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The business travel sector had superstar cities before the pandemic. The typical corporate traveler or meeting planner often located meetings in cities with major airport hubs and large convention venues. In shorthand, they preferred Paris over Prague.
Once the pandemic recedes, Prague hopes that new technologies and new traveler behaviors may help it gain more business travel spending.
Many experts predict that a rising share of companies will keep a percentage of their workforces on a remote, or distributed, for some time. The dispersed workers will need to unite with colleagues frequently, leading to a potential boom in corporate retreats and more frequent team off-site gatherings.
Prague’s geographically central place in Europe holds promise as a business travel hub. Yet it remains better known as a weekend holiday spot. Leisure travelers made Prague the fourth most-visited European city after London, Paris, and Rome before the pandemic, according to research firm Euromonitor. It drew more than 9 million tourists in the pre-pandemic year of 2019 — but far fewer business travelers.
Prague’s main airport last week debuted a redesign that aims to make it friendlier to transfer passengers flying on separate airlines. The aim is to boost stopovers.
To start, the service works only for people who buy tickets via Kiwi.com, an online travel agency based in the Czech Republic and backed by top-tier private equity firm General Atlantic. But the concept could also work with other programs run by easyJet and other airlines.
Passengers who purchase a flight itinerary involving different airlines and connecting via Václav Havel Airport now will have an easier time self-checking their bags on the onward flight.
The airport has added fast-tracked security checkpoints for self-transfer passengers to reduce confusion and speed up boarding through its Fly Via Prague offering. Signs have been added in all terminals to point passengers toward the relevant lines and kiosks, reducing confusion.
The airport is also offering discounts for self-transfer passengers to visit a few of its lounges.
Broader Trend for “Zoom Towns”
Prague is one of a few smaller cities, or “Zoom towns,” that see an opportunity to market themselves as cheaper and easier alternatives to major urban centers for holding business meetings and off-site retreats.
“Self-connect traveling was on the rise even before the current crisis, and the trend will continue,” said Jakub Puchalsky, a member of the Prague Airport board of directors.
Prague joins Budapest, Cologne, and Reykjavík in spying a chance to market themselves as cheaper and less stressful places to transfer flights, compared to large hub airports. The cities hope to win a greater share of hosting off-site business gatherings.
Budapest, for example, is also well-located in Europe and, like Prague, is known mostly as a leisure getaway spot. Hungary’s national airline Malev collapsed in 2012, putting it at a disadvantage in wooing business travelers.
So Budapest Airport adopted a similar self-connect offering to woo transfer passengers with Kiwi.com. Since its airport launched a so-called “BUD:connects” service in late 2019, the airport has seen its transfer passenger volume increase by more than 55 percent, with 35,000 self-connecting passengers in the first three months of 2020 before the pandemic hit.
Budapest has also been creating downtown bag drops for travelers to encourage them to stay downtown rather than go back early to airports on their last day of a visit. The city transports the luggage to the airport on the passengers’ behalfs. A planned next phase would be to create flight- check-in counters at the river cruise port in the city so that their passengers can also check in their bags and remain downtown rather than heading straight to the airport.
Travelers can also buy tickets for longer lengths of stay than the traditional few hours. It’s part of an effort to encourage stopovers in-between the legs of an itinerary.
Examples of Second City Success
Reykjavik is perhaps the world’s well-known example of a smaller city that has made its airport more attractive as a transfer airport as a way to boost business and leisure visits.
Since 2010, Iceland’s Keflavik International Airport morphed from being an airport mainly for Icelanders to a transatlantic stopover hub with the help of marketing and promotions coordinated with national carrier Icelandair and national organizations. Iceland’s tourism boom had many additional factors, which Skift covered in a deep dive, but promoting stopovers was a key factor.
In September 2017, EasyJet debuted a Worldwide program that sells flights on selected airlines and offers “seamless” connections with its own flights. Since then, Emirates, Cathay Pacific, Singapore Airlines, and Virgin Atlantic have joined. EasyJet has partnered with Dohop, a price-comparison site and tech firm in Iceland, to run the program.
Iceland’s example showed how a coordinated policy around making an airport more attractive to transfer passengers could translate into leisure tourism gains. Several cities worldwide may hope a similar trick will work now for other cities for business travel in an era of distributed workforces.