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Peter Lawrance, head chef of Scandinavian airline SAS, often says he has one of the world’s best jobs. And unlike some people, who say it but may not mean it, Lawrance is probably right. His airline wants to improve its food — it is betting premium customers at 35,000 feet will embrace the farm-to-table movement as on the ground — and SAS gives him an ample budget to make it happen.
Lawrance’s Instagram feed is filled colorful photographs of his travels. One month, he’s trying soy sauces in Hong Kong, judging how temperatures affect fermentation. In another, he’s near Washington Dulles Airport, tasting pasteurized cheeses he hopes European palates will find palatable. In yet another, he’s in Boston, watching a chef prepare sausage stuffed roulades for that day’s flight to Copenhagen.
Sometimes, he’s is even Japan, visiting the dairy farm that produces milk SAS uses for cheese, butter and ice cream.
A little more than a year ago, one of the airline’s senior executives accompanied Lawrance to Japan as the chef sought inspiration for new menus that would focus on Japanese ingredients. Afterward, the executive had a question: Would Lawrance allow some loyal SAS flyers to accompany him on a similar trip?
Lawrance was skeptical since SAS planned to invite big-spenders who might travel 250 days annually. “Why would they want to spend their little free time on another trip?” he wondered. But he and his colleagues discussed how to make it about more than just accompanying Lawrance on a business trip. “We needed to offer them something that was so far out there and so far different,” he said.
They devised a plan. From June 6 through 11, Lawrence would take 20 super travelers on a culinary-themed tour of Japan. They would go to aviation-related spots, such as the SAS flight kitchen serving Tokyo’s Narita airport, but also would visit a sumo wrestling training camp and a distillery Lawrance says produces the word’s best whiskey.
They would take the bullet train to Kyoto, where they would eat a traditional dinner and watch geishas perform. For other meals, they’d eat street food and at one of highest-ranking restaurants in Japan.
“It was all about what I would do when I’m there when I am by myself, and how I get my inspiration for new meals for SAS,” Lawrance said.
The sold-out trip was among the first in a new program called SAS Dreams. With about one journey per month, SAS is offering its most loyal customers — such as top tier Pandion members, a group so exclusive the airline’s CEO picks members each year — a chance to participate in activities generally off-limits to regular travelers.
In October, a group will meet in the English countryside, where frequent flyers will drive classic cars on what the airline calls a “three-day castle-to-castle tour.” Also in October, a group will visit France for a three-day tour of the Champagne region with Richard Juhlin, a champagne expert. Other upcoming trips include a visit to the South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas, and a culinary tour of Hong Kong and Macau with Lawrance.
The trips aren’t cheap, but they’re not money makers, either. Lawrance’s Japan tour cost roughly $5,000, plus 100,000 frequent flyer points, and just about broke even, said Cecilie Svegaarden, head of SAS Dreams.
But the program serves two purposes. One is to reward customers who may have enough money to do what they want, but appreciate access the packaged trips provide. And second, over time, Svegaarden said SAS hopes the Dreams program will help position the airline less as a transportation provider and more as a travel company. SAS may sell its tours to everyone, not just loyalty program members.
“What we see is that it’s the leisure market that is really growing,” Svegaarden said. “That’s not just here. It’s global. That means we need we need to be stronger. Air tickets are just one small part of the whole journey. We want to our customers to use SAS for more than the airfare. We want to be a lifestyle.”
staying close to customers
The first part of the SAS Dreams strategy — rewarding loyal customers with special experiences — is not new, though SAS might take it further than other airlines.
In recent years, airlines, hotels and credit card companies have altered loyalty programs to reward top-tier customers with experiences, rather than just upgrades or travel discounts. Many travelers — especially younger ones — tell marketers they prefer experiences, like backstage concert access, over traditional airline or hotel-related perks.
While it’s not a fresh concept, offering access and experiences works, said Tom O’Toole, clinical professor of marketing at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management and former chief marketing officer at United Airlines.
“It’s very difficult to find effective ways to engage with very high-value travelers because the practical reality is these individuals have all the points they could ever want, they have all the miles they could ever want,” he said. “They get the special services and perks, and frankly they can afford to buy whatever they want.”
O’Toole also said the trips make sense because loyal customers like and respect airlines more than customers who only fly once or twice per year. The highest-level frequent flyers often fly so much they’re often obsessed with what executives such as Lawrance must accomplish to plan the menu to Beijing. They want access to people who make decisions abut the flying experience.
“Even very high-halue travelers are fasciated and engaged by behind-the-scenes experiences and insights at airlines and hotels,’ O’Toole said.
Many SAS trips have no obvious airline connection, and some occur in cities where it does not fly. But a senior member of the airline’s management team joins every group, and travelers ask about SAS operations and strategy.
“Our passengers and clients really enjoy sitting next to someone in general management,” Svegaarden said. “These clients have so much insight and such a big interest in the airline, so for them to sit and have dinner and ask these questions and get them answered, they really appreciate that.”
Ultimately, O’Toole said, that connection might persuade a customer to stick with SAS for a long trip, even if Lufthansa has a better schedule, product or price.
Is it scalable?
For SAS, the Dreams program is about more than rewarding customers. While it may never produce big profits, Svegaarden said it can help change the airline’s positioning.
“There’s not much revenue on these trips, obviously,” she said. “For SAS, which flies 29 million passengers every year, this is a tiny group. But this has something to do with the perception of the airline as well. For us, SAS Dreams is great storytelling. Everyone has dreams. Everyone has their bucket list. This might change our customers’ perception of SAS.”
And while SAS Dreams initially served high-value travelers, the airline has opened it to other frequent flyers, too. It’s also betting it can increase revenues by offering pre-planned trips to corporate customers.
Svegaarden said the program might work as a standalone business because SAS has a reputation in Scandinavia for quality. Yes, luxury-focused travel companies can probably create similar trips, but SAS is betting it has an edge because it knows its customers better, and they tend to like the airline.
Another advantage is that the Dreams program tends to get better airfare deals than the average tour company.
“They feel like they are a part of a community when they are traveling with SAS,” Svegaarden said of typical Dreams customers. “It means something special to them. For safety and security, they trust the airline. They also trust us to fulfill their dreams and give them other experiences.”
Still, it’s not clear whether the product is scalable or even needs to be, Northwestern’s O’Toole said. Many brands only launch these programs to reward their most profitable customers and to keep them from defecting.
Even if that’s all the SAS program does, he said, it can be a success.
“The challenge is how do you scale the program enough to have a meaningful business impact,” he said. “If the primary objective is creating greater engagement and loyalty from a highly select group of extremely high-value customers, then perhaps you can accomplish your objective without scaling a lot.”
Here’s the itinerary from Lawrance’s trip to Japan.