Despite the investment and focus on lounges to compete for and retain premium passengers, there's a lot of thinking left on the table. Here are some simple fixes to design a better experience on the ground.
Colin Nagy, a marketing strategist, writes this opinion column for Skift on hospitality and business travel. On Experience dissects customer-centric experiences and innovation across the luxury sector, hotels, aviation, and beyond. He also covers the convergence of conservation and hospitality.
You can read all of his writing here.
The competition for the premium traveler is one of the fiercest in all of the aviation industry. There’s an escalating standard across the board, but particularly in the end-to-end of the experiences. Lounges play a huge role in this. Despite the investment and polish that goes into them, however, there’s still a lot of original thinking that is missing, especially as wellness and balance come front and center. Here are a few ideas for airline executives as they plan out their ground experiences for passengers.
How many times have you sat in a crowded lounge filled full of used plates? Having marked busing stations allows a well-mannered guest to drop off a used coffee cup or plate on her way out. It saves the churn and burn on the employees and also provides people with an option to leave the lounge as it was when they first arrived. Alaska Airlines does this well with its lounges. In the words of the author and behavioral writer James Clear, “The central idea is to create an environment where doing the right thing is as easy as possible.”
People are in lounges with lots of different contexts: solo travel, larger group family travel, group work travel. Some people want to relax and zone out, some people need to figure out a way to work on a quick group presentation en route to the client. There’s a very intriguing case to be made for smart, modular context shifting. Cathay Pacific and Swiss do this well with their lounges: There are lots of different use cases for every conceivable type of passenger.
The ability to take a gulp of non-airport air is a luxury. Outdoor terraces are a luxury. Swiss is best in class at this, and it’s interesting to see more brands like Delta invest in outdoor spaces in JFK and Atlanta as a differentiator.
Lounges take a severe beating. So why not design around it? More resilient finishes on walls, using the right furniture, and a strategic understanding of the pressure points and traffic points allow materials and design to protect appearances. When this is not done well, it’s apparent. Black scuff marks on white walls from errant Rimowa suitcases and worn, stained carpeting can ruin an experience.
Having a space to stretch out with some yoga or sit quietly for a few minutes of meditation will be the new normal. Qantas has been executing this particularly well with its wellness-focused lounge in Perth. Expect these types of spaces to be more common and roll out globally.
Showers are a must-have for long-haul travelers to have a quick refresh. Water pressure and cleanliness are table stakes. The design imperative here is how quickly this room can be turned around by a cleaning team to get the next passenger in. All too often shower rooms are too ornate or too complicated when they should be easy to just hose and wipe down. Turnaround time on these in-demand products are key, but again, most of the time the design thinking is lacking.
Having a dedicated rest area for a lounge is also a luxury, where passengers with longer layovers can grab some Zs. The trick here is designing for privacy and space and also enforcing the rules. Though the Qatar Airways Al Mourjan business lounge in Doha is notoriously overcrowded, it does have perfectly designed rest areas close to the (hidden) shower rooms. Other airlines can crib from this approach.
No one likes robot coffee. In premium lounges with lower foot traffic, a well-trained barista is a welcome addition. Qantas does this nicely in its First lounge at LAX, and when it’s open, Alaska offers a similar service to its paying lounge members.
I watched an American Airlines employee at the New York flagship lounge painfully pack up an entire fridge filled with boxed waters. On the packaging of the box, it touts its incredible sustainability. Aside from the wasted effort and time from the employee, you know what is truly sustainable? Providing a tap of filtered still or sparkling water for people to fill up their water bottles. I’m surprised that the calls for sustainability that have swept hotels with their plastic amenities haven’t yet reached the airline lounges.
A lot of lounges try to get too clever or too decadent. Why not just execute the basics brilliantly? Instead of meh food that was outsourced to a lackluster catering service, why not double down on something that reflects your brand properly? I love Cathay’s noodle bars in its lounges. It’s incredible comfort food that is relatively easy to execute and maps to the heritage of the brand. Thai also does this well with its lounges. I don’t need some custom guacamole bar or some dumb pop-up that probably looked great in a slide deck but has no reason to exist.
As I wrote in an earlier column, hospitality experiences can introduce you to brands in a contextual way. Australian luxury skincare brand Aesop did this brilliantly when it partnered with hotels and restaurants. Now, as a new wave of direct-to-consumer brands are competing for people’s attention, a progressive-thinking airline lounge would be an interesting place for a brand to show up. Airlines should: (1) Make these types of deals easy to do and not be a black box, and (2) look at it as a revenue opportunity. All too often the external brands you see in a lounge are a bad business magazine that no one reads.
The power of print
Speaking of print, lounges should still have a range of international magazines and newspapers — and not just ones that blithely point me to their PressReader app. It’s not just a service for people who want to read. Most importantly, it contributes to the ambience of the lounge. It also shows all of the places your airline flies to, and dare I say, might remind people of the more elegant and more civil ages of air travel. Don’t look at this as a cost center, look at it as a brand-building opportunity.
Children or family areas
Some lounges have a children’s area that is — surprise! — never used because it has the appeal of a dated McDonald’s Play Place. Why not think about a space where parents can sit and children can play that balances the two properly, and keeps hyperactive children out of the main lounge?
Nix the complicated freebies
The free facial or branded treatment in lounges are more often than not way too good to be true. They are generally never available unless you show up six hours before your flight — and are more often than not underwhelming. Because of this, the complimentary amenity creates a negative impression of Clarins or whatever brand is behind it. Airlines should scrap these, unless they can be consistent with them, likely only in limited-access first class lounges.
The power of silence
Manners have gone out the window, and people think it’s now perfectly normal to watch their TikTok videos on full volume without headphones. Lounges need to have a posted policy and empower employees to enforce the rules. Also, phone call booths that are insulated are always a good idea. Rude people ruin the ambience for high-paying customers, and airlines need to recognize this.
Photo credit: The Swiss Alpine Lounge in Zurich Airport's Terminal A opened in November 2019. Swiss