ABTN speaks to No.1 Traveller’s Phil Cameron, the man on a mission to change travellers’ airport experiences.
No. 1 Traveller operates two premium lounges at Stansted and one at Gatwick, with a second on the way. It also has a predeliction for a lounge at Heathrow, with talks so far successful, and is in discussion with other international airports.
You’re about to open a second lounge at Gatwick – how is it coming along?
It’s great, actually. We were hit, as of course everybody is, by the snow in January. Logistics get into a real backlog at airports when snow happens, because when terminals – people don’t even think about this and why should they – get hit with high passenger numbers and higher pressure to get those passengers out, they stop all work, because they don’t want a fire alarm to go off because somebody’s gas lamp has caused some extra heat or something. So, we got a little bit behind on the build, but we have excellent architects so we caught up quite quickly. We’re looking to open in May – May 10 is our target date.
What can travellers expect?
This is the first of our super lounges, by which we mean you don’t come into a lounge with some nice bits in it and that is the experience, which is what we offer in Gatwick’s south terminal at the moment. But you arrive and you have a choice of what sort of environment you want to lose yourself in. So we have the lounge environment, which will have our standard bar, bistro and multiple lounge areas, but then additionally we’re putting in a lot more entertainment space into our lounges. We will have a pool room, a wii, kareoke, song star room, and a mini cinema which will show rolling classic and popular movies – anything from Toy Story 3 to Gone With the Wind. When a big match is on we’ll put that on instead.
The entertainment has really been taken up a level and the idea is that when you come into one of these spaces, you can say ok I want to sit and watch the news, or I want to energise with a bit of kareoke or air guitar. Or I want to lose myself in the Cinema, or the garden space, or the aquarium, which will be an area that is very darkly lit with little pinspot lights. People can just go in there and read a book or snooze. A proper, sound-proofed quiet area.
We also have a business centre, so if people want to run in, drop their bag, have a coffee, check some emails, have a meeting, catch the news – all of that basic businesss stuff, we’re geared up to that as well. That’s very much an express self-service product.
Then there’s the travel spa, which will offer anything from a shower to a garra rufa fish foot and hand treatment, or a simple manicure and pedicure. We’re also going to do a hair revival thing, so you get half an hour in the chair for a trim or wash and blow-dry. The idea is that you can buy access to the business centre, access to the lounge or access to the spa. And when you’re in the lounge you might think you want a spa treatment, and you can buy that as well.
How long do you expect people to stay in the lounge?
Commercially, restaurants, bars, lounges want customers in and out as quickly as possible, because the quicker the turnaround, the less investment we have to make for people to have a good time and for us to make our money. But that’s not how we operate. Especially at Gatwick, which is a largely leisure airport, people do turn up a good three hours before their flight and treat it as part of the holiday experience. So we’re trying to provide enough to do for however long people want to stay for. If you’re travelling on business you’ll be in and out in 30 minutes. If you’re on holiday and you want to spend three hours there, we’ll have all these extra facilities.
Will you be upping the price to cover all the extras?
For Gatwick, no we’re not. We charge £20 in the existing South Terminal lounge, and it will be the same in the North. The spa treatments are additional. We want to keep adding products. We’ve taken a bigger space, so we can fit more passengers in, and the more variety we have the more passengers we get, which means we can justify the space. So really we don’t need to bring up the cost. Those products hopefully will bring us the larger customer base that will justify us being there. And really significantly, it will get customers back.
I’m not a fan of these acronyms, but we do actually have a three Rs, which we drum into our staff the whole time: remark, return and refer. We want people to be wowed, and that could be just leaving a passenger in peace because that’s what they want. It doesn’t have to be all song and dance. Then, the return and refer is really important, because long term we want advocates. We want people to leave having had a good time, so that they do the selling for us.
How do you view your two lounges within Gatwick’s development plans and its aim to become the London airport?
It was explained to me by somebody quite senior in the management, when Gatwick had just been taken over, that actually if it were a person Gatwick airport would be your friend. It’s never going to be your broker, which is what Heathrow might be. Gatwick airport wants to be the friend to the passenger, because it’s largely leisure based, but also because passengers are over this aggressive commodotised experience.
I think they’ve taken the right attitude. They’ve calmed everything down from the style of their logo, their colouring, to the look and feel – clearing out all the clutter and creating space and light. They’re really achieving that.
What we do we want to do really well, so just trust us to do it and we’ll deliver. And not just trust us, but trust us and support us. As a landlord the airport has become recognisably much more supportive since its autonomy and its new investors. And actually, that sale of Gatwick has had a similar affect on Heathrow and Stansted, because they’ve realised that there are alternatives. I think those airports are working much more autonomously to make the best of themselves, which is a great sign.
And I think credit should go to Gatwick for giving us that 10,000 sq ft space, they’ve bought into our philosophy and I think we have a shared mission. The airport is really making efforts to significantly improve its customer experience, and we’re a great partner for that.
How about Stansted, what are you seeing there?
Stansted is our most recent opening. We’ve only really been open at Stansted for 15 months, so it’s a little early to judge, but what we know about Stansted is that the key is value, efficiency and speed. We provide a premium product, which until now has involved large dwell times and an element of indulgence. People want something different from Stansted, and it’s taken us a while to learn that.
What we’re doing at Stansted is developing a much more rapid bite-size service that gives people the magic elements but in more affordable and quickly delivered chunks. We offer fast track at Stansted, which is a great asset that we don’t have at any other airport. So anyone who has lounge access can just whip through security and get to the lounge.
We’re also refocusing our menu. From April we’ll be launching a much more rapid menu, which means that people can really see the value of coming to us, as opposed to a Costa or Starbucks. For us, Stansted is something we’re going to watch very carefully over the next six months.
So it’s different from the Gatwick product...
Totally. There’s not the dwell time. You couldn’t put the cinema in, because really people don’t have time to sit down and watch. There are an awful lot of business travellers who whip into the lounge at Stansted, and will be out the door 15 minutes later, having got their news, checked their email, had a cup of coffee and a bite to eat.
Do you think BAA still needs to sell Stansted?
It’s a tough one. Interestingly, Stansted operates as an independent airport now, much more than it did a couple of years ago. I think the sale of Gatwick has seen this autonomy develop, which I think is quite healthy, because there is a sort of internal competition between the airports now. That’s a good sign, so I guess if more of that would add value, then the sale is a good thing.
But, I think airports need to obsess less about their ownership and think more about their market share, or the market they are appealing to. I think Stansted is a great airport. It’s really well designed, but it mustn’t continue treating itself as a low cost airport. It’s got to realise that actually it can handle serious premium traffic. They are after that, but it’s a bit like the problem Luton had 20 years ago. They have to get into people’s minds that actually you can fly in a multi-class wide-bodied aircraft.
Would you say you’re a man on a mission to improve the airport experience?
What do you think the airports need to do to catch up with your philosophy of travel?
I think the main thing is about flow, because the things that stress passengers out are check-in queues and security queues. Once they’re through all that, people are a bit more relaxed, but actually even then the daunting prospect of a departure lounge with thousands of people just sat around isn’t great, and the distances to gates. So I think improving flow is really important.
Gatwick in the South Terminal is completely rebuilding its security entry points, so that you won’t have scanners in this direction and that – the flow will be optimised. They’re also really promoting more space in the check-in area, which means people can be managed better. I think that’s key.
What is your opinion on the government’s Task Force to improve passenger experience in the South East?
As has been said before, I think the government’s decisions on airports are politically driven rather than economically driven. When this was announced, I thought to myself: It’s all very well putting on a show of everybody getting together and working out how to do it, but actually the airports know what they have to do, they’re putting the infrastructure in. To me it’s a bit piecemeal. I think what they need to concentrate on are the major infrastructural issues.
The customer experience thing the airports will deal with. What they need to deal with is capacity. The so-called toast rack plans at Heathrow are great – the re-working of Terminal 2 and then T1 and then ultimately T3 is a great project, but it doesn’t alter the fact that you have a busy airport in the wrong place. Whether you go to the extreme and you follow Boris into the Thames Estuary, I don’t know. But when you look at airports in places like Osaka, which has done just that, and Hong Kong, they’re magnificent airports and they work.
I think the government really needs to focus on those prioritities. It doesn’t look good when you have five major airports serving one city, some of which you can’t get to when the rains too heavy, and some of which shut when there’s a prospect of snow. I think we need to look at what these airports are, how they work together as a set, and whether it’s good enough.