When you really want passengers to give you a piece of their mind

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Fiona Tindall (left), head of domestic retail at marketing agency Blackjack Promotions, explains the benefit of using experienced airport personnel such as brand ambassadors to collect real-time feedback from passengers

Airports can be brilliant places to launch new products and services – but they can also be great environments to get people to give you their opinions and to collect feedback.

Finding out what passengers think isn’t just important to brand marketers; airports and retailers need to carry out extensive research into how people are enjoying the airport experience, whether they can get from A to B easily, whether they are happy with the range of products in a store – in a nutshell, everything.

There’s a huge captive audience of travelers, many of whom welcome any relief from the tedium of waiting for their flight to be called. But airports can also be incredibly challenging locations to carry out face-to-face research. Travelers can be tired, distracted and stressed, while there may be restrictions on how and where companies can deliver marketing activities and what they can say to people, particularly if a brand or service is working airside, beyond the security barriers.

That makes it vital that brand ambassadors working within the airport environment understand how travelers think and how to approach them in a way that reduces stress levels, rather than adding to them.

Put simply, ambassadors need much higher levels of diplomacy and general customer service skills than they would need, say, in a traditional retail environment, public space or festival or event.

One obvious solution is to use people who are specifically trained to engage with the general public and deliver exceptional levels of service – brand ambassadors from experiential agencies. And in particular, those with specific experience working on airport campaigns and who are used to dealing with airport audiences.

In high-pressured airport environments, where people may have limited time before they board their flights, undertaking traditional questionnaire-based research can prove quite a challenge.

While this type of activity will still tend to form the backbone of how a lot of research is carried out, some airports, retailers and brands are getting more creative, using experiential staff and innovative channels to approach consumers.

Some airports will combine the traditional survey-based approach, canvassing passenger opinion on how they found their experience, with a role-play based approach, where brand ambassadors take on a range of passenger personalities, essentially putting themselves in their shoes.

This can provide key insight into the specific needs of that type of passenger. Essentially, it’s like being a mystery shopper for airport services. Usually, airports will want ambassadors to portray several different sorts of personae, such as the businessperson in a hurry who needs urgent help, someone in a wheelchair, a harried mother with small children, people who are new to flying and have no clue where to go or what to do.

There is also the ‘head counting’ exercise – less sexy, perhaps, but just as vital. We’ve provided staff to count passenger traffic through terminals and toilets to check-in queues, noting where people are flying to and assessing online check-in usage. This kind of more numbers-based research can contribute much to understanding more about an airport’s passenger profile and what travelers need at each point of their journey.

Brands, too, are exploring how to use experiential staff to learn more about customers and potential customers. Silver Arrow Systems (SAS), for example, is an innovative company that deploys high-tech self-service kiosks in airports, where passengers can buy last minute travel insurance.

It’s surprising how many air passengers forget about insurance until the last minute, so the kiosks offer a safety net to catch people by offering a simple way to arrange cover at the departure gate – the whole process takes under three minutes, with travelers able to bypass long-winded form filling on screen by scanning their passports. The machines respond to the demographic of the traveler, using airport passenger data feeds to tailor the messaging so that it’s relevant for the passenger audience according to time and day.

As with any new technology, there is a learning curve. So when the company was deploying its technology within the terminals at Gatwick Airport in 2015, it came to us to provide on-the-spot staff who could guide people through the steps to buying insurance. Our experiential staff were able to raise awareness and relay the benefits and key messages of SAS kiosks while at the same time getting hugely valuable information from travellers via a survey.

The terminals now handle 8,000 policies a month (incidentally generating a useful income stream for the airport operator, which otherwise would have been diverted to online insurance companies accessed via travelers’ smartphones).

Sam Playfair, head of business development at SA Systems, said, “Our systems are actually very simple to use, but when we were launching them in the airport environment, where people are often tired and stressed, we found that it really helped to have a human face and voice there to take them through the process.”

The important lesson here for airports, and for the brands and retailers that want to have a dialog with air passengers, is that as terminals get busier, they will increasingly need to think outside the box.

Using staff that are more used to running creative and experiential campaigns can help change the dynamic of in-airport research for the better, providing everyone involved with more (and more valuable) actionable insights.

March 30, 2017

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