COVID-19 has caused a near universal consumer adoption of digital far beyond just search and discovery. Globally, across almost every demographic, international lockdowns have got us accustomed to pre-order, pre-select and home delivery for many of our retail and service transactions. These rapid and continuing shifts in digital behavior inevitably affect the post-crisis traveler journey. As flights slowly resume, airlines, airports and associated service providers will no longer enjoy the luxury of resurrecting 'high touch' retail or food & beverage. Shopping and food & beverage are, of course, two of the most essential experiential elements in any travel journey. As travel restarts, travelers will now expect convenient digital access to these types of products as well as an overriding commitment to hygiene, sustainability and safety. And there is every reason to believe that these expectations will extend across the travel life cycle - from airport, to inflight and post flight.
If you were an airline now, given the devastating onslaught of the pandemic on revenues and cash flow, just how and where would you start? Where exactly are the incremental revenue generation opportunities and cost savings to be found?
Let's start by understanding the three key challenges:
First, let’s look at the five traditional key touchpoints along the traveler journey: travel search, booking, check-in, inflight and baggage collection. Apart from the built-in impediment that they are usually the remit of five different silos within an airline's organization, they are also typically managed using outdated, siloed systems that are incapable of delivering cost savings or revenue generation. The net result? A broken, disrupted travel experience where opportunities for up-sell and cross-sell are wasted.
Today, there is no shortage of tech and platforms to drive the aviation business - whether reservation systems, loyalty databases, inflight entertainment, E-Commerce and ERP platforms. Some systems, especially the inflight food & beverage and retail ones, are even owned by third parties. This often leaves the airline at substantial risk when contracts expire or vendors are changed. The result? The ability to curate and deliver relevant, customer-centric offers at the right time to the right set of travelers is largely lost.
Frequent flyers, premium passengers, families with children, single or business travelers - these diverse traveler segments generally have one thing in common: less than 15% of them transact in an airport and less then 2% of them inflight. Such patent lack of enthusiasm is not new, and while a post-COVID 'revenge spending' bounce is likely, it is clear that a more robust and sustainable strategy is needed to entice travelers who are typically non-buyers.
A fragmented traveler experience that is further weakened by the inability to target and customize relevant offers can only lead to traveler disinterest and an unwillingness to either engage or transact. We often hear that airlines and airports need to think more like retailers; but the truth is that integrated solutions and systems are what are needed to support this thinking. Today, you cannot have one without the other.
So, what would this integrated solution look like?
Well, you won’t be surprised to learn that it looks remarkably like Omnevo’s own proven solution suite - but my point here is not a sales pitch (but, hey, feel free to call me!). The fundamental imperative that airlines and airports must adapt to the customer’s accelerating shifts in behavior and needs. For the industry’s dinosaur models, that tiny chip in the traveler’s mobile is an extinction event; they cannot evolve those exhausted old systems any further and the only survival path is digital.
That path starts with a modular, next generation platform, integrated with reservations and booking flows, combined with airline loyalty systems, while also being able to manage multiple, system-wide suppliers and partners at scale. Most importantly, this platform effectively puts travelers in charge, giving them the control they demand, with multiple choices and options. And not just of products or services, but also of delivery and fulfillment options. Excel sheets and antiquated catering management systems simply lack the power and sophistication required to deliver the demanded front end user experience. Nor can those outdated systems manage the heavy lifting of the back end in terms of search and recommendation, product information management, order management, transaction fulfillment and financial reconciliation.
Yet probably the most interesting and appealing aspect of this platform is its ability to open up the means of airport-airline collaboration. Based on existing affiliate marketing methods and models, there is a strong commercial promise underpinning this collaboration, where airline passengers can be directed to the retail and food & beverage options of their preference at the airport, with both the airline and the airport sharing a portion of the spoils.
With respect to retail and services, airports and airlines have traditionally had poor engagement with travelers pre-flight. Lack of collaboration between them largely accounts for this, but then so has the traditional thinking around retail and services as being 'impulsive' actions, which take place only when physically present - whether at the airport or inflight.
Yet these are two big opportunities, both in terms of cost optimization and revenue streams. A ticketed passenger is already effectively a 'captive' customer, providing multiple opportunities for targeted, relevant and valuable offers long before the actual travel day – but only digital can turn those opportunities into commercial reality.
The value of a digitally-integrated platform that allows passengers to pre-order, pre-select or pre-buy food & beverage, duty free or services is priceless. Using targeted communications, such as to active airline loyalty members, there can be measurably increased engagement with frequent flyers as well as a better segmentation of offers based on previous purchases. The combined effect of this is powerful. From car parking and lounge reservations to pre-selection of meals and pre-purchasing of duty free, new and stronger revenue channels are created – all driven by an integrated solution suite.
We know the score here. Typically characterized by a lack of connectivity and space, the inflight environment is one where crew hold the dual responsibilities of safety and service. Retail - and this is notably true of the full service airlines - comes a distant third. The overall impact of being in an offline retail environment, with severely limited product selection, combined with a crew who have other responsibilities, simply creates passenger (and often crew) apathy and disinterest.
As a result, the lack of data and transactions and the resulting wastage and fuel burn all prevent airlines from delivering the kind of inflight service and retail excellence they may aspire to. And it's not memorable for their passengers, either.
Alternatively, a digital platform and solution suite breaks the shackles of a limited vendor set, allows the airline better integrated functionality between warehouse, catering cabin crew inflight, right up to the passengers themselves. Rid yourself of Excel spreadsheets, vanilla POS terminals and crew frustration with the reams of paperwork many currently deal with. Instead, a modular solution set that optimizes food & beverage loading, empowers passengers to select and touchless pay for product on demand (rather than needing crew to rumble carts down the aisle), all the while providing key data back to operations and supply chain teams on the ground at the end of the flight.
Most importantly, the digital solution provides for an almost unlimited expansion of the inflight product and service offering - from 150 to tens of thousands of items. And these from thousands of third-parties both on and off airport, whilst still enabling multiple post-flight fulfilment options. Starting to sound Amazon-esque yet?
As it happens, this is what our teams have been busy creating over the last 4 years so that end-to-end total commercial engagement and management is now no longer a vision but a reality for an increasing volume of airlines migrating to our solutions. (I’ll be honest – that bit is definitely a sales pitch!).
This is traditionally the weakest link in the passenger journey within the airline industry, where aligning pre- and in-flight experiences with post-flight targeting and communications is notoriously challenging - given the separate booking, transaction and CRM silos that sit across multiple business units within most airlines. Yet the post-flight stage also yields some of the greatest integration opportunities in terms of digital retargeting and loyalty marketing.
Imagine a scenario where the flight may be over, but the passenger's consumption and engagement experience is extended beyond the flight itself. Post-flight order deliveries, collection from the airport, social media engagement, even return flight offers - these are just some simple examples of how a solutions suite can effectively maintain airline (and airport) brand engagement with the passenger. Loyalty and frequent flyer miles redemptions (together with part cash payments) present yet another channel for non-travel engagement with the airline.
As I’ve outlined, the digital travel retail platform of the future is not a destination but a journey in itself. It begins with a clear understanding of what travelers are going to expect and how they are likely to behave - both in the approaching recovery and beyond - followed by a purposeful design of existing systems and processes. This will deliver the key desired outcomes - cost efficiencies, revenue generation and excellent passenger experiences - both offline and digital. Agile implementation and new versions follow - without the need for resource or capex intensive investments. Start small, deploy a minimum viable product, scale up. But, most importantly as an airline, take back control of your ability to deliver your uniquely branded experience to your passengers - seamlessly!
Join me at the FTE-APEX Virtual Expo on May 25th at 1600 BST for an exclusive presentation as part of the 'Business Transformation Think Tank - Phase 2:Turning Ideas into Reality'. I’ll share specific examples and case studies of Omnevo's comprehensive digital solution suite as implemented for airlines and airports. This will be followed at 1700 BST by a Round Table discussion on challenges and solutions as well as recent learnings from our projects in digitalizing the customer journey for catering and retailing on-board, via E-Commerce and on any channel. Registration is free.
A three-part series of blogs showing how LCCs of any size have a proven, low-cost entry option to seize the digital initiative in driving their ancillary revenue recovery.
After 20-months of Zoom sessions it was amazing to be out in the real world again this month, flying the globe and actually meeting industry colleagues in person! Following the World Aviation Festival (WAF) in London I moved on to Future Travel Experience (FTE) in Las Vegas and it was so encouraging to find that these two major industry events, 8,000 km apart, echoed the industry’s increasing buzz around the digitalization of ancillary revenue. Sadly, I’ve now been brought back to earth by the latest twist in the crisis as Omicron looks to inflict yet another challenging phase. However, after two years of disruption the aviation industry knows it has to adapt to each new challenge and strengthen its ability to respond just as long as governments finally realize that locking down borders is a very short-sighted approach (unless you are an island state) and haven’t stopped any of the previous 4 COVID waves in any meaningful way. If the last two years have taught us anything, it is that airlines, like governments, will need to think a lot more globally than locally.
December’s World Aviation Festival in London was a great opportunity to bring the industry together and, although attendance was inevitably lower than normal, there was a strong conference program that carried a mood of guarded optimism. Best of all, I was delighted to see just how strongly the focus was on real action to drive ancillary revenue and recovery. Much of 2021 has been spent waiting for a recovery to be established and many airlines have understandably been hesitant (or unable) to commit to new investment or major change in their customer operations. The long hoped-for recovery has been impossible to forecast accurately and many airlines opted to simply ‘hunker down’ and wait until a clearer path can be seen through the storm. That strategy carries deep risks. We now face a new phase of crisis as Omicron sadly develops its global presence but the fact is that the world will continue to turn, people will continue to travel, the crisis will eventually recede, and traffic will return. Airlines need to be preparing right now to create the customer experience that the recovery will demand. Yes, the picture of how the 2022 travel market will look in recovery is still blurred right now - but the key point is that we do already know exactly what the returning customer looks like and what they want. We have a clear understanding of the experience they want - and we have the digital tools to deliver that experience.