Building Better Brands With The World’s Best Airport Lounges

In a New York Times article, author Jane Levere describes the strategic importance of the airport VIP lounge as a differentiator for competing airlines. As a global traveler who frequents these VIP lounges, I couldn’t agree more.

If you have been watching the airline business over the past several years, you have noticed some drama. Consolidations, alliances, bankruptcies, and “partnerships” (with varied levels of fidelity) abound. Most of the carriers we fly are working to create a unique brand experience in order to instill loyalty in an increasingly disloyal customer base. Many are employing new marketing techniques like social media attractions, or gaming their prospective passengers by pulling or pushing fares across different websites. Few, unfortunately, are investing strongly in the fundamentals: great travel experiences, great employees, and a truly unique brand.

All airlines, however, are trying to catch up with their most valuable, high-mileage passengers and bond with them. They don’t need to look too far. Most of their customers are perusing the complimentary magazine selections and open bars in the VIP lounges. Whether they are premium cabin class passengers, frequent fliers with lots of points, or businesspeople riding along on a coworker’s guest pass, they’re all lounging in the VIP section. All the time.

A well-designed space for airline passengers conveys a rare sense of comfort, calm, and welcome during the uncomfortable, hectic, and sometimes alienating experience of air travel. As Levere points out, well-designed lounges are also a great way for carriers to express their unique character and qualities. I haven’t experienced every airline’s VIP lounge, but certain airlines do it better than others. Here are some of my favorites.

Virgin Airlines never misses the opportunity to express its unique character, even in some of their smaller airport locations. In their airport “clubhouses,” it’s always just a little bit too much fun, in a good way, but also a challenge to stay focused on finishing your monotonous PowerPoint presentation while chilling out beneath those sparkly light fixtures on some fantastically weird couch.

I must mention, selfishly, Iberia Airlines, which I think has the best wine and tapas bar. Granted, I spend a lot of time here, but I think the design of these lounges is excellent and exudes charisma. Besides, during a post-redeye layover, you simply can’t beat fresh-squeezed orange juice, espresso, and the charcuterie. Just my personal bias.

Emirates Airlines is awesome at everything. They’ve pretty much changed the game and have everyone in the travel industry sitting up straight. Staying true to the best attributes people associate with hospitality, they manage to push the envelope of excellence without sacrificing any character.
On the flip side, however, other carriers seem to have caught the fever for granite countertop renovation projects in their lounges, all of which probably took a very long time and probably ran significantly over budget. While they look great, they all look the same, and I cannot tell one airline’s lounge from another.

Clearly the investment in a high-quality airport lounge is not a small one. But such investments can earn impressive returns with a select, high-value group of passengers. It makes a travel experience unique and memorable, it relieves them momentarily of the disorienting stress of travel, and it makes them feel valued.

*Abridged from an article by Michael Valkevich in Fast Company


How Restaurants And Retailers Are Evolving Together

Traditional competitors have been moving into each other’s territory, and are using many of the same methods

Whole Foods, the Austin, Texas-based grocery store chain, has for years been taking share from restaurants by offering unique stations where customers can get freshly made pasta, wood-fired pizza or cocktails.

But some restaurants have also been shifting into retail categories. At an NRA Show session this month on the convergence of restaurants and retail, Tim McEnery, founder and CEO of Cooper’s Hawk Winery & Restaurants, noted that the chain has been working to offer more retail space at its locations. There, it can sell the wines the company produces, as well as food products and other items that pair well with wine.

“We’ve worked hard to bring the retail experience to the forefront,” McEnery said, but noted that it is challenging. His restaurants have a slow sales ramp-up, and are thus built smaller, for those early, lean years. “We’re trying to be more efficient with our space.”

Both restaurants and retail concepts are evolving with today’s consumers, shifting toward more local ingredients and open kitchens where guests can see their food being prepared.

This is particularly true at airports, where foodservice providers like HMSHost bid on contracts to serve food in limited spaces to a captive audience. Increasingly, airport specifications are calling for more local brands and products, said Roy Wunderlich, vice president of design and construction for the company.

HMS, for instance, operates a version of The Larder at Tavern at Los Angeles International Airport. More of its locations are bringing food forward, and have open kitchens so airport guests can see the food being prepared — an increasingly important option for customers.

“Gone are the days of the sports bars in airports,” Wunderlich said. “We’ve made a concerted effort to change our design.”

There are strong reasons for that change, he said. Women make 85 percent of consumer purchases and 80 percent of travel decisions, and spend $125 billion on travel. They also represent slightly more than half of all travelers.

“Our menus have healthy options and smaller portions,” Wunderlich said, adding that HMS has also worked hard on its children’s meals, and to make sure the lighting is better and that storefronts are larger and more open.

Having a local focus can be challenging, Wunderlich said, because consumers who are traveling feel more comfortable with brands they know rather than a local brand they’ve never heard of.

Technology can also help brands improve the customer experience. Whole Foods is starting to use self-serve kiosks, where customers can order pizza or tacos, then shop and have the food ready when they’re done, said Christine Sturch, Midwest senior interior design and branding coordinator for the company.

“To me, at Whole Foods, adding technology felt like we would be losing customer service,” Sturch said. “But if we can add technology to make the customer experience and shopping pattern easier and better, and not lose that customer experience, then we have something special.”

Wunderlich noted that HMS is developing a smartphone app that would enable fliers to order food while still on the plane, en route to the gate, so they can quickly grab a meal while rushing to a connecting flight. It also has an app that will enable customers to order food from the gate and have it brought to them.

Regardless of these innovations, operational excellence remains important, and McEnery noted that Cooper’s Hawk spends no money on marketing, choosing instead to devote its resources to training and other elements that improve operations.

“Casual dining isn’t dead,” said McEnery, whose restaurant operates in the upscale-casual space. “Just casual-dining brands have not been able to keep up with changing customers.”

This is especially true nowadays, given the competitiveness of the market, especially with restaurants and retailers increasingly vying for the same customers.

“It’s so wicked competitive right now,” McEnery said. “You can go to the airport now and get awesome food. Everybody has to step up their game. To play in this space, you have to hit it out of the park.”

* abridged from an article byJonathan Maze at
Follow him on Twitter: @jonathanmaze

Energy-Efficient Restaurant Trends

The fact that energy-efficient equipment reduces energy costs is a given, but it can also improve food quality and consistency, according to equipment experts who shared their insights on a webcast entitled, “Amp Up Productivity, Turn-Down Energy Costs: Cooking Equipment Technology Revisited.”

In the presentation, hosted by Nation’s Restaurant News and Restaurant Hospitality, and sponsored by Vulcan Equipment, featured speakers — Ann Lovecik, foodservice energy efficiency consultant for CenterPoint Energy in Minneapolis, and Richard Young, senior engineer and director of education for PG&E Food Service Technology Center in San Ramon, Calif. — discussed the variety of ways energy-efficient equipment can save money despite the higher initial cost.

Lovecik said combination ovens — which combine the abilities of a convection oven and a steamer — are among her favorite types of kitchen equipment. Developed in Europe, where space is tighter, these ovens arrived in the United States in the 1980s and were mostly used for institutional cooking, but are becoming more widespread in restaurants. With their ability to bake, steam or cook with moist heat, these multitaskers take up less space in the kitchen. That means restaurants can install smaller ventilation hoods, which on average cost around $1,800 per linear foot.

Lovecik said that modern combination ovens also can be labor savers, because multi-step cooking instructions can be programmed into them, adjusting the temperature and steam ratio over the course of the cooking, allowing, for example, for a quick sear followed by low-and-slow cooking.

“It speeds up cook time and allows for retention of juice and less shrinkage of proteins,” she said.

They also can be programmed to roast meats overnight and then hold them at a safe temperature for use in the day. Most of them have probes that can be inserted into the meat so they can be cooked to a precise internal temperature, she added.

Many of them also record cooking times that can be transferred via their USB ports to computers for easier food safety HACCP documentation.

Young noted that modern Energy Star convection ovens and combination ovens can reduce operating costs by nearly 50 percent.

Lovecik also noted that high efficiency fryers with heat exchange baffles recover lost heat faster, making them more productive and also improving the quality of the fried food, which ends up spending less time in the oil.

Demand control ventilation systems were discussed as well. Unlike typical hoods, which turn on at full power whenever any equipment is turned on, Lovecik said these systems have sensors that monitor equipment use and ramp up or slow down exhaust as needed, resulting in less energy use. That is particularly important with ventilation systems, since they generally account for about 20 percent of all energy use in a kitchen.

Young looked at how some classic equipment has evolved. Broilers, for example, traditionally are just grates over flames.

“They’re not thermostatic — they’re like your backyard grill,” he said. “You turn them on and they run all day with very limited controls.” They’re such energy guzzlers that one year of operating them can be equal to their purchase price, he said.

However, after a decade of development, better designed lidded broilers are available with lower input rates and radiant heating that make them more energy-efficient.

Griddles, too, now have infrared burners that transfer heat better and result in savings. Young noted that even simple advances such as finned-bottom pots increase energy efficiency and can reducing cooking times for items like pasta, because water comes to a boil faster in them.

Young noted that energy efficient equipment can be a lot more expensive to begin with: an inexpensive, but also inefficient fryer, can cost around $800, while a high efficiency one will be closer to $1,500. High efficiency fryers recover their heat faster, which means they’re better for high-volume environments, and oil in them also tends to last longer than in conventional fryers.

He said that, assuming a fryer is used 12 hours per day and that 125 pounds of food is cooked in it each day, a high efficiency fryer will save more than $13,000 over the course of five years in energy and oil costs.

Lovecik addressed the benefits of energy efficient conveyor ovens, which have conveyor belts that run food through a heated cavity at a set pace.

Lovecik said new versions have sensors on the belts that slow the belts down and lower the temperatures during times of no activity.

Although it’s common knowledge that energy will be saved if ovens are turned down when they’re not being used, it’s difficult to follow through on that, especially since you want the ovens to be hot as soon as your restaurant gets busy. The new conveyor ovens take care of that automatically, which Lovecik said can result in a 40 percent reduction in energy use.

Young said there also are new cold preparation tables that are kept cold using chilled liquid rather than chilled air. The result is more even temperature and 20 percent energy savings.

Similarly, better griddles with more uniform heating can result in faster cooking times, easier use and lower energy use.

* Abridged from NRN, Bret Thorn at


Restaurant Tech Trends – 2015

Restaurant operations will be tapping technology with greater gusto in 2015 in both the front and back of the house.

“Technology will perhaps be the largest arena to see some rapid innovation in 2015,” said B. Hudson Riehle, senior vice president of the National Restaurant Association’s research and knowledge group. “Technology is just another tool in the operator tool belt, but 2015 is poised for a much more substantial integration of the technology into the typical restaurant operation.”

The restaurant industry will see some tech items become more affordable as prices dip, such as tablets for line-busting in quick service to tabletop devices for ordering and payments.

“Individual’s basic expectations for a restaurant experience includes technology,” Riehle said, from smartphones to websites to front of the house and back of the house. “As the price points come down, there will be much more substantial integration of technology into the basic restaurant experience.”

After 2014’s data breaches at restaurant concepts as varied as Dairy Queen, Jimmy John’s and P.F. Chang’s China Bistro, 2015 may push many restaurant companies in the U.S. to finally adopt point-of-sale systems compatible with the EMV standard that is widely followed outside of the United States.

EMV, named after its developers (Europay, MasterCard and Visa), requires cards that have embedded microprocessor chips that store and protect encrypted user data and is aimed at better protecting merchants and issuers from fraud losses at the point of sale. More U.S. banks and credit card companies are issuing the chipped EMV cards to their users.

In addition, a 2015 POS Software Trend Report from Hospitality Technology showed that 56 percent of restaurants say their top business reason for upgrading their POS is enabling new payment options such as e-wallet. Adding mobile capabilities and prepping for EMV is prompting 47 percent of restaurants to look at POS upgrades, according to the report.

“Yield management” or “dynamic pricing,” which means varying prices based on factors such as time, has been common in the hotel industry for years. Now, digital menu boards and sophisticated POS systems may pave the way for more restaurants to vary prices by day part to drive traffic.

“Restaurants can do really quick tests of not only pricing but menu substitutions,” Riehle said, noting that alternating pricing could generate incremental demand in the industry, according to NRA research.

“Ten years ago,” he said, “that capacity did not exist because menu boards and tablets were not there yet. Now, it does allow the average restaurant operator to step up their game to generate additional demand.”

Technology applications will also continue to help cooking equipment to save time and labor.

For example, winners of the NRA’s Kitchen Innovations Awards at the organization’s annual show in May included combination ovens that saved energy and reduced cook times by as much as 20 percent, ice machines that sanitized themselves with ultraviolet light oxidation, and dishwasher technology that reduced water use and sped drying times.

While the restaurant industry expects to see modest growth in 2015 and increasingly intense competition, operations will become more streamlined. The challenge for operators, Riehle advised, “is to remain high-touch in a high-tech environment.

* Abridged from an article by Ron Ruggless at
Follow him on Twitter: @RonRuggless


Good Eats – Leveraging Real Estate

We’ve all heard about the awesome food at Google. In a survey of IT workers conducted earlier this year by Forbes contributor Kate Harrison, “Good Eats” was voted second in a list of favorite employer-provided amenities, right behind “Game Rooms” and ahead of “Physical Health.” Food has definitely become a new workplace perk, and not just in the tech world. More and more, clients across all industries are building amenity spaces that either provide food or support it. Just as most people gravitate to the kitchen at a party, office cafés and cafeterias—whether they are fully catered facilities, a place to heat up a homemade lunch, or merely a place to eat that’s not your desk—have become the heart of the office.

Leveraging Real Estate

Café and cafeteria spaces can provide a great way for companies to leverage their real estate. Unlike the quiet rooms, collaboration zones, lounge areas and other amenities that companies build as give-backs to employees in an ever-densifying workplace, these spaces don’t tend to get turned into offices and workstations to accommodate growth. Rather, the café/cafeteria now plays multiple roles. During the day, employees can use them to perform solo work, collaborate in small groups, and hold town hall meetings; after hours, they can serve as event spaces in which employees socialize and clients are entertained, or they can generate income by being hired out for events outside the firm. Whether building a café, grab ‘n go or cafeteria, designing these facilities is as much about science and business as it is art. It demands detailed knowledge of the labyrinth of codes, an understanding of the workings and circulation patterns of a professional kitchen and some expertise in inventing any kind of space, in any kind of building. Here are a few trends we have been watching.

Customer Experience

According to the NPD Group, a leading market researcher, 40 percent of consumers are loyal to a brand despite promotions offered by other establishments. In retail, this means every aspect of the design must represent the brand; in corporate and institutional food service, the focus is on capturing the culture of the organization. Together with good food, location and price, the artful combination of aesthetics, layout, circulation, service and other amenities creates a customer experience that draws people back time and again.

Variety and Healthy Choices

Just as we’re seeing a demand for a variety of activity-based space types and transparency in the workplace, we’re noticing that people want food choices too—and they want to know what they’re getting. As exhibition cooking, themed action stations and self-serve stations make labeling, ingredients and preparation transparent and accessible have become the norm, the design of these spaces has become more complex. Front-of-house display, delivery, occupancy planning, circulation and point-of-payment must now be seamlessly woven with back-of-house operations like shared preparation, storage, catering and administration.

Scalable Use

Eating habits are changing: breakfast meals are on the rise, lunch is becoming the largest meal and people are working (and eating) 24/7. Corporations and institutional cafeterias must plan for peak occupancy and varying degrees of access ranging from full food service to vending and grab and go, as well as to alternative use of the space for training, meetings and special events. For companies wanting to provide convenient access to food and beverage without investing in a cafeteria, honor-system vending is an option, and we’re seeing these stations co-located with break-out lounges and café seating. In either case, the design emphasis is on what’s visible to the customer.

Technology in food service is not only driving greater operational efficiencies but shaping layout and design. Back-of-house is all about assembly line setup and cook/chill systems, remote refrigeration and automatic ice delivery systems—all centrally controlled and linked to building systems. Customer-facing technology includes WiFi throughout, video display of news and entertainment, digital and Web menus, self-service kiosks and point-of-sale systems—all of which drive and determine layout, occupancy and circulation and inform the aesthetics that will enhance the customer experience.


Creating attractive, dynamic environments that deliver peak performance is a significant investment. Protecting that investment means specifying energy-efficient equipment and materials, and furniture and finishes that can endure not only customer use but the abuse of cleaning products and maintenance crews. Additionally, for a space to look good and perform well from day one into the future, the design must ultimately transcend trends and deliver functionality that can adapt to multiple uses and users over time.

A New Form of Networking

Ironically, one of the best endorsements for food-oriented spaces came from Ross Resnick, CEO and founder of Roaming Hunger, an online catering hub and mobile food (food truck) dispatcher. “We consider it a new form of networking,” says Resnick. “Senior executives are [standing in line] with the rank-and-file … It’s very democratic.” That’s an observation that applies as readily to the cafeteria line as it does to the food truck line. Whether congregating to grab a meal or a snack, seeking a change of scene, or spill over from fully-subscribed conference rooms, these spaces offer opportunities for serendipitous encounters that can promote collegiality and enhance the culture of the organization.

*Abridged from an article in National Real Estate Investor, by Fran Ferrone, Director of Mancini-Duffy’s Center for Workplace Innovation in New York City.

A New Building Meant To Spark Innovation

U.S. Cities are establishing “Innovation Districts” to foster entrepreneurship.

They should take note of Boston’s new District Hall. 

Silicon Valley may be the capital of the tech scene, but the geographical spread of the country’s innovation has expanded far beyond its borders. Cities all over the country, from Brooklyn to Charleston to Las Vegas, are making a concerted effort to take advantage of the creative bustle of the urban environment, creating dedicated innovation districts. In the words of the Brookings Institution’s Bruce Katz, these districts cluster “leading-edge anchor institutions and cutting-edge innovative firms, connecting them with supporting and spin-off companies, business incubators, mixed-use housing, office, retail, and 21st century urban amenities.”

In Boston, a fledging District Hall, a city-sponsored center with workspaces, classrooms, community rooms, and a restaurant. The center comes out of a public-private partnership between the city of Boston and Boston Global Investors. Opened in October, the sleek, modern building by Boston-based Hacin + Associates offers a gorgeous civic space centered around collaboration.

As Katz has argued, the innovation district model profoundly impacts the physical design of our offices and research labs:

Innovation Districts embrace the redesign of buildings and office spaces in support of collaboration and open innovation, and they provide the physical and social platform for entrepreneurial growth—incubator space, collaborative venues, social networking, product competitions, technical support, and mentoring.

District Hall’s design is firmly in this collaborative, open camp. As the flagship component of Boston’s emerging 1,000-acre innovation district, the center stands out visually, beckoning the public in and offering a peek of what’s inside. Hacin’s angular design was inspired by the former industrial nature of the neighborhood, which used to be a waterfront rail yard. The cantilevered roof gestures toward the harbor, and large glass panels and bright LED lights make it a beacon at night, a transparent advertisement for the bustling activity within.

The 12,000-square-foot facility also had to be flexible and dynamic enough to house a variety of different functions—networking events, casual gatherings, demonstrations of new technology, coworking. Inside, there are writable wall surfaces and roll-down partitions that allow the large assembly space to be subdivided into smaller spaces as necessary. The main gathering space is accessible from all the major surrounding streets, and the entrances are visually connected by colored lighting, “reinforcing the role of the building as a public place and path,” according to the architects.

If there was ever any doubt, Hacin’s design proves that, yes, innovation can be a beautiful thing. Burgeoning innovation districts, take note.

* Abridged from an article by Shaunacy Ferro, a Brooklyn-based writer covering architecture, urban design and the sciences,

Why Restaurants Are Investing in Mobile Payments & Marketing

From restaurant chains like Starbucks, Panera and Wendy’s announcing mobile payment rollouts to smaller restaurant players getting on board with payment apps like Cover, the restaurant world is abuzz with mobile app news. But how widespread is the trend?

A new infographic, produced by mobile payment summit CONNECT 2014 and mobile payment startup Isis, illustrates the huge opportunity for restaurants to use mobile technologies to increase sales. Leveraging data from Google Shopper Marketing Council, Technomic, the National Restaurant Association and other sources, the graphic shares some fascinating statistics.

For example, 83 percent of smartphone users surveyed use their phones to make dining decisions while traveling, and 46 percent have tried a new menu item based on a mobile ad. People are also increasing interested in paying for meals electronically. Of those surveyed, 40 percent say they would like to for quick service meals via a mobile or wireless device, and 55 percent say they want mobile payments.

And restaurants are slowly but surely starting to catch on. Currently, 95 percent of independent restaurants do not have a mobile site and only 16 percent of restaurants have mobile apps. But 50 percent of limited-service restaurants say they plan to invest more resources in customer-facing technologies, like tablets and smartphone apps. Which is smart since, according to the infographic, mobile payment users spend twice as much through digital channels.

Looks like it’s time for restaurants small and large to start exploring the expanding mobile app ecosystem.

*Abridged from an article by Nina Meijers,