Trade Talk: Mei Mei Song of Plaza Premium Group

The airport hospitality company’s Global Brand and Product Transformation Director details its recovery strategy and ongoing expansion.

All photos courtesy of Plaza Premium Group

As the world’s biggest independent airport lounge operator, how has Plaza Premium Group overcome the challenges of the past few months?

In response to this pandemic, we must work as a community, and as the market leader in airport hospitality services, we felt it was our role to help guide recovery in our space. We conducted a survey titled “What’s Next for Airport Hospitality” with over 200 industry partners and more than 2,000 consumers, and established these six guiding principles:

  • People are always at the center
  • Travelers’ behavior will shift forever
  • Build and sustain cost efficiency
  • Readiness for digitalization
  • Sustainability is the norm
  • Business remodeling will be happening in the travel industry

To rebuild business and consumer confidence, communication with passengers is key and our role is to give reassurance. And while travel has come to a halt, we wanted to ensure we stay connected with our guests by spreading comfort in these disconcerting times via our “Let Love Travel” social campaign.

We’ve accelerated our digital transformation journey to promote touchless interactions via our membership program, Smart Traveller. And at this time, conducting business with your heart is important, so when the pandemic first hit, without hesitation, we made sure we offered flexibility for our guests to refund and cancel their bookings with us. Also, it is a stressful time for the industry and our teams globally have also rolled out community engagement initiatives to build the community spirit—remember all of us in the industry put our lives at risk every day with the presence of Covid-19.

The industry is going to change, the way people travel will change, so it is important for us to face this new normal by leading the conversation about the future of travel and commit our teams globally to re-engineer customer experiences; transform existing brands; strategic collaborations; and let ourselves reflect and strategize.

 

What is the operational status of the Group’s worldwide portfolio? Have most lounges and Aerotels already reopened?

Since the onset of the pandemic at the start of the year, we have now reopened 35 percent of our operations, which include airport lounges Plaza Premium First and Plaza Premium Lounge; airport terminal hotels Aerotel and Refreshhh by Aerotel; airport meet and greet services, Allways; and a range of airport dining concepts.

The majority of these openings have been in countries where the government has done a commendable job containing the virus and secondly, where domestic travel is strong, including countries such as India, Malaysia, and most notably China.

As an example, the air traffic volume at Beijing’s newly opened Daxing Airport has already bounced back to January’s numbers, and we have seen a significant pick up in our occupancy in Aerotel Daxing. We’re happy to see the rest of the world gradually open up more too, with more international flights being made available.

Honeycomb workstations at Plaza Premium Lounge in Taipei Taoyuan International Airport.

With air passenger numbers drastically reduced at this time, what adjustments have you had to make in terms of dining offerings?

We have innovated our dining offerings during this time to offer the safest possible experience. We have introduced Smart Order—our food ordering system via QR code—for guests to enjoy fresh, safely made, made-to-order meals. Our buffet services are no longer available and we’ve adapted our food system to serve each guest individually with pre-portioned or pre-packed meals. We run our own kitchens at the airport so we have full control to ensure that the highest safety and hygiene measures are followed.

 

Given the current obsession with hygiene, what health and safety measures can guests expect to see at Plaza Premium lounges?

We have developed our own We Care For Your Wellbeing program across Plaza Premium Group to ensure a worry-free environment for both our guests and hosts. For a start everyone wears a mask. Our safety and hygienic protocols include stations where your body temperature is taken; social distancing at check-in, in the lounge, and dining areas; we also provide hand sanitizing stations; and all areas are frequently disinfected. We’ve also reconfigured our zoning to better promote private space and respect social distancing guidelines.

A key area of innovation has been to ensure a touchless lounge experience. Through our app-based global airport membership program, Smart Traveller, guests can enjoy a seamless digital customer journey before their trip to maximize value through limitless rewards, benefits, and services, which includes ST Boutique, a retail experience offers that products such as UV-light cleaning technology gadgets, surface sanitizers, and wellness kits with hand sanitizer, masks, and a mask holder.

We’re looking forward to welcoming passengers back to our lounges soon. Although there have been many new health and safety measures introduced, guests can still expect the same high-quality service from Plaza Premium Group.

The frequency of sanitization has been stepped up across Plaza Premium lounges worldwide.

In what other ways is Smart Traveller digitalizing the lounge experience?

Going digital is no longer a “nice-to-have” feature but is crucial to build the guest experience, to provide convenience, comfort and agility to travelers.

Smart Traveller has been designed with an easy-to-navigate interface to create a new way of enjoying rewards with Plaza Premium Group services, and a range of travel-related products and services curated on the Global Air Travel Rewards Marketplace. Smart Traveller is also programmed to facilitate worry-free, contactless experience with multi-faceted functions, including dedicated Wi-Fi login and point purchase of our services such as beverages, food, massage, showers, digital admission, in-lounge digital reading materials, and the food self-ordering in lounges as I mentioned before.

In addition, it is a flexible platform to unite the airport ecosystem through strategic partnerships. Smart Traveller offers five value-added partnership approaches for partners to choose from according to their business needs: inclusion of partners’ services and products for members to earn and redeem points; be part of the Global Air Travel Reward Marketplace with instant redemption and worldwide delivery; integrate with Smart Traveller to engage members and build relationships, delivering a seamless customer experience; exclusive offers; and customized and exclusive global travel rewards for Smart Traveller members.

Plaza Premium Group launched its global airport rewards program Smart Traveller in August.

In your opinion, what moves will be necessary for us to see a major recovery in the travel sector? Are you optimistic about the creation of “travel bubbles”?

We will need to redefine the new industry benchmark for global airport hospitality and what is expected from the whole travel ecosystem. Redefining operations and reinforcing hygienic protocols are essential, as is driving digitalization at full speed and going contactless. This will all help boost travel confidence and lead to recovery.

I also believe that the ecosystem of air travel must work together as one community to encourage travel with a safe and worry-free experience. Over the last few months, we have been taking a proactive role in speaking with and gathering our network of partners to look at strategies ahead and create solutions together. We must also look at creative collaborations—within or beyond air travel—to innovate and be bold.

I am optimistic about travel bubbles as new updates are emerging every day and behind-the-scenes preparation work to set up these crucial air corridors is already taking place. In some countries such as such as China, Australia, Italy, Canada, Sweden, UAE and more, many new initiatives such as digital health passports, accessible Covid-19 testing and e-health certificates from governments or airlines are being rolled out. Airports are also enforcing new safety and hygiene measures. For example, our friends at Hong Kong International Airport are testing a full-body disinfecting machine that could be used to spray sanitizer to protect passengers and airport staff from COVID-19 infection, while Indian airports have in recent months adopted a contactless process for handling checked baggage that exceeds weight restrictions. Similarly, Singapore Changi Airport has installed FAST check-in kiosks and bag-drop machines fitted with proximity sensors so passengers will not need to touch the screens to check-in or to drop off their bags. So as long as governments and airports lead the charge to control the spread, I believe these bubbles will take place faster than we think.

The bar at Plaza Premium Groups first U.S. lounge, inside Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport.

Can you tell us about the Group’s global expansion plans? What significant projects are there in the pipeline?

Throughout the year we have continued our strategic global expansion including lounges in India, the United States, Australia, and China. In September, we opened our first Plaza Premium Lounge in the US at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which is currently the busiest domestic airport in the country. We are also working closely with an expanding network of airline partners to offer our award-winning lounge services at selected airports to ensure their passengers enjoy a safe and worry-free journey.

There are a number of countries and cities where we will be launching our lounges and hotels for the first time, as well as new services that will build a safe environment for passengers when they travel. The innovation never stops: watch this space.

 

The Covid-19 pandemic has really highlighted the importance of wellbeing and sustainability. With those two concepts in mind, how do you think airport lounges will be designed in the future?

Airport lounges will be an important in the post-pandemic experience as we provide a safe and hygienic haven to give you a peace of mind when you travel.

At Plaza Premium Group, we have been championing wellbeing and sustainability initiatives across our business long before the pandemic. Travelers having long transit hours may look for “activities” that help them to continue their fitness regime in dedicated fitness or yoga spaces. But we need to look beyond traditional approaches given we are in an airport. We have a gym corner at Aerotel in Singapore Changi and Beijing Daxing International Airport, but to me this is only the start of the conversation.

Food is key. Since day one PPG has served fresh food that is prepared in our airport kitchens. Healthy options and eating well on the road will be a priority as people place greater value on their health. As a leader in the market, we are fully committed to this, from the introduction of the Beyond Meat burger at Plaza Premium First Hong Kong, to signature local dishes, using locally sourced ingredients where possible, that give a sense of place, such as oven-baked pizza at Plaza Premium Lounge Rome.

Finally, the lounges themselves are being designed to enhance both wellbeing and sustainability. Taking Plaza Premium Lounge at Gate 35 at Hong Kong International Airport which opened earlier this year as a great example, the space is filled with ample natural daylight, and the design presents an earthy tone with plants on walls to bring the outside in. We’ve also recently partnered with local florist Greenfingers in Hong Kong to bring in a lush vertical garden and creative green features at our Plaza Premium Lounge by Gate 1. Traveling can be stressful especially now, but by incorporating more greenery and natural elements we hope to bring calmness and relaxation to global travelers.

The plant-based Beyond Meat burger is offered at Plaza Premium First in Hong Kong.

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