Innovation and imagination: FAB 2018 in review

The airport food & beverage industry enjoyed a memorable and compelling two days in Helsinki in June as a wide-ranging FAB conference assessed the way forward and a glittering awards ceremony celebrated best-in-class. Here, Jason Holland looks back on Day One of the conference.

The opening day of the FAB 2018 conference in Helsinki was all about sharing insights, challenging perceptions and looking at better ways to do business in an ever-changing landscape.

Many of the food & beverage sector’s biggest names were on hand to deliver key messages. Have no fear, they were told. Tell stories. Give innovation time to succeed. Shift passenger perceptions.

"It is the most vibrant, eclectic and ever-changing sector in the airport business,” said The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie in opening the conference.

Some of the key themes that would be debated included provenance, Sense of Place, service, technology, design, entertainment, and consumer engagement, he noted.

FAB creator, The Moodie Davitt Report Founder & Chairman Martin Moodie, opens the FAB 2018 Conference.

In his welcome address, Joni Sundelin, Senior Vice President, Airport Director of Helsinki Airport, Finavia, noted the huge development that has taken place in the host city in recent years. A strong foodie culture has also built up, while the airport has been expanding to cater for rapid passenger growth.

This has led to significant changes at the airport, but passengers are always put first. “It’s all about the customer experience, and a big part of that is food & beverage,” he said. “How can we support the customer? How can we serve and entertain them?”

The concept of Sense of Place has been a vital component of Finavia's approach to developing a diverse food & beverage programme. “We have invested in creating a Finnish experience at the airport,” Sundelin said. “We don’t want to be like all the other airports, so we find our own niche.”

After the welcome address, it was down to business for FAB 2018. Innovation and imagination are key drivers of incremental food & beverage revenues, according to three big-hitters who came together for one of the day’s key sessions.

Joni Sundelin: “It’s all about the customer experience, and a big part of that is food & beverage.”

Elena Stenholm: “We as leaders should generate freedom. The freedom to innovate and use imagination, and even the freedom to make mistakes.”

Finavia Vice President Commercial Services Elena Stenholm discussed the process of innovation and how to make customers happy in a thought-provoking presentation.

“What is the greatest enemy of creativity?” she asked. Fear, whether of failure, of shame, or of not getting accepted, was her answer. But airport and food & beverage operators must not be afraid of failure, and can instead change their perspective.

“We as leaders should generate freedom,” she told delegates. “The freedom to innovate and use imagination, and even the freedom to make mistakes.”

Vital parts of the process include team work, telling stories, and executing in an organised fashion. If the process is conducting correctly, the end result will be happy customers who are prepared to spend.

One example of innovation and play, but with systematic organisation, was Finavia’s #Life inHEL – a disruptive content marketing campaign mixing reality TV, game shows and social media. Chinese social influencer Ryan Zhu spent 30 days living at the airport, and generated an audience of 2.3 billion people. A day later, the campaign was named The F&B Marketing & Promotions Campaign of the Year in the 2018 FAB Awards.

Walter Seib: “Innovation is something you need to put in the DNA of your company.”

In his presentation, HMSHost International CEO Walter Seib continued the theme of innovation. “We must have the imagination and the guts to do it differently to the rest and bring things to life,” he commented.

Food & beverage outlets must add value to the passenger journey, otherwise they are just stealing customers’ time, he said. They should become “places to be”; experiences worthy of talking about.

“We need to create something special and add value to turn travellers from non-buyers into buyers,” he said. “Innovation is something you need to put in the DNA of your company.”

One example of innovation is HMSHost’s trial of a service which offers the delivery of food to the gate. Although not achieving outstanding results thus far, Seib noted that it was important to “hang in there” and give innovation time.

Seib noted that even big companies should embrace the start-up culture and not be afraid to fail and learn. Although airport operators are investing more in food & beverage, too often the same layouts and old ideas are seen.

“Move the paradigm, be smarter and apply different thinking,” he said. “Add value to people’s time. We may be operating in a captive environment but consumers still have a choice – not to buy.”

Eugene Barry: "Travellers’ expectations have changed dramatically in recent years.”

Dubai Airports Executive Vice President Commercial Eugene Barry echoed Seib’s sentiments on fostering a start-up mentality. A recent trial involving online food delivery company Deliveroo did not “set the world on fire”, Barry admitted, but he said a similar but airport-specific service would be permanently adopted at Dubai International this year as vital lessons were learnt.

“The challenge is to broaden the definition of territory,” he said. “All of the airport is a marketplace, which can offer any product for anybody at any time.”

Barry said that a programme to revamp and upgrade some 40% of the airport’s food & beverage units would soon begin.

Dubai Airports is introducing 88 new concessions, he said, and detailed research has been vital to getting that proposition right.

“Travellers’ expectations have changed dramatically in recent years,” he noted. “We are increasingly looking at grouping together common behaviours and calling them ‘personas’, rather than grouping by nationality.”

Xavier Rossinyol: “The biggest transformation in the history of the travel industry is the rise of the connected traveller.”

The final Day One speakers were Gategroup CEO Xavier Rossinyol and Sydney Airport General Manager Retail Glyn Williams.

Rossinyol sought to analyse the connections between onboard and airport food & beverage services.

“We all serve food to the customer,” he noted. “The plane is a more challenging environment than an airport, but one advantage is lower expectations.

“How does the customer see the offering? And how do we reinvent the offering to create real change?”

One of the key trends he identified was hyper-customisation. Travellers, and especially Millennials, want a personalised experience, and want on-demand cuisine.

Pre-ordering would offer a solution for airlines, but “nobody wants to choose their food three days in advance”, Rossinyol said.

So pre-ordering is only possible with predictive analysis, using passenger data and artificial intelligence. “We have been working on this for two years and pretty soon we will be able to implement a pre-order service,” he explained.

Rossinyol said there was a clear need to change the offering and “make people happy” with airline catering. He also noted the importance of social media, with instant reactions having the ability to affect brand loyalty, for better or for worse. But it can also be used to create a story behind what each company does.

“The biggest transformation in the history of the travel industry is the rise of the connected traveller. It has forced airlines to give power to the passenger and to change. Everything is moving from the aisle to the device.

“There is a strong connection between the service you see onboard and in the airport. The key is to find the right balance between humanisation and digitalisation.”

Glyn Williams: “Experience is the new value, and experiences have value.”

Glyn Williams described how Sydney Airport has transformed passengers’ expectations by reimagining its commercial offerings. “We wanted to develop immersive and emotional experiences, and capture the ‘wow’ factor,” he commented.

This has been achieved in diverse ways. One component is Senses of Place – engaging customers through look, feel, touch and smell. Others include underlining provenance and creating experiences; the use of celebrity chefs; making crowd-favourite brands special, and emphasising good design.

Putting all this together has resulted in a perception shift, Williams claimed. “Experience is the new value, and experiences have value,” he said. “Celebrity chefs resonate with passengers coming through, and they also act as spokespeople for the airport.”

The result is that travellers are keen to engage on social media.

“If they love us they’ll also talk about us,” Williams said. “We have seen a shift in how customers view the F&B offering. Complaints are down, while satisfaction is up.”

The Moodie Davitt e-Zine | Issue 243 | 16 July 2018