Bringing Back the Wow Factor to Air Travel in 2023: WTCE x PAX International Round Table

Bringing Back the Wow Factor to Air Travel in 2023: WTCE x PAX International Round Table

This year’s roundtable, hosted by Stephanie Philip, Editor at PAX International Magazine, in association with PAX International publication centred on the topic Bringing Back the Wow Factor to Air Travel in 2023.

The discussion explored how airlines, with the help of airports, brands and suppliers, are re-inventing the air travel experience in a post-pandemic environment. This year’s panel included four expert panellists who each gave their perspective as part of a wide-ranging and informative exchange of ideas and insights.

The panel comprised:

  • Anne de Hauw, Founder of IN Air Travel Experience
  • Sean Wheaton, Vice President of Culinary at Cuisine Solutions
  • Marisa Pitsch, Chief Customer Experience Officer at FORMIA
  • Kelly Stevenson, JetVine Brand Consultant and former British Airways Food & Beverages Buyer

Watch the roundtable below:

Is air travel still luxurious?

The roundtable kicked off with the panel discussing the different areas that unite to make air travel the luxurious experience it is, and has the potential to be.

IN Air Travel’s Anne de Hauw asserted that flying is inherently different because it’s the only form of transport capable of taking someone to the other side of the world within 24-hours.

She also pointed out that despite no longer being only accessible to the very wealthy, it is still imbued with “magic”.

FORMIA’s Marisa Pitsch added: “Luxury has different meanings for different people, but fundamentally it’s all about getting from A to B in the fastest time possible and in the most convenient way…so I would say the speed and convenience of air travel is what makes it a luxury.”

She added that the many traveller touch points that flying affords, allow airlines to innovate and think differently about creating additional ‘wow factors’ for passengers around their travel experience.

“The customer experience has shifted in a much bigger way since 2020 than we’ve seen over the last two decades.”

Kelly Stevenson, JetVine Brand Consultant

She said: “I think there’s been a big shift in the perception of air travel from two perspectives. I’ve spoken to a number of airlines, and certainly lounge teams say people are dwelling for much longer in the lounge environment before taking the plane, because they’re still concerned about how long it takes to get through security and immigration…and whether there will there be any surprises at check in with Covid regulations.

Therefore, lounges are creating experiences that are maybe a bit more entertaining and theatrical than previously.”

She added that with the post-Covid shift to buy-onboard, passengers were expecting more choice of food and drink offers such as vegan or gluten-free alternatives because there’s no opportunity to book special meals anymore. Meanwhile, in business or first-class there’s still an expectation that if they can’t buy it, it should all still be available.

“You can get a great Tuscan wine in a paper bottle, you can get an amazing cocktail, just as you would get at the Savoy Hotel in London but in a can. Airlines are starting to take on these innovations and I hope to see a lot more of it.”

Kelly Stevenson, JetVine Brand Consultant

“So, I think we’re in a very different playing field now to pre-2020. And a lot more people are looking to both global travel retail as well as free in-flight consumption and that space is growing, which is great for suppliers and it’s great for consumers…and airlines are relying on supporters such as ourselves to help create that experience.”

Cuisine Solutions’ Sean Wheaton agreed that choice onboard was a major contributor in creating a ‘wow factor‘ for passengers, something they expect no matter which cabin class they fly in. “But it’s about the whole experience, not just onboard, so even in the lounges, airlines want to offer that premium experience.

People want and expect choices across the hospitality industry, whether it’s in a hotel or on an airplane. People want to know that that they have the opportunity to customise what they’re going to eat, that there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, no matter the cabin or in the lounge.”

All change

Next Stephanie Philips asked panel members how they believed the perception of air travel was changing.

“Air travel has undergone and is still undergoing, a massive transformation because various societal shifts impact the way we think about hospitality,” said Anne de Hauw, adding: “Today’s passengers take great design and amenities as a given. So now they’re looking for something that is original, that is meaningful and that delights them, or broadens their horizon and opens their minds.”

Marisa Pitsch expanded on de Hauw’s point, explaining that today’s passengers expect some say in how their trip is structured and what they can expect from their flight. “It has all been about adhering to safety and then the hygiene regulations, and being told when to eat, when to sleep and when you’re supposed to wake up.

She added the task now was to work in collaboration with airline partners to find ways of meeting passenger needs and desires onboard that could be very different from passenger-to-passenger.

In response to a question about what personalisation in amenity kits might look like, Marisa Pitsch explained that potentially passengers could be offered a selection of products to choose from – in the lounge pre-flight or digitally.

The industry could do better

Stephanie Philip asked the panel to discuss what they felt were the biggest detractors for air passengers and how the industry might mitigate them.

Kelly Stevenson pointed to the “huge success” of virtual meetings on the back of the pandemic.

 So, speaking to a few of my colleagues recently, we’ve been thinking about how you really create that energy and necessity for travel, and desire for face-to-face meetings.” She added that despite the convenience and cost-saving of online meetings, people were suffering somewhat from “Teams fatigue” and happy to rediscover the success of flying to meet a business associate in person.

However, she also pointed to the problem of flight delays, something particularly common in Europe: “There’s almost a belief that you won’t be on time, but punctuality is one of the major factors of a successful business.

That is distracting some people, so overriding success will be to ensure that people know that by being on a plane and getting to their destination, is going to mean more successful business. And that’s not necessarily happening at the moment.”

Increasing lounge time

The issue of potential delays prompted the panel to consider the importance of the airport experience and how the air travel industry can help to enhance it.

Sean Wheaton said delays meant there was plenty of opportunities for airports to make a difference to how people felt about travel, particularly via the lounge or food court. “I certainly have my favourite airports to fly through because they have more amenities and better food options,” he said, adding: “we work with chefs at the airlines and in the lounges to help them come up with better, more unique food options.

But from an amenity side, when somebody gets stuck for three, four or six hours, how do they not get bored?”

Anne de Hauw stressed how the airport experience is an integral part of the passenger journey. “Airline customer satisfaction may be impacted if the airport experience is not seamless…that could be a long waiting time, unclear indication of where to go, unclean lavatories, overcrowded lounges, lost luggage and so on. This makes it key for airlines and airports to collaborate, and not just airlines and airports, but also airport operators and airport service providers.”

Altitude attitude

Returning to in-flight and what makes a memorable onboard experience for passengers, Kelly Stevenson underlined that the role of cabin crew is crucial, explaining that while working for British Airways, feedback from customers was almost always around the importance of how cabin crew handled any given situation.

“If something was a bit off on the day in terms of delays, or if their first food or drink option wasn’t available… so long as the crew delivered good service and passengers felt like they were wanted and given a really nice welcome and a well-mannered explanation for something…that was the crux of a good or a bad flight.”

“The human experience prevails over anything else. The interaction with customers is the number one KPI in hospitality. So, to Kelly’s point, if you don’t get your amenities or food but still have caring crew who are genuinely kind, you may still be a promoter.”

Anne de Hauw, Founder of IN Air Travel Experience

While Sean Wheaton stressed the customer-first approach shouldn’t be reserved for premium cabins. “Everybody appreciates it, and it can be the smallest touches – an extra bag of pretzels, an extra blanket to comfort the crying baby next door: whatever level of service the onboard team can provide. I think everyone in the cabin sees it and appreciates it.”

And Kelly Stevenson added: “whether you’re in a first cabin or economy, it costs nothing to be kind and caring, but I think some airlines have lost their way a bit because they’ve been through a really difficult period.”

She said simple touches, such as the captain or first officer walking through the cabin prior to take off could make a difference to passenger perception of a flight.  

Cultivating a hospitality mindset and thorough training was key, said Anne de Hauw: “the educational piece is important because the more confident [the crew] feel about the different touchpoints across the journey and transmitting the airline brand they represent to the customer, the better the service will be.”

Creating compelling stories

Marisa Pitsch said from an amenity kit perspective, storytelling was now essential, with an important focus on the perceived added value of branded products in kits. “and the opportunity for storytelling is growing and growing.

In the past, amenity kits usually included a very small leaflet that would tell the story of the brand. But that real estate was extremely limited. Now we’re moving towards QR codes, which connect that passenger directly with the story of the brand. With this, the space is unlimited in terms of being able to share campaigns, promotional offers or discounts, or targeted messaging.”

Sean Wheaton added that the branded experience was also making a return to airline food with renewed interest in celebrity chef curated menus.

“We’re seeing another opportunity, not only to tell the story of the ingredients, but also the story of how the chef came up with that meal and that also requires training for the onboard staff, alongside an opportunity to tell a more detailed story in the onboard magazine.”

Marisa Pitsch wondered if airlines could replicate their work with ‘food ambassadors’ by working with ‘wellness ambassadors’. “I know it’s a stretch…but the landscape has changed so much in just the past couple of years, could we move in the direction of wellness and sleep, and feeling rested when arriving at your destination?”

Kelly Stevenson explained that in her view, the ‘wow experience’ comes not only from the innovation of the product, but also its sustainability and price sensitivity.

“For instance, in the US and Europe there’s a huge shift to non-alcoholic products. So rather than just a standard soft drink, people are looking to more complex, non-alcoholic drinks to have in the air because it’s an environment where you do get very dehydrated, so this links to what Marisa said about wellness.

“At the same time, if people do drink alcohol, they expect to see big wow cocktails now and not just the option of a gin and tonic or a Bloody Mary. If airlines can offer more choice and similar products to what customers would get in a nice restaurant or a fun bar, then it’s marrying that hospitality experience again.”

Innovation now

Bearing in mind current high passenger expectations, the panel was asked what innovation looks like right now for the industry.

Anne de Hauw believes innovation in air travel is coming from two key areas – technological development and human engagement. “Plus, of course sustainability is a given, so I think digital passenger engagement will be key to improving customer experience, to personalising the in-flight service, but also to reducing waste, to saving costs and exploring new business models such as pre-order or skipping meals.

“However, as I said before, I think the human experience is absolutely key and prevails over anything else…and that’s going to be the real big differentiator and innovator in our industry going forward, I think.”

Marisa Pitsch added that in amenity kits, aside from personalisation, sustainable innovations are raising the bar – from biodegradable toothbrushes to the vegan fruit leathers that we’re seeing in the industry.

Innovation in food and beverages, said Sean Wheaton, is driven by pre-order and buy-onboard, meaning airlines are looking for a choice of products – particularly complete meals that are easy to reheat and serve onboard, but if not sold, can be kept onboard for the next flight rather than being thrown away.

“People value the option of being able to order something special…that is available if you pre-order,” he said, adding that the airline is passing on the cost and actually making money on the order, so the innovation is in giving people an expanded choice – whether it’s food, liquor or a specialty cocktail from a famous mixologist.

“So, innovation is about customisation and is about giving the guest more choices, whether it’s seating choices or amenities or food and beverage. It’s just empowering the guest.”

“Not everybody wants slippers or socks, and some people don’t want masks: it’s about offering a choice a little bit before you board. In premium cabins, it could be selecting right then and there what you would like.”

Marisa Pitsch, Chief Customer Experience Officer at FORMIA

Stephanie Philip concluded that key themes from the roundtable discussion were personalisation, putting the passenger first and making the experience really memorable, which could be in terms of transparency of sustainability or the story of what a passenger is eating or experiencing in their amenity kit.  

“It also includes ‘how did they make it through the airport to be on that airline and how do they feel. We’re moving away from recovery, moving into innovation and it seems like a really exciting time for the industry.”

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World Travel Catering & Onboard Services Expo (WTCE) is the leading global event for travel catering, onboard retail and passenger comfort. WTCE is renowned globally for providing a platform for innovative suppliers to showcase the latest products and services in passenger comfort, catering and travel retail to help create the ultimate passenger experience.