One of 2023's main objectives is standardization within self-order kiosks and self-checkout. The company implements several iterations across many brands, and finding a more uniform fit should drive further adoption and a better customer experience, Thompson says. Additionally, the company wants to be more intentional about its Starbucks mobile pay pickup areas, such as how much space to allocate, and it wants to enhance the feel of its QR code program, not only from a customer flow standpoint but also training employees on “the art of digital hospitality.” HMSHost’s roadmap includes strengthening strategic partnerships with Uber Eats and OpenTable, too.
The company has been moving toward similar technological applications as traditional locations, but it's just taken longer to deploy because of adjustments for the airport. The company has used self-order kiosks since around 2017. In April 2019, HMSHost, Uber Eats, and Toronto Pearson—Canada’s largest airport—partnered to bring the third-party delivery service to one of its terminals and domestic departures area. QR codes were rolled out as a payment system in 2019.
“I think longer-term, we'll take our cues from the general restaurant industry as well as from the airport industry in terms of how we can continue to innovate,” Thompson says.
Pitman says customer behavior is closer to normal for the most part, which is relieving news for HMSHost. He remembers being concerned when the company noticed more people bringing their food through security. There were serious questions about whether trust would come back. It has, although in some places more than others. Pitman took about 140 flights in 2022, and when he traveled to Canada, passengers were required to put a mask back on when entering the airport. If you were on a Canadian airline, you had to wear a mask. Domestically, rules were softened as vaccination became widely available.
Aside from convenience, one of the bigger trends to note—alcohol mix increased throughout the pandemic. It’s stabilized recently, but Pitman says it’s still more top of mind than 2019. He assumes it’s either because airlines didn’t sell alcohol for a period or the fact that leisure travel is the main target audience of HMSHost’s business right now. The business traveler is returning, but not yet where they once were.
Overall, the common theme Pitman is hearing—we’re back.
“We are back from the pandemic,” he says. “And I think that is also true in the behaviors of our passengers, but it has been an evolution and a ride to get us to this point.”
Because airport food and beverage contract terms are long, HMSHost must think about how restaurants—whether quick service, fast casual, grab-and-go, or casual dining—will behave through technology in the next five to 10 years, Pitman says. It’s a unique challenge the company faces, but one that can be overcome. HMSHost has already shown as much during COVID.
“It is our continued mission to balance our program and our portfolio to best serve the passenger and our landlords as they release new development opportunities in our space. And everything we're doing today is not for 2023 or 2024,” Pitman says. “I think that's also important to note and this is where Neil [Thompson] and I have a lot of synergy is everything we're developing today is for the next five to 10 years.”