Rewind back 10 years ago, I could still remember lounging my carry-on bags in the airport trying to look for a place to rest, while waiting for my plane. Plastic chairs that had those weird curved bottom seats that prevented weary people from lying down and sleeping on the chairs, crowded walkways, faulty or insufficient plug points to charge your electronic devices, expensive and crappy Airport food to ‘ON OFF WIFI’ signals.
I used to stare in hope through the glass panels into the air port lounges that one day I too, could be able to enter, sit down on the comfy sofas, sip my latte, read the papers and relax.
NOW I CAN and SO DO YOU!
The Plaza Premium Lounge provides this privilege to all passengers regardless of travel class and airline they fly, at a fee.
Founder Song Hoi See started the first Plaza lounge at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and at Hong Kong International Airport where the company has its headquarters in 1998, and he has since expanded the business worldwide to airports in India, the Middle East, Canada and soon the UK at London Heathrow and Australia at Sydney Kingsford-Smith International Airport.
(Credit to Plaza Premium Lounge)
Through his initiative and vision, Mr Song has broken the stereotype that airport lounges are for premium travellers only.
Aspire: Tell us a little about your vision of the airport lounge business when you first started. What made you think this would be a growing business when generally airlines prefer to manage their own lounges?
Song: The creation of my concept of airport pay-in lounges stemmed from my bad personal experience at the airport. Many years back when I worked for an American bank, I enjoyed travel perks such as limousine service, business class flights and use of airline lounges. When I left the bank to start my own business, I flew economy class and started comparing the experiences. At one point, I found myself ‘stealing’ electricity from airport sockets to charge my laptop, always dreading the long and dreary transit time. Then I thought to myself, how nice would it be if I had the option of enjoying lounge access, and the more I travelled the more I saw a pressing need for this facility. When the opportunity presented itself, I shared my idea with the world. Today, we design, build, operate and manage lounges, with the goal of enhancing the airport experience.
Song: I’m not sure if airlines enjoy managing their own lounges! Airlines operate a transportation business and I imagine they would much appreciate someone else taking the burden of managing a lounge off their shoulders. That’s where we come into the equation. We’re specialists, creating not only a lounge space that is comfortable, efficient and tailored, but also a product that raises the bar for airport lounge standards – today, lounges aren’t just about chips and nuts, it’s a facility cum service that improves the travel experience.
Aspire: You have expanded the business beyond Kuala Lumpur where you set up your first Plaza Premium Lounge – to airports in Singapore, Hong Kong and China in what looks initially like an Asian phenomenon. How has this changed with your business expanding to Canada, the Middle East and soon the UK and Australia?
Song: We’re very happy with the response the concept has received. We are a leader in the business, developing and evolving this concept for 15 years, longer then anyone else in the industry. Initially, a lot of people asked, ‘Why do we need another lounge when the airlines already have a lounge?’ But you must understand that the majority of travellers fly economy class; that is not to say that they would not appreciate an enhanced airport experience. While we have seen year on year an increase of travel numbers globally, travellers in the past had come to accept as a fact that airport experiences were to be dreaded. It’s all part of the package, but they have wizened up to realising that it doesn’t have to be like that. There has a major shift in the quality of services in airports in the past few years on a global scale. Airports can see that an airport lounge can by and large improve the airport service quality, which will in turn encourage more people to fly through these airports. The environment is dynamic and very exciting. This is why I love this industry and what I do.
Song: As the concept became more popular and airport authorities began to see how it could add value to the airport’s facilities, it opened up opportunities for us to expand our business beyond Asia. You can say the concept has global applications.
Aspire: Which is your best selling lounge and why?
Song: I couldn’t tell you which one is the most bestselling lounge as it’s like picking favourites among children. The circumstance for each lounge is different; remember that each lounge is carefully designed to tailor to the needs of the travellers who come through the airports where they are located. We take everything into account, everything ranging from types of travellers, their cultures, transit time, flight times… the list goes on and on. It is important that we’re detailed and meticulous in our research.
Song: We have recently opened three lounges, one in Bangalore, Hong Kong and Vancouver. They boast what we call the 5th generation lounges, where we introduced a new lounge design and boosted the concept of interactivity, creating touch points and interactive opportunities for our guests and team members. Sometimes travelling can be very lonely, with no one to speak to in the span of 12 hours or more, so we find ways to change that experience for travellers. We even introduced made-to-order dishes, so the food is fresh. There are local dishes that our guests can try the food one last time before they fly out. By the way, at each of these lounges, we have also introduced a fantastic signature dish. Building a lounge is not a difficult task, but how to sustain consistent quality of service by a dedicated team is the challenge.
Aspire: At the height of the economic crisis in 2009/2010, airlines were doing badly and continue to suffer from the slow recovery in air travel, in particular premium travel. You would expect this to have a negative impact on your business, yet your brand thrives and expands. What is it that holds up your business in good and bad times?
Song: It is true that the economic crisis heavily affected everyone across almost every industry. However, we must look far and into the long term. At that time, in spite of concerns from HR, I decided not to lay off a single person in our team. I made sure the team stayed focus on refining and defining the lounge product, strengthening the service, facility and ambience that we provide to keep us standing strong. I have a fantastic team and I’m very proud of them. We have developed an operating culture by which we pride ourselves to provide the best lounge service.
Song: We saw a change in travel patterns, that while some travellers may have reduced their travelling budget, they in turn opted for lounge use to complement their revised travelling habits. We are able to help travellers to maintain a certain level of comfort at the airport.
Aspire: Who are your competitors and what makes your facility different from others?
Song: There are some isolated lounge operators, but we are not so concerned about the competition as we know that we have developed a strong brand supported by the economies of scale, an excellent training system and a dynamic management team focusing on providing a quality of service that is world-class. In fact a lot of people have asked me about competition from airlines, but I see this as a misconception as airlines in fact complement our lounge services and vice versa. We work with many airlines to take care of their first and business class passengers, and we also manage the airline lounges of our airline partners. Being specialists in the field, they are happy to leave the management in our hands. In Hong Kong, we manage the airline lounges of Cathay Pacific (The Bridge), Thai Airways, Air France/KLM, United Airlines, and we continue to lead and grow this leg of the business internationally.
Aspire: Give us your take on the outlook vis-à-vis new, emerging trends in air travel.
Song: I see the growth of the middle class, especially in China and India, and with this, the demand for travel will grow in tandem. In the past two years alone, this market has grown exponentially, and has in fact shifted the travel trend beyond many people’s expectations. I believe it will continue to do so in the years to come. The Brookings Institution predicts that by 2030, the middle class will grow to 4.9 billion from its current figure of about 1.9 billion, and the bulk of it will be from China. In Asia alone there are 46 low-cost carriers. I believe this number will continue to grow and there will be more low-cost carrier terminals.
Song: Airlines will also begin to form closer alliances, and perhaps we’ll also see larger mergers. This is a dynamic environment and the aviation business will move rapidly forward as the economy recovers worldwide. All this can only be good news for Plaza.
THE world largest independent airport lounge network Plaza Premium Lounge was awarded “World’s Best Independent Airport Lounge” accolade from Skytrax at the 2017 World Airline Awards at the Paris Air Show.
Plaza Premium Lounge reaps a harvest of hard work in 2017 as its Hong Kong, Brisbane, London Heathrow Terminal 2 (T2) and Vancouver lounges are ranked the world’s 10 best independent airport lounges by millions of travellers.
This is the second time in a row that it has racked up a string of recognitions bestowed by Skytrax, with Plaza Premium Lounge in London Heathrow T2 and Hong Kong having clinched two of the world’s top three positions together, reflecting their exceptional lounge facilities and service standards.
Mr. Song hoped that his story of developing Plaza Premium Lounge, the Group’s flagship business pillar, could inspire young entrepreneurs to have confidence in themselves in moving a local business concept successfully into the world arena. Our younger generation should continue to have faith in entrepreneurship and innovation. Following his example, it was possible to start with nothing, as long as they have a unique idea, courage, perseverance and passion.
Mr. Song highlighted that the accolade was a testament to the company and very much attributed to the dedication of his team. Plaza Premium Lounge would not have been what it is today without our colleagues’ full support and faith in sharing his vision.
Since 1998, Plaza Premium Lounge has evolved substantially into Plaza Premium Group, a global service brand offering premium airport services, with over 3,500 employees in more than 130 locations across 35 international airports, serving over 7 million passengers around the world annually.
Plaza Premium Group provides Premium Airport Services in more than 150 locations across the world, serving more than 12 million passengers annually.
Apart from airport transit hotel, airport meet-and-greet service, as well as airport dining businesses, the group also owns Plaza Premium Lounge, which runs the world’s largest independent airport lounge network.