Flying economy with a first-class experience

An airport needs to be more than a terminal for frequent travellers to fly in and out. It also needs to be a place where people can relax and enjoy good food and services before continuing their journey. Plaza Premium Group’s marketing director Janis Tse talks about how the group has shaped the travel industry in the past 20 years.

Twenty years ago, a businessman used to fly business class, but lost this privilege after he started running his own company – he paid for his own tickets and flew economy class to save money. At that time, laptops were heavy and a battery wouldn’t sustain for more than two hours. The businessman found it difficult to recharge his laptop and felt embarrassed while sitting on the floor in an airport next to a socket just to continue using his computer. Without printers and fax machines, he could barely work.

However, he turned this embarrassment into an opportunity and decided to run independent lounges open to every traveller. This was the very beginning of the Plaza Premium Group, and the businessman is the group’s founder and CEO, Song Hoi-see.

Song has to buy economy tickets while running his own company, but he finds it difficult to work without a lounge.

In 1998, the group started operating two lounges in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur. After 20 years, Plaza Premium Group is the leading independent lounge operator and its footprint spans more than 160 locations and 41 international airports across the globe. In recent years, the prevalence of cheap flights enables more people to go abroad, making the group one of the beneficiaries of this trend.

Travelling was still a luxury in the last century. But thanks to competition among airlines, and economic development, air tickets are now sometimes even cheaper than 20 years ago, resulting in the soaring number of travellers across all countries.

Most travellers fly economy class. However, premium lounges run by airlines are only open to business class or first-class passengers, leaving economy class passengers out of any access to free food, drinks and facilities. Song encountered this situation 20 years ago, and decided to turn this hospitality service upside down.

“Travelling is so common nowadays. It is a lifestyle and almost like a necessity,” says Janis Tse, marketing director of Plaza Premium Group. “Passengers of economy class still need premium services, the demand has created opportunities for Plaza Premium Group.”

There are a lot of reasons for the growing number of travellers in different cities, including Hong Kong, such as the rise of low-cost carriers and the demand for connecting flights via transfer hubs.

Hong Kong International Airport has been expanding throughout the years to cater for the increasing demand, meaning there will be even more developments across the airport, which offers opportunities for the group to expand its business. For example, the group recently opened Plaza Premium First at Hong Kong International Airport to provide an enhanced service for travellers.

Tse says the group is happy to work with different airlines and help them operate premium lounges in foreign cities.

Asked if airlines’ lounges are competitors of Plaza Premium Group, Tse disagrees and sees the positives of working with them.

“It’s common for business class or first-class travellers to use their airlines’ lounges, but this won’t be a big problem for us. Some airlines cannot afford to individually operate a lounge in foreign cities, making them co-operate with us and use our facilities for their customers,” she says.

For example, Plaza Premium Group has been operating and managing Hong Kong’s flag carrier Cathay Pacific’s lounges in Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, London Manila, Penang, Singapore, Taipei and Vancouver. Other big names in the aviation industry such as Air France, ANA, Emirates, Turkish Airlines and Singapore Airlines are also the group’s airline partners.

Song once admitted that a lot of people didn’t know Plaza Premium Group was a Hong Kong-based company and that its lounges were open to every traveller. He thinks the group still has room for improvement and to grow its business.

Plaza Premium Group has a diversified range of services apart from operating and managing lounges. It also runs airport transit hotel Aerotel; airport meet and greet service Allways; and Airport Dining, a F&B concept aimed at providing a wide range of restaurants from grab and go kiosks to fine dining outlets.

Aerotel caters to travellers waiting for connecting flights.

Speaking of Aerotel, Tse believes the transit hotel is another product to cater to another segment. “We aim to provide all-round services for travellers. Some of them are waiting for connecting flights, but a lounge may not be enough for them. They can take a nap after a flight in a private room of our hotel,” she says.

Kicked-off in Abu Dhabi, Aerotel is now operating in Kuala Lumpur, Rio de Janeiro and Muscat, and last but not least, Singapore; itsflagship property even features the only outdoor swimming pool among all transit hotels in Asia at Changi Airport’s terminal one.

Aerotel in Singapore boasts the only outdoor swimming pool among all transit hotels in Asia at Changi Airport’s terminal one.

Currently, the group doesn’t have an Aerotel in Hong Kong, but is running a transit resting lounge offering round-the-clock shower-massage-snooze services.

Hong Kong travellers are said to be spoilt for choice, but the city has one unrivalled advantage of implementing marketing strategies, which the group is happy about.

“There is no other city in the world offering travel information as much as Hong Kong!” Tse laughs. “Customers in Hong Kong’s mature market have higher expectations than other cities. Plenty of online platforms offering organic content related to travel news, promotions and other information help us a lot to promote our business.”

The aviation industry has never been so robust, meaning different players in the industry need innovation and creativity to improve their businesses.

Hongkongers spend a great amount of time looking for travel information and promotions online. Tse says the group is happy to work with KOLs, who provide information about its services and facilities; and banks which provide access to their credits cards for its lounges and products.

These are some typical, yet successful ways to grow the business in Hong Kong. She says the company doesn’t have online or offline marketing strategies. It is just marketing strategies. The group also works with different brands from catering and the design industry to enhance its services, especially its recently opened Plaza Premium First, attracting even more attention from travellers, foodies and designers.

Fine-dining: Primo is a first-class restaurant for travellers to eat in while waiting for their next flight.

Understanding markets and their needs are essential and Plaza Premium Group invests a lot in staff training and local expertise, which can be seen in its lounges across the globe.

Hong Kong’s lounges offer about one million bowls of fish ball rice noodles a year – a signature food among Hong Kong people. In Singapore, the lounge offers typical Singaporean food such as Laksa and Hainanese Chicken rice.

Plaza Premium Group will continue to expand in the coming years. The company’s focus will be on China, including both first-tier and second-tier cities, and the US, where the group will open a lounge in Denver.

Tse thinks China is an emerging country and going international, but its service level still has room for improvement. With 20 years of experience, she is confident the group can bring the service level in China to the next level.

Regarding other expansion plans, Plaza Premium Group is still hoping to add more footprints in Southeast Asia and the Middle East. From a pioneer in the industry with only two lounges to a behemoth in 2018, the group is a capable of identifying different market needs and Tse is optimistic about the future, though economic fluctuations may be ahead.

Plaza Premium Lounge in Helsinki is going to open in February 2019 at non-Schengen terminal.

“We can be found in different continents, meaning we can spread the risk. Our wide variety of products and services cater for every type of traveller which further bolsters our leadership in the industry. Plaza Premium Group will continue the global expansion plan, and we apply local marketing strategies to surprise every customer.”

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