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Come Fly with Me…and Dine!

Americans are certainly a society in perpetual motion.  And nowhere does this seem more evident than in air travel.  Business persons, individuals, families, social groups, sports teams, and more are traveling more now than ever before.  In fact, you’ve experienced it!  You’ve walked through the airport in the past year and become part of the crowd waiting to get through the security check.  More and more travelers are arriving at the airport even earlier than the suggested “2 hours prior to flight departure” just to guarantee they get through increasingly long security check-in lines and make their flight.  As you peek at the time on your phone and realize that you have made it to your gate with 2 hours left to spare before flight time, you think, “Now what do I do??”

A look around the airport shows a much different picture of foodservice from 10 or 15 years ago.  Today’s airports feature the same trends we are seeing in virtually every other industry market.  People want convenient, healthy food choices in a quick, innovative and technology-driven environment without sacrificing the experience.  In short, they aren’t just grabbing fuel for their body anymore while dashing for their flight.  And they aren’t waiting for airlines to serve them a meal on their flight because, unless you’re one of the lucky few who received an upgrade to 1st Class, domestic in-flight meals are a thing of the past.

Instead travelers are purchasing a meal to eat prior to boarding or during the actual flight.  And that has created a big opportunity for airports to review their foodservice operations and come up with a plan that considers these new trends.

Cool, New Technology

Over the past five years, airport foodservice operators are finding innovative ways to use technology to attract customers.  With technology constantly improving and becoming part of everyone’s daily life, airports have jumped on the band wagon to help speed travelers through airports or serve their needs when little time is available between connections.  One great example of this is the innovation implemented by OTG Management and the food venues it manages in several North American airports including Minneapolis (MSP), Toronto (YYZ), Washington Reagan (DCA), New York-LaGuardia (LGA), Newark (EWR) and Houston (IAH).  This Manhattan-based airport foodservice management company has introduced the latest in self-ordering and self-payment technology by utilizing iPads to their fullest potential.

While the system may seem a bit too automated and “robotic” to some people, as it does remove some of the personal interaction with a restaurant server, the system is very user-friendly and provides all the graphic and menu information a consumer needs to make a quick decision on the food they want, and to modify their order based on their personal dietary needs and/or restrictions.  On top of all that, each iPad contains menus printed in several different languages.  So, whether you’re traveling from Spain, France, Germany, China, Japan, Korea, or Brazil, it’s no problem.

And…if that isn’t enough, OTG’s new iPad software lets you scan your boarding pass on to the iPad, linking it to the airport’s departure screen to keep track of your specific flight.  So, if there is a delay in your departure, or, if you lose track of time and forget that your flight is boarding, a pop-up notice on the screen alerts you that you need to pay and go to the gate to board.  Pretty sweet!

AuthentiCITY with Local Flavor

Food options, in most major airports today are not limited to fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King, Pizza Hut, and KFC. (Remember the time when you saw a Pizza Hut in an airport concourse and you thought “jackpot!”?)  Nowadays you barely see a fast-food chain in an airport food court as the traveling public moves further away from processed and deep-fried foods towards fresh ingredients and made-to-order menu items…even for grab-n-go items. Today’s airports feature local restaurants that offer travelers an opportunity to experience regional cuisine.  Yes, there are still some popular national chains, but they, too, strive to offer regional specialties in an effort to compete with the local options.

A Bit of History

This trend has continued to evolve from the late 90’s, when airports began to create a market-retail environment within the airport, think “retail mall” atmosphere, allowing travelers to shop and dine as if they were at their mall near home.  The idea was to bring the “mall” to this captive audience, namely the traveler waiting for their next flight.

The idea was an immediate success and it thrives even more today with the increase of passenger wait-time for flights.  And if you think about it, it makes total logical sense.  Oftentimes darting through an airport concourse is the only exposure to the city that the passenger has.   Why wouldn’t a city want to put their best foot forward by highlighting and offering in the airport the best food and retail their city offers?  If you fly through Minneapolis, for example, grab a menu item from a local restaurant inside the airport and think: “That was really good!”, you might be inclined to actually visit Minneapolis for a longer stay in the future.

Pioneers of the Retail Market Trend

A few of the first airports to implement this new retail concept in their facilities were Portland International (PDX), Charlotte, (CLT), and Pittsburgh International (PIT).  Portland’s new retail dining and shopping facilities (which Cini•Little assisted in planning) gained national attention for not only its innovative space planning and facility layout, but also for bringing local restaurant concepts inside the airport’s security perimeter.  Travelers got to shop at some of Portland’s more popular retail names like Nike, Pendleton, Columbia, and Powell’s Books, while also trying some of Portland’s local food concepts. Pittsburgh’s airport expanded that example to essentially create its own indoor shopping mall within the airport with some of the biggest and most popular brands in the country.  Soon, nearly every major airport in the country was making plans to copy the models set by PDX and PIT in some fashion or another.

Food Trucks at Airports???

Speaking of Minneapolis, they seem to be on the cutting edge of every airport foodservice trend.  Recently, the MSP Airport Authority rebid the foodservice contracts within the airport to incorporate even more local flavor into their facility.  With the hot trend and increasing popularity of food trucks in many major urban centers, Minneapolis wanted some of that local talent and flavor in their airport as well.  For anyone who lives in a city with a food truck lot in the center of downtown, you know that these so-called “trucks” provide stiff competition to any restaurant chain in terms of food quality, taste, variety, and creativity.  If I were the owner/CEO of a chain restaurant…I’d be worried for sure.

And yes, I do realize a food truck cannot produce as many items as, say, the Cheesecake Factory, or produce some of the items that a specialized restaurant concept can.  But the menu items they do produce…in a huge variety of ethnic foods and tastes…is often some of the best food in a city. It is a shrewd move by MSP to bring yet another innovative food concept within the confines of the airport’s security perimeter.

Embracing Trends Equals Increased Profits

And with the trend of airlines charging for every extra thing you want on a flight other than the seat you sit in for 2-6 hours, airports becoming more and more crowded, and connection times between flights shrinking, the more airports can do to enlist both technology and local food flavors into their passenger facilities, the more both operator and airport stand to make from the traveling public.  And as we’ve seen over the past 10 years…that business isn’t going to decrease anytime soon.

Bon Voyage and Bon Appetit!

By: Barry Skown

Senior Associate | MAS

San Diego


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