If we want to see improvements, perhaps it’s time for hoteliers rather than caterers to be in charge.
I’m dissatisfied with the quality and service of airline-run lounges. Why? Because with a few exceptions, they have moved from being havens of tranquillity and rest to upmarket cafeterias. The spaces are crowded, no one knows who I am, I have to line up for food and I have a limited drinks choice that I usually have to serve myself. I sit in tired chairs that would be unsuitable for a doctor’s surgery and periodically have to get up to see if my flight has been announced, is boarding, or has left without me.
Most of the non-airline operated lounges are no better. Getting in is the first problem. Whenever I want to use an independent lounge, I am refused entry. Why? Because despite my qualifying membership cards or ready cash I haven’t made a chargeable reservation in advance. When I do gain access, I find a food buffet that if it were not for extreme hunger, boredom or frustration I would walk straight past, and a bar presumably stocked by residents of Sparta.
The same mediocre standards seem to prevail across most airports. Doubtless the operators will explain that regulations, costs and Covid-related staff issues have impacted performance, and that the cost of food and beverage is in a rising inflationary spiral. Perhaps I might have a little grace and recognise that difficult trading conditions and the consequent knock-on of staffing challenges have meant that times might be lean. However, where is the warm welcome of hospitality and the personal attention to detail?
Surely what is needed are lounge operators backed by an excellence-driven organisation. Isn’t it time for those hoteliers who understand great service, appreciate ambience and can offer value for money to be involved? It has happened before. The Peninsula Hotel in Hong Kong once operated fine lounges for Cathay Pacific where the food and beverage offerings as well as the plushness of the interior design matched the reputation of the hotel. The contract appears to have terminated with the development of Cathay’s own airline food and beverage expansion. However, at the time, their involvement demonstrated that hoteliers can make a better fist of it than caterers.
More recently Accor in Australia announced a new agreement with Qantas that heralds an improved offering in their major hubs of Sydney, Melbourne and Perth. Here, the ability of a well-qualified hotel brand with support across the region will be able to bring in not just the food and beverage quality required but also a sense of hospitality that, to me, seems to have disappeared in all but the most exclusive lounges.
In the Middle East, Dubai hoteliers are leading the way for business travellers. Given that flights often arrive early in the morning when hotel rooms are not available for immediate occupation, several hotels are now offering arrival lounges. One such is the Dubai International Hotel which operates ‘The Gallery’ in Terminal 3. Also in Terminal 3 is Jumeirah’s arrivals lounge where “leisure meets luxury”. Are these lounges better than what is available from Emirates? Not in scale, but the emphasis on service is where they make the difference. Their attention to pre-arrival detail means they know your name and they know what you like as well as seamlessly managing your transfer to your chosen hotel.
So, what is the inhibitor for hotel groups to get involved? Certainly, only those with a wide spread of geographic locations and reputation could be serious contenders, but it appears that in most prime international destinations the space available and the limitations of longer leases are the main detractions. That and the logistical issues to ensure brand integrity in terms of food quality and service are maintained. On top of that, airport restrictions can prohibit the delivery of quality service from operators outside of union agreements.
For the business traveller there are thankfully some that achieve high standards: the first class lounges of British Airways and Cathay Pacific, for instance, as well as Virgin’s Clubhouse at Heathrow and Qatar Airways’ facilities in Doha. Generally, the airline-operated lounges are at a better level than the independents.
Is it time for independents to join in partnership with some of the leading hotel brands? New airport expansions in Asian destinations like Thailand and China could provide an incentive, and opportunity might be on the doorstep for groups like Mandarin Oriental or Minor Hotels to start a new trend in airport experiences. I hope so.
Derek Picot has been a hotelier for more than 30 years, and is author of Hotel Reservations.