Kevin Zajax

How to achieve authenticity in local offerings

Kevin Zajax, CEO at food & beverage advisory company Ground Control, ponders how to encourage local flavour in travel F&B and the opportunities for instilling regional authenticity at airports.

This article is part of a new series of thought-provoking Op-Ed articles on trends, challenges and opportunities for the F&B sector written by Zajax, who served as Chief Operating Officer at Emirates Leisure Retail in Dubai for 11 years until May 2019.

Airports are typically the first and last impressions of a country. Are they doing enough to reflect local culture, from a food & beverage perspective?

Imagine that you’ve spent a week enjoying your holiday, taking in all of the experiences your country of choice has to offer. Now, you’re at the airport and all you’re looking for is a final taste of local culture to cap off your visit.

I recall one such experience about 15 years ago, before even joining this industry.

After travelling through southern Germany and parts of Austria, I was craving one last meal before leaving Munich. Somewhat to my surprise, I stumbled across Airbräu right in the airport. What a delight this restaurant was. This was not a tacky caricature of local cuisine, but an authentic and quintessentially Bavarian experience – the opportunity to relax and reflect on my time in this incredible part of the world before buckling up for the long-haul flight back to Sydney. [Airbräu at Munich Airport was featured in the December 2019 issue of FAB eZine - Ed].

Kevin Zajax: “Airports and the travel retail industry as a whole are still fighting a perception of mediocrity”

Since then, I’ve had the fortune to visit over 200 airports across the world and experience a wide range of airport hospitality. So why does this particular encounter remain so clearly etched in my mind? The connection it had with the region I had just experienced left me with a holistic experience. It felt right. It felt authentic. It felt local.

Localisation, of course, is not new. The concept surged to prominence some 15-20 years ago when leading international retail brands transitioned from ‘big red box’ global thinking and process to a more geographically-tailored approach. In 2006, Harvard Business Review reported on the “early stages of a quiet revolution in consumer markets”, stating that retail is shifting from standardisation to localisation.

In the retail world, localisation has become a stepping stone towards complete product customisation. In relation to F&B, localisation is now part of a bigger experience-led phenomena driven mainly by Gen Y and Gen Z consumers.

As a travel retail industry, we have been talking about ‘Sense of Place’ and ‘localisation’ for many years. Airbräu, for one, opened in 1999 and is therefore not an example of recent innovation. So, why are there not more examples like this?

Pioneering restaurant: Airbräu offers an authentic and quintessentially Bavarian experience

Is ‘localisation’ necessary?

Travel retail (which in our view is a microcosm of the broader retail environment) is not immune to the developments referred to above. In some respects, localisation becomes even more important for airports, particularly international ones, as they serve as the first impressions for millions of passengers every day with the potential to leave a lasting impact.

Global research suggests that consumers are increasingly valuing authentic experiences and consequently choose local foods when travelling to enrich their experiences. While certain nationalities and age groups quite often prefer to stick with what they know, the majority utilise travel to explore something new.

Research conducted by Horizon Consumer Science shows that 48% of travellers rank ‘experiencing local flavours’ as the number one priority in terms of food when visiting a new country.

Cycle of strength: The localisation opportunity is creatively illustrated. Source: Ground Control.

What is preventing airports from adopting a localised approach?

“We need to move on. I don’t want corporations bringing successful downtown F&B concepts to the airport anymore. I want the owner of that concept in the venue, greeting the customer. They are the face of that brand.” That is, verbatim, the very recent view of a commercial chief at a leading international airport, shared with ground control.

This may be an idealistic scenario for the airport. But is it feasible?

In fact, when it comes to localisation at airports, quite often we see strong alignment: the airport wants a quality offer reflecting the local community; the traditional (medium-large) operator wants to add a cool, niche brand to their portfolio; and the concept-owner would love the brand awareness that comes with a presence at an airport. But, more often than not, these ideals do not come to fruition.

None of the barriers in the graphic (right) are insurmountable. But before anything else is addressed, let us assume that there is an overriding and real desire to create true localisation. In other words, let us assume that the ‘lock-out’ criteria in tenders are removed.

If I’m still not clear, airports spending two to three pages in RFP documents calling for ‘Sense of Place’ and ‘cultural representation’, followed by a page of minimum requirements for the F&B operator including ‘does your brand operate in more than three countries?’ and ‘does your business have experience operating in an airport with more than 10 million passengers per annum?’, will never lead to a holistic conversation of what might be. (You may be chuckling, but this is something that came across my desk in the last couple of months).

Some of the barriers to overcome when attempting to offer a sense of place and taste. Source: Ground Control.

The commercial challenge in airport F&B

Commercially, airports will argue that their space is valuable (and it is) and that they need to generate returns on that space. Conversely, the operator’s primary concern on entering or operating in the airport is risk — the risk that their investment (capex and opex) will not yield a return. This fear applies to new starters, successful downtown operators, and traditional and experienced airport master concessionaires alike.

Obviously, any change in the existing model switches the risk/reward profile; by how much is ultimately dependent on the success (or not) of the outlet. But consider the following example. For an outlet generating US$2 million sales per annum, the combined profit pool for that outlet should be c25-35% — 60:40 in favour of the airport. Switching the model whereby the airport halves the concession (say from 20% to 10%) and invests in the infrastructure, but in return receives 50% of the profit for that outlet, yields the exact same profit-pool split.

Significantly contributing towards upfront fitout is a methodology adopted by many major office developers in order to lure desirable restaurateurs or brands. This, in turn, makes their development more desirable to prospective tenants who want the best for their employees.

I’m not suggesting that airport and office businesses have the same commercial drivers. I am suggesting that, in my experience, commercial flexibility has accelerated innovation and change, and this is necessary to promote successful localisation.

Assuming desire and commercial flexibility are in place, here are five recommendations to help promote the localisation agenda.

Source: Ground Control.

Source: Ground Control.

1. Dedicated F&B outlets for local operators

In our previous article in this series, we posed the challenge for airports to designate specific areas for local talent and invest in building F&B spaces where local operators could trade for a shortened period. Should the venue or concept become successful, they could be given priority for a long-term tenancy. Alternatively, airports could designate certain spaces for the promotion of emerging talent or concepts.

Changi Airport’s Terminal 4 features an area known as the Heritage Zone (pictured below), a row of brightly coloured shophouses reflecting Singapore’s colourful Peranakan history — a rich hybrid of ethnic traditions.

2. Food festivals showcasing local talent

Existing airport operators could find local talent and invite them to their outlets to do a temporary takeover. A local chef could design the menu for a month, a local barista could promote their speciality coffees, and beer taps could be given to a local craft brewery.

At the very least, this breaks down the enigma of what it’s like to operate in an airport — both the pros and cons. At best, leveraging social media, local communities and international travellers alike will want to spend more time in that airport.

Portland International Airport has applied its own twist on the concept of ‘local’ and of showcasing local talent. The city of Portland has a legendary food-cart scene (CNN has declared Portland as home to the world’s best street food). The airport has reflected this via a rotating line-up of local food trucks serving anything from Cuban cuisine to waffles and Asian-Fusion fare.

“We have [food carts] all over our downtown and they offer a real Sense of Place for Portland, so why not bring them to the airport?”, said Portland International Airport Concessions Development Manager Abby Carey of the addition to the F&B offering.

3. Samplers at arrivals

Often ignored in the F&B stakes are opportunities at arrivals. Once passengers complete the (quite often) stressful task of clearing immigration and baggage collection, what is preventing the opportunity for a local cuisine offering to be given to incoming passengers (perhaps free-of-charge), or as part of the welcoming arrival experience that we very often see in smaller/island/holiday-led destinations?

Chicago O’Hare International leveraged the annual Taste of Chicago Music and Food Festival to offer free tastings and promotions, extending the Grant Park experience into the airport. This created a real buzz and feeling of ‘local’, but sadly ceased once the festival was over.

4. Cooking classes

Personally, I love getting involved in a hands-on cooking experience when I visit a new country — it certainly adds to the authenticity of the travel experience and deeply immerses me in the unique flavours of that destination.

For travellers in transit who may have 3-4 hours to spare, what better way to offer a taste of what can be found beyond the airport walls than with an enticing local cooking class? You never know, it may just be enough to inspire them to come back.

5. Supporting grassroots F&B

Culinary competition-led TV shows like MasterChef, Top Chef and Hell’s Kitchen have succeeded in creating their own ‘rock stars’. In fact, some of the stars of these shows now have their own concepts in airports, like Mark Tarbell, previous winner of Iron Chef America, who is at the steer of The Tavern at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport (pictured right).

Airports and airport operators could invest in culinary schools or scholarships to develop local talent even before they have downtown locations. Imagine the excitement of a budding chef who is given the opportunity to finish their training and be guaranteed a first restaurant in their own country’s major airport.

While we may not expect airports to invest the time and money TV networks do, it is absolutely required to invest in crafting their own ‘rock stars’ if authentic localisation truly is their goal.

Changing perceptions

It is common sense that airports are more often than not the first and last impressions of the country or city they represent.

I also believe that while food and drink offerings in airports have improved tremendously over the past decade, airports and the travel retail industry as a whole are still fighting a perception of mediocrity and, in most cases, lags behind the experiences that are available outside the airport in the city or country itself.

Gen Y and Gen Z are seeking more experiential elements to dining. They are also becoming more important in terms of purchasing power. However, they are known as a generation that share positive messages (often in the form of images) when it’s warranted and they are also a generation that don’t like to miss out.

If airports and operators can succeed with authentic localisation, the opportunity for upside is likely to be far greater than previously imagined.

About Ground Control

Ground Control is a leading F&B advisory for airports, stadiums and brands. Spearheaded by Adam Summerville and Kevin Zajax, the team focus on creating award-winning F&B experiences and helping clients increase ROI through concession planning and selection, F&B management and strategies to grow brands.

FAB eZine

March 2020

FAB is published monthly by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd).

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