Orlando 2018: Airport customer experience leadership forum

  • March 9, 2018
By Ron Ritter
The next five years promise a disruptive experience for airport authorities and their many operating partners.

“Experience” will rise to the top of the airport agenda and frame how stakeholder ecosystems define performance. Rising customer expectations and new technology will combine with increasing air travel volumes and pressure for financial efficiency to drive for real innovation in airport experience. This is all sets against a backdrop of more than $40 billion of expected customer-facing capital infrastructure development in major North American airports. How, in the face of such disruption, should airport leaders prioritize their efforts to ensure distinctive experience and best possible financial performance?

A strong Customer Experience (CX) focus can be a highly effective lens to prioritize efforts and drive value creation. Across industries, successful initiatives aimed at improving CX typically deliver revenue growth of 5 to 10 percent and cost reductions of 15 to 25 percent within two or three years. Moreover, organizations delivering a exceptional CX can exceed gross margins of their competitors by more than 26 percent while improving employee engagement and improving operating efficiency. Specific to airports, a strategic focus on CX has the unique ability to align multiple disparate entities that operate in an airport around one common goal—to provide distinctive experience serving the needs of the traveling public.

Based on this shared understanding, a group of 14 senior executives representing 11 airports and airport-stakeholder organizations gathered in to explore critical questions related to delivering an effective CX strategy. Over the course of 1.5 days, participants learned from each other and from industry experts by:

  • Engaging in collaborative discussion with peers regarding major trends and challenges impacting CX, and how to link key CX initiatives to measurable value
  • Experiencing an exclusive backstage tour at Walt Disney World Resort to see time-tested best practices for creating a customer-centric culture
  • Interacting with leaders living a successful CX transformation at Orlando International Airport based on their 2017 designation at #1 JD Power rated experience in NA airports
  • Participating in roundtable discussion with a panel of airport-experience stakeholders, including the TSA, former CEO of a major cruise line, and a major domestic airline

Throughout the forum, participants landed on a set of seven insights and agreed to continue the conversation through a regular convening of industry leadership in future sessions:

  1. Great “experience” matters in three major domains. Experience is increasingly the only “product” that matters for an airport. It is/ should be at the center of virtually all airport design, operating and financial decisions. All experience drives from three major areas—”People, Process and Place”. Participants debated a range of examples across all three—better engagement and knowledge to help passengers, increased use of technology in security line management, and fundamentally thinking about retail mix and physical layout.
  2. EX matters as much as CX. Airports cannot expect to provide great guest experience without first delivering the same to their (typically) 10,000+ employees. Focusing on employees ensures employees will focus on customers. One airport involved employee service reps in their terminal redesign: staff plumbers worked with engineers on proposed bathrooms that looked nice but would be difficult to repair. Revised designs optimized reparability and reduced system downtime—thus improving employee experience, efficiency and customer experience.

    Delivering great employee experience starts with purposeful onboarding. Easier said than done, however. Multiple airports leaders expressed the difficulty surrounding everything from badging processes to regulatory constraints and limited labor supplies. One participant mentioned “hiring for attitude, not aptitude” and selects candidates who can adopt the strong values and cultural norms integrated deeply into delivering the desired experience. The group talked thru an ideal overall onboarding process from vetting to comprehensive training programs and evaluation with conservative retention policies.
  3. Intentionally design and reinforce culture to encourage interactions vs. transactions. Airports have been designed to facilitate efficient handling of passengers, despite often operating well beyond original designed capacity. MCO, for example, transits nearly 2x its originally intended capacity, which could compel employees to ‘process’ passengers in a transactional manner. Employees at all levels need to be encouraged to engage differently—as Disney notes, “Sometimes it is ok to stop your job (e.g. selling a newspaper), and deliver on the purpose (e.g. help guest feel good about their journey).”

    But creating a customer-centric culture requires more than a mission statement and a standard operating procedure defining every customer service moment. The Disney backstage tour and interaction with frontline managers at MCO showed that employees are most effective at delivering great service when they understand what is required of them and are then given the autonomy to perform. It starts with a shared purpose that is internalized by each employee and is supported by a set of prioritized values. That “North Star” must then be reinforced through leadership role modeling, tools to empower service delivery, training, formal reinforcement, performance management and care and recognition programs to truly create a culture that supports the desired experience. Orlando airport showcased a tremendous success story of tying recognition directly back to defined behaviors that customers value—e.g. “proactively offer helpful advice on the next step of the journey.
  4. Delivering great experience is not a blank check and requires understanding what consumers really want. Airports are challenged by the dual need to deliver a great experience while improving cost per enplanement (CPE). A qualitative and quantitative customer fact base can provide critical guidance and objectivity in defining what customers value. Participants agreed that getting this right is as much about deprioritizing investments that don’t drive CX as it is about finding positive ROI projects. As an example, Orlando Airport faced challenges from community activists after announcing removal of moving sidewalks transiting landside retail space. They confidently pressed ahead based on detailed research into their customer needs. New lounges replaced the moving sidewalks and increased customer satisfaction, raised same-store revenue by 6% per annum and effectively de-capitalized the airport while saving the energy and maintenance operating expenses.
  5. The future of airports requires rethinking retail. In the age of Amazon, airport concourses can no longer mirror shopping malls. New experiences are needed—showrooms, augmented reality, and pop-ups (e.g., one executive brought goat yoga to their airport). To be effective, airports will also need to strike the right balance that combines delivering on revenue and customer satisfaction (e.g., McDonalds vs. Jabbrrbox) and will need to concentrate on retail and experiences more directly tied to what passengers want to achieve with their time vs. simply buying stuff. As such, airports should strive to incorporate a mix of concessions that surprise & delight (e.g., ice skating, movie theaters) and offer convenience (e.g., pharmacies, dry cleaners). Developing partnerships with leaders in this field could help position airports as leaders in consumer innovation and convenience.
  6. Automation is an employee’s ally, not enemy. Participants were eager to welcome new technologies, particularly greater automation, to streamline operations. But rather than replace 1:1 interactions, the conversation focused on how technology frees employees to have more interactive experiences with customers. Automation also has the potential to allow for better segmentation—frequent flyers appreciate a standardized, efficient experience, while infrequent leisure travelers may want a higher-touch experience with more 1:1 interaction with employees.
  7. Creating the future curb-to-gate-to-curb experience could be driven by data collaboration. One participant bemoaned, “Everyone is asking to get my data, but no one says ‘Would my data be useful to you?’” Participants recognized that they and all airport partners gather data from the same customer set but had very limited visibility into the collective database. Without a shared data set, airports and their partners (e.g., airlines and concessionaires) cannot see potentially transformative insights that could be used to create new world-class experiences for their shared customers. Creating a platform to share data among all stakeholders in an airport environment, and even across airports nationwide, could be the next step-change to drive the future of curb-to-curb experience. The group also clearly recognized the challenge this presents with respect to competitive insights.

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