How do airlines’ inflight experiences mirror the way we live today?

by Mike Crump
Partner/Director
Honour Branding


As airlines continue to invest heavily in new products and services to attract their crucially important premium customer base, they will need to adapt to fast changing consumer behaviours and attitudes towards luxury.

As traditional wealth centres move from the west to the east and middle class wealth continues to explode, traditional luxury products and services are becoming more affordable to many. This ‘democratisation of luxury’ is blurring its definition as consumers seek out new meaning. Adding to the erosion of exclusivity, many mid market brands have adopted a similar design language as the luxury sector for their product and offer.

Growth in traditional heritage brands is stabilising as younger luxury consumers challenge the status quo. These tech savvy, socially connected consumers are being inspired by new domestic brands and seeking out new craft based start-ups in search of the unique and meaningful. Recent research in China by Mintel highlights that even in the emerging economies consumers are seeking more personal fulfillment and appreciation of craftsmanship than status. Luxury is moving further towards substance over style.

There are four key trends in the luxury sector according to some leading luxury think tanks. Personalisation, Optmisation, Diversity and Exceptional.

Personalisation

Consumers are becoming used to their digital world being customized to their own needs, and now expect this in the physical products and services they interact with. They want their product or experience to become highly personal, even designed around them, thus creating higher expectations and needs.

Luxury brands such as the mobile phone brand Vertu provide a wide selection of options to allow each customer to customize their phone. Bottega Veneta and Louis Vuitton offer customised bags with personal initials engraved, allowing the item to become exclusive to the customer. 

In the airline world – airlines like Etihad have pioneered heightened levels of choice and personal service through their onboard food service in First Class. A dedicated chef has a wide range of ingredients and menu options to tailor the meal towards your particular palate.

Passengers are increasingly bringing their own personal devices on board aircraft. As mobile technology takes hold, passengers can control what entertainment they watch and when they watch it.   

Another example of personalization in the airlines sector is the growth in pre-ordering of food before a flight. A number of airlines allow their customers to pre order gourmet meals that enhance their experience or allow them to celebrate a special occasion. Even a low cost airline like Air Baltic allows you to build your own meal. When you fly Austrian Airlines you can book a gourmet meal, if you forget to pre order, you can order one up to an hour before you fly at the DO & CO A La Carte airport desk.

For some time luxury hotels have tailored their service to customers by offering sleep and pillow menus with a choice of pillow softness to suit your need.  Delta have recently partnered with the Westin Hotels to provide their ‘Heavenly Bedding’ in Delta’s Business Class. Etihad too have partnered with a Greek brand Coco-Mat – to provide all -natural filled duvets and pillows that take luxury bedding in the airline industry to the next level. Perhaps in the not too distant future passengers could personalise their cabin environment, choosing the firmness of their seat cushion or uploading their own digital content onto micro thin LCD digital wallpaper that wraps around their suite walls.

Technological innovations are increasingly enabling brands to deliver more personalized experiences. The Millennial traveller and business passengers of the future will expect heightened use of technology to make their life easier. Cloud computing for example enables personalised content available wherever you are in the world. Your preferences, payment and transaction history will be stored whenever you interact with a brand. Augmented reality will enable customers to access detailed visual data on the products and services they experience. Automated identity at airports will recognize you as you step into the terminal or off the plane, without the need for queues and questions at immigration. iBeacon technology will keep you up to date with delays, changes to your itinerary, and relevant promotions nearby through the use of geo-location. 

The Millennial traveller is changing the way business and travel is experienced. Airbnb is a cost effective way to get inexpensive accommodation in cities all over the world by staying at someone’s home. Anyone who has a spare bedroom can rent out their room through the community controlled website, cutting out the hotel chains and creating a unique experience for travellers on a budget. FlightCar is another money saving idea; instead of paying for a car park at the airport you drive to a point where someone else rents your car off you for the duration of your trip. Yet again challenging the established rent a car model. EatWith is one of many Internet enabled trends where you can dine with others at someone’s private home. If you are a budding chef, you let like-minded customers book online and welcome them into your home for a very exclusive dinner party.

Established brands are beginning to wake up to the potential challenges ahead. Aloft is a new hotel concept from the W chain that specifically targets the millennial traveller. Each lobby lounge is designed to be a 24/7 communal workspace, the breakfast and dining offer has turned to more of a grab and go concept. Aloft has been designed around the changing attitudes and behaviours of a new breed of business travellers. The future business traveller, therefore, is keen to search out value and find what is new; an enhanced and enriched memorable experience. 

Some luxury brands are beginning to invest in technological advances to offer greater levels of personalization to their customers. Louis Vuitton embarked on a corporate strategy to deliver a more personalised brand experience across its stores locations through the use of facial recognition software. Their aim is to adopt a value based competitive strategy that builds greater loyalty with its customers.

The facial recognition technology is used in store to identify registered and frequent customers. Sales staff can immediately identify customers and their preferences. Through the use of tablets, staff can instantly see the customers purchase history and personal preferences, enabling them to tailor the service to the individual and add value to their experience. 

Some airlines also use tablets that provide their customer service staff with information at their fingertips. Virgin Atlantic recently tested Google Glass at their premium check-in at Heathrow Terminal 3. It allowed them to identify and recognise customers on arrival as well as personalize their experience and improve service recovery.


Optimisation

The second major trend in luxury is optimisation. As growth and expansion in luxury retail brands slows down, physical retail is moving more to the experience. Brands are luring their customers into touch their brand, by incorporating a mix of art galleries, brand museums, cafes, florists and various lifestyle modules.

This focus on exceptional and unique store experience is another major corporate strategy for Louis Vuitton. Their recent store in Rome – ‘Roma Etoile’ – has seen the refurbishment of an old run down cinema. The brand has dedicated a section of the store to Italian films, with a cinema screen, books and lecture space for evening events. They also support and fund the film school that was attached to the old cinema, championing the next generation of Italian filmmakers.

BMW’s new retail store in Paris – George V, shakes up the traditional car showroom and presents cars like fashion retail, with experiential spaces that celebrate the history and provenance of the brand. Customers can try out different colour combinations and interior finishes, as they customize their car to their own preferences. Some brands are taking the trend of optimisation even further and stretching their offer into hospitality.  Armani show this through their hotel in Dubai, Bulgari own a Hotel in London and Louis Vuitton is soon to launch their own hospitality offer. 

At the high end of luxury, brands are extending further to create the ultimate in lifestyle living. Through a unique hotel partnership, residents at the luxury residential apartments at One Hyde Park London can access the services of the neighbouring Mandarin Oriental. They can buy anything from housekeeping services, chefs in their own kitchen, private butlers and concierge service. Other hotel brands like St Regis offer residential living, again with similar high levels of service to residents through another extraordinary hotel partnership.

Burberry is another example of a luxury brand that is investing in technology to enhance its customer experience. At its flagship emporium in Regents Street London, large screens throughout the store bring the brand alive with regular fashion shows and events. Merchandise is fitted with RFID tags that, when held close to a mirror by a customer begins to play specific videos of the item being created in the factory or modeled on the catwalk.  Dramatically if a customer orders a bespoke raincoat all the screens across the store play a digital rain shower, with the noise and smell of fresh rain being pumped around the store.

Some airlines have begun to recognize this optimisation trend and understand that customers want more from their experience especially within the airport lounge. Airlines like Virgin Atlantic have, for many years, offered a lifestyle club environment with cinemas, games rooms and cocktail bars that challenged the ‘waiting room’ airport lounge offer. There are more examples such as the Qantas spa treatment rooms in Sydney with their living green walls. Delta’s new Skyclub Lounge at JFK Terminal 4 has an outdoors Sky Deck, offering great views across the airport.  Emirates have a wine cellar hosted by a dedicated sommelier enabling customers to learn about wine before they fly. Airlines are beginning to understand the need to create lounges that are real destinations and experiential spaces that customers will want to spend more time in.

Airports are also investing in spaces designed to enhance the customer experience by acting as a destination. Hong Kong, for example, has an Imax theatre; the future Changi Airport in Singapore will have garden walkways and water fountains that bring a sense of downtown to the airport.


Diversity

The third big trend in luxury will see the growth of more domestic home grown brands and new niche players, as technology enables more start-ups to reach a wider more connected audience. Traditional and established luxury brands are already returning their focus to their provenance and heritage, as the customer seeks authenticity.

New brands such as Shang Xia from China, Okapi from South Africa, or Fischer Voyage from the US, will begin to grow as consumers champion the new and undiscovered in search of more diversity.  

3D printing technology is set to have a big impact on the luxury market. Small craft based start-ups will have access to more affordable machines that enable them to create unique and personalized products. Still in its infancy at present but the technology is advancing at such a pace. Products will be designed and made to hand crafted standards within hours, offering personalisation on a scale never seen before, and usually only affordable to the wealthiest. Fashion designers, artists and craftspeople are experimenting with the technology to create truly bespoke and desirable objects. 


Exceptional

The fourth key trend is that as luxury becomes increasingly democratised and accessible, the uber wealthy will strive to seek out exceptional products and services that only they can afford. In a recent Global Luxury CEO survey, 95% of respondents stated that growth in their business, with VIP customers, is growing as they seek exceptional ways to differentiate themselves from the pack.

Luxury brands will continue to raise their game though limited edition product ranges, exclusive brand partnerships and the use of specialist, rare materials that create the rare the one off and the totally unaffordable.

So what could all these trends mean for the airline amenity business?

The amenity kit has its purpose on board to enhance the well-being and comfort of the passenger. However, many customers also use them as gifts to their loved ones or keep them for themselves as a memento of the flight and brand experience. These days passengers expect amenity kits to have a practical use beyond the flight, such as an iPad cover or personal headset case. The bag can serve as useful secondary function keeping the brand relationship with the airline in close contact with the passengers everyday life. Some airlines are introducing more social and environmentally conscience kits. These help the airline to ‘story tell’ and engage with the customer at a more cognitive level. To develop their new amenity kit, Etihad for example, has partnered with Sougha, a social enterprise initiative that aims to preserve Emirati traditions and promote local artisans. A centuries old tradition of weaving is being kept alive by the exposure and investment of Etihad utilising the patterns and techniques of the indigenous craft in their Business and First Class wash bags. Other airlines such as Finnair have introduced a totally environmentally friendly amenity kit with products made from recycled and biodegradable materials to reflect a more environmentally aware consumer.

For some airlines story telling gives them an opportunity to emphasize the provenance and heritage of their brand. This could be displayed through a retro bag inspired from the airlines archive like British Airways First Class or a contemporary design that reflects the personality of the country and brand, even with the use of local and nostalgic imagery, such as Austrian Airlines.  

Changing the design of an amenity bag regularly enables airlines to gain valuable PR and demonstrate their brand is contemporary and continually improving.  Partnerships with fashion brands enable airlines to change more often and connect with the zeitgeist or specific trends of the moment. Some airlines are able to build on that fashion partnership and develop something unique and exclusive, which can only be seen at 35,000ft.

Designs that change regularly can become collectable if marketed correctly. Retailers are very good at engaging with customers through seasonal changes and offering exclusive colours and versions of products that people already own – creating a must have design of the season. The Thai First Class Rimowa amenity bag celebrates an iconic luggage brand to create a must have product. This can be seen by the bags being exchanged on eBay for well above the original cost to the airline. By offering limited edition versions and exclusive design options in small batches, airlines can stimulate the need to have the latest thing, which can only have positive impact on their brand.


So what next for the luxury amenity bag?

Could airlines offer more unique and limited edition products through creative partnerships and thinking and acting more like a retailer?

Could airlines stimulate more home grown talent and help to create the global brands of the future?

Or could airlines deliver an amenity bag with a conscience to endorse and symbolise their social and environmental strategy?

….and could new technology like 3D printing enable airlines to deliver truly bespoke and personalised amenity products to their most valuable customers?