COVID’s impact on the U.S. travel industry was devastating. Traffic plummeted 96 percent in April 2020 compared to 2019, and remained 60 percent below normal for the entire year, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office. It was a trying period for nontraditional restaurants, which couldn’t set up makeshift drive-thrus or rely on delivery.

The story is quite different entering 2023. Although passenger traffic hasn’t fully recovered to pre-pandemic numbers yet, airport food and beverage concepts have recalibrated and caught up to consumers’ growing demand for contactless convenience. Neil Thompson, HMSHost’s vice president of digital, says “the temperature is hot and things are moving quickly” in terms of technological adoption.

In 2022, HMSHost doubled the number of self-order kiosks in its system and doubled the number of stores using them. It also doubled the adoption rate, to the point that self-ordering now accounts for one-third of sales in these locations. HMSHost is making significant progress on three other initiatives as well: self-checkout sales increased by four times in 2022; Starbucks mobile order and pay is now in the double digits as a percentage of HMSHost’s total Starbucks sales; and QR code adoption rates increased by 50 percent year-over-year. 

Thompson describes airports as “always unpredictable and sometimes chaotic,” and that HMSHost wants dining to be one less matter for someone to think about. The goal is to make it as seamless as possible.

The vision of digital for HMSHost is really two things—we need to remove friction to enhance the guest experience,” Thompson says. “And so our mission to do that is really to enable the guests to control the pace of their experience. I emphasize this point a lot—sometimes in an airport you have 20 minutes until boarding and sometimes in an airport you have two hours because of some unforeseen thing or even longer. And so being able to flex our technology to match the needs of the traveler in the moment is what grounds us.”

Tyler Pitman, HMSHost’s vice president of portfolio development and brand partnerships, explains that for traditional restaurants, customers are deciding to leave home or work to enjoy a specific location. In the airport, traveling is the main intent while food and beverages are an amenity. There is a built-in clock for how long a guest can enjoy their meal. Some can only afford to grab and go. Others may be able to sit down. The point is, guests in the airport desire greater control over the timing and pace of their experience, Pitman says.

That’s the primary motivation for HMSHost’s technological evolution.

“You can choose different aspects of your experience that you want to go faster,” Thompson says. “So, for sure paying the bill as soon as you’re ready. You can open the QR Code up, pay the bill, and off you go, or you can again order another beer. Maybe you don’t see your server right now. You can go ahead and do that. So unlocking the ability for guests to choose the pace of the experience that they want, based on the amount of time they have, I think really works well in airports.”

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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.”

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