Opinion: pooling data to enhance the passenger experience

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Data in the airport setting must be about more than just counting heads and shifting people from A to B, says Jason Miles, managing director of airport retail specialists Blackjack Promotions

Airports are complex ecosystems with a range of different groups trying to make sure they get the most out of the experience.

Airport operators, airlines, retailers, brands and F&B suppliers work together in this ecosystem, but it’s important to remember that there is at least one other group, arguably the most important – the passengers.

There’s discussion at the moment about how airports and airlines can pool their passenger data to create economies of scale and synergies and to improve the passenger experience. But I’d argue that airside and landside retailers, and the brands that they represent, need to be included in the data sharing and planning. Otherwise, you’re missing half the picture. 

Brands and retailers have the direct connection with consumers; people love brands and they love shops. Airports are what you use to get to a destination; retailers can be part of that exciting journey, and brands can be the reason passengers seek them out during their time in the airport.

The 21st century is all about technology that brings us together and connectivity is key to great campaigns. If we’ve learnt anything in recent years from the fallout over big data blunders, it’s that consumers are happy when data they share is being used to deliver something relevant and timely to them, but not when they feel like they’re getting none of the benefit.

Retailers are always aware that their core mission is to deliver what people want, when they want it, at a price they are happy with. If there is one thing that successful brands and retailers are good at, it’s understanding what people want and engaging them with something that delivers it.

At Blackjack Promotions, we’re in the privileged position of having worked with all the commercial partners in the airport environment: airports, retailers, brands and airlines. We’ve run marketing activities for all of them at one time or another. The truth is, data is great – but on its own, it’s cold. To turn data into actionable marketing campaigns, you need the added warmth that comes from real insights into human behavior.

All of us who work in the airport environment need to be sharing data and using it to better understand passengers, to make sense of what drives particular groups and adds value to their experience. 

If you look at a major terminal like Heathrow’s Terminal 5, which arguably set the gold standard for travel retail when it opened in March 2008, you’ll see that the passenger type changes across the day, because flights to different regions and time zones tend to land or take off in roughly the same time window. For example, at particular times of day, you’ll see a major increase in the number of Chinese or Middle Eastern passengers. 

But it gets more complex. There’s a difference between business passengers and leisure passengers; and even within the leisure class, you’ll see different patterns of purchase behavior depending on where they’re going and whether they’re traveling in small family groups or, say, a wedding party. 

We are incredibly fortunate in that the airport is a controlled environment, and we have access to a wealth of information and data, with additional insight from retailers and airports. But that is worthless if we don’t have properly trained staff who can take that raw data and turn it into something that engages people’s attention during what is actually a relatively small window of time.

One key point is that everything we do has got to feel genuine. Great service is built from authenticity. People coming into airport shops and F&B outlets should never feel like they’re being sold to. You’re providing real service, which then delivers a great quality experience.

Delivering genuinely engaged service is about more than just having the right data; you have to educate staff and build a responsive culture across your workforce. Employees need to grasp the simple fact that people making their way through an airport will have different needs, and that identifying those needs and delivering relevant information and products is not about slavishly following a script.

Our staff are also trained to understand that passenger engagement doesn’t stop when the sale is rung up, or a sample is handed out; the biggest airports are dealing with tens of thousands of passengers, and a substantial proportion of them are picking up products, taking them home, and showing them off. Brands are therefore increasingly seeing the benefit of using airport duty-free as testbeds for new products, meaning passengers are often in possession of first-runs and exclusives. 

I was in Terminal 5 recently; that day, it handled 56,000 passengers. Just think of the presence that gives brands that are stocked in T5’s outlets. Done right, airport duty-free and related marketing give you visibility to an international audience. You can drive consumer interest, drive online searches, and seed your brands around the world, as well as adding to the glamor of airline travel.

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