as yet undecided.
On March 1, HMSHost and Yowza!! announced a partnership to bring this well-known mobile coupon app to the Los Angeles International Airport. Yowza!! has an established user-base and the services offered are through location-based technology: Users who download the app can immediately see offers, customised for their location. For example, travellers at the Los Angeles airport receive coupons on their smart phones when GPS positioning puts them in the vicinity of the airport. They show their phone screen with the offer to staff at participating stores to receive the special deal. “We are the only airport dining company using mobile couponing with Yowza!!,” Ms Goyette says. HMSHost has expanded the programme to the Tampa International Airport, as well as off-airport locations.
A truly novel use for communications technology, for airports anyway, is the app that HMSHost introduced at the John F Kennedy International Airport in May 2011, launched in partnership with Airside Mobile LLC. Called B4 YOU BOARD, it lets passengers order and pay for food from participating restaurants and have it delivered to their seat at, say, their boarding gate. HMSHost added B4 YOU BOARD at Minneapolis-St Paul in September, O’Hare International Airport in November and Sacramento International Airport this April.
Such e-ordering has been offered in sporting arenas for some time, according to Ms Goyette. HMSHost connected the dots and realised that such a service could fly in passenger terminals. “It takes a lot of back-end technology to make it work,” Ms Goyette acknowledges, “but the deployment is getting much easier.”
She explains how B4 YOU BOARD works: “The app walks you through the restaurant choices. Say you want to order from Tuscay at O’Hare. The menu will come up. You check boxes to make your food selection – you can even order items from different restaurants on the same ticket – and indicate where you are. Then an order summary comes up. You key in your credit card number and tap ‘send’. We send back push notifications of your order; for example, ‘Thank you, your order has been received’ and ‘Your meal is ready. The server is on his way’.’”
It takes 20 minutes to complete and deliver an order. The associate who brings it is identifiable by a B4 YOU BOARD apron. “We have never missed an order. We even have an instance of someone ordering when the plane touched down and the meal was delivered to the transferring gate before that passenger boarded,” Ms Goyette enthuses.
Interesting days are ahead for wireless communications technology and F&B and retail. AIRMALL set up three virtual duty free stores as a bridge solution while refitting a duty free operation last year at Boston Logan International Airport. Passengers made their selections from photographs on panels that depicted the duty free goods available for purchase. Employees took orders on a tablet device that also takes credit card payments. The purchases were delivered to the buyers’ departure gates.
One day, perhaps some concessions will dispense entirely with traditional walk-in space and operate with just kitchens, an app presence and, say, roller skate deliveries. Now that would be hot.
Airport concessions continue to evolve in content and concept, by Carroll McCormick.