Outside Insights | December 2013 | By Anthony Joseph

Fly High with Airport Concessions

Airport locations can put your brand in front of millions of potential customers, but these locations have a host of unique challenges.

Anthony Joseph is president of Atlanta-based Concessions International.
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Opening new restaurant units in the dynamic airport environment can offer real growth opportunities, sound profits, and brand exposure to an international clientele, but make no mistake: There also are unique challenges as a result of the operating venue.

Still, the specific challenges that airports present—higher rents, TSA regulations, business interruptions, and, of course, finding the best airport approved concessionaire to partner with—can be managed by doing your homework and creating a savvy business strategy steeped in sound judgment.

Take special note: Sustained success begins and ends with the traveling public, and, as we all know, frequent flyers are a professional, affluent, and highly influential group. In order to attract this group time and again, there are several key strategies that can be implemented.

At Concessions International (CI), a minority-owned, Atlanta-based business founded in 1979, we have weathered several recessions, as well as the tumultuous landscape of the airline industry. And we’ve done it from California to Washington, D.C. Today, our portfolio includes franchised, licensed, and proprietary concepts, including casual dining, quick service, snack, deli, and bar and grill. At CI, we believe our family ownership involvement and unique culture lead us to be more responsive, flexible, and partnership-driven, characteristics that are important to our clients and brand partners. These characteristics help us to achieve superior levels of customer service.

The first step to becoming a successful airport operation is to choose the right concessionaire partner. This selection process is one of the most critical steps. Usually concessionaires approach restaurant brands, but often the courtship starts in reverse. Choosing new brand partners and installing their concepts at airports is perhaps one of the most exciting parts of CI’s business. At Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport, for example, almost everything we operate is different, and many of the concepts are locally born and bred.

Generally the speed of service has to be quicker to account for the limited time guests may have available, as well as the anxiety some travelers experience.

Fresh To Order (f2O), a local fast-casual chain that serves upscale food; Lotta Frutta, a Latin-inspired concept that serves smoothies and fresh fruit cups; Proof of the Pudding, an onsite culinary and foodservice management company; and Paschal’s, a local institution founded in 1847 that pairs fried chicken with authentic Southern hospitality, are but a few of the brands that help give air travelers a genuine taste of Atlanta. These restaurants help promote Atlanta and have a real impact on the local economy. Airports are not just about efficiency—they serve as a gateway and help market and sell the region.

With few exceptions, leases and agreements for airport concessions are non-negotiable. It is important to be mindful of understanding additional fees that may be charged for marketing, trash services utilities, and operating penalties. It has also been vital to scrutinize provisions addressing loss of emplanements to the concourse or terminal due to reduced airline activity.

We have also paid close attention to the design and construction criteria published by the airport authority, which may require a lengthier design and review process and higher cost of materials than many brands typically experience in other venues.

As airport operators, we work from the back to the front. The key to making the space work is maximizing the use of the kitchen space that’s available. This process begins with menu development. We adapt the menu for simplicity of preparation and service and to maximize the kitchen equipment and storage space available.

Space is equally important in the front of the house. Guest flow in and out of the space, whether for counter service, bar service, or table service, must be designed with the guest in mind.

It also may be necessary to pare down the menu, maintaining the core identifiable menu items of the brand while limiting menu items that require significant preparation and cooking times and not overwhelming guests with too many choices.

Like any restaurant, we regularly monitor which items are high sellers and also what our potential guests may be selecting from competitors. And while there’s no magic number of menu items, it’s important for us to take into account factors such as storage availability, kitchen space, and counter/display space.

Equally important to an appealing and workable menu is service. Generally the speed of service has to be quicker to account for the limited time guests may have available, as well as the anxiety some travelers experience due to parking, security, and airline challenges and delays. We make sure training includes basic airport terminal knowledge, as well as how to handle highly stressful situations with guests.

There isn’t a more critical component of success than hiring the best team members available, and luckily for us, when it comes to working in airports, there are plenty of selling points.

Airports are exciting places to work. Employees get addicted to the energy and it can quickly become an attractive, preferred work environment.

There is good news for the industry as a whole: Several indicators report that public perception of airport concessions is improving. Clearly it makes good sense to ensure a win/win for employees, guests, and our businesses. After all, when all systems are go, liftoff is that much easier.

Here are 10 tips that will help get your brand started in the airport concessions space.

1. Spend time in different airport terminals observing customers, concept designs, menus, service models, and speed of service.

2. Attend airport concessions industry conferences, such as the Airport Restaurant News (ARN) Revenue Conference & Exhibition; Airport Council International—North America (ACI-NA) Airport Concessions Conference; and Airport Minority Advisory Council (AMAC) Business Diversity Conference.

3. Use well-established technology vendors to help your brand stand out through digital menuboards, iPad menus, and a host of other cutting-edge tools.

4. Stay well informed about new airport regulations, industry news, trends, and competitive business intelligence.

5. Adapt the menu to simplify preparation and service and, most importantly, to maximize the kitchen equipment and storage space available.

6. Design flow in and out of the space, whether for counter service, bar service, or table service, with the ease of the guest in mind.

7. Be mindful of understanding additional fees that may be charged for marketing, trash services utilities, and operating penalties.

8. Incentivize and reward employees in a fair manner. Take into consideration travel time to and from the airport, security lines, and parking costs.

9. Engage customers through brand and airport surveys, as well as social media and mystery shoppers.

10. Select an experienced operating partner with whom you share similar values and operating priorities.

Anthony Joseph is president of Atlanta-based Concessions International, which franchises with major national brands, including Fresh To Order, Panda Express, Nathan's Famous, Seattle's Best Coffee, and Einstein Bros. Bagels. He is also a board member with the National Restaurant Association and the former chairman of the Georgia Restaurant Association.