Feature: Onboard catering

BY JULIE BAXTER

Catering trends are pushing tech solutions centre stage be it through apps and pre-order or the foodie focus in social media and consumer trends. We ask industry leaders how they are responding to the shifting sands of onboard demand.

Few can doubt the catering model is changing, and changing fast. The challenge for traditional catering organisations is how to meet that change, how to stay relevant and how to remain the airlines’ key partner as the onboard hospitality offer evolves.

As we met industry leaders during WTCE Hamburg, it was clear the catering giants of our industry now do much more than just catering. Technology is a key part of the catering mix and disruption is being met with diversification on many levels.

Chief technology officer gategroup, Simon de Monfort Walker, puts it like this: “It is no longer a question of just executing a service in the same way things have been done for 20 years – companies like ours now have to show they can help airlines cope with new models. The world cannot stand still but even simple changes can be complex to deliver, and our biggest challenges are around the systems to support the emerging demands and complexities of our industry.”

Key among these complexities will be pre-ordering, which de Monfort Walker expects will develop fast. He says: “Pre-order for complimentary service has many benefits – less waste and more customer satisfaction. And buy-on-board (BoB), allows you to offer better products, even if it is for a cost.

“The key to success here is analytics, data. With lots of statistics to draw on we can clearly predict consumption better. Historically, decision-making has often been intuitive and emotional but increasingly we will give airlines data and evidence of neuro-reactions that show precisely what they should be putting onboard. We will offer airlines the tools, technology and interfaces they need to make scientific quantified decisions.”

Perhaps ironically, it is the growth of BoB which has helped provide the critical data insights to drive the change. He says: “Retail finally gave us the information we need. With complimentary service you can only sample what’s left behind but with BoB you can see passengers making an active choice. This information is very valuable. Clear data allows us to move into a very aggressive mode, with a massively dedicated and motivated team.”

He also acknowledges the pressure coming from the fast-emerging ‘foodie’ culture and adds: “lt is a remarkable time to be stepping up a gear and implementing change at a time when food is so on trend.”

He predicts BoB retail will become a much more dynamic sector of the business and will be tackled head on through the company’s Absolutely One programme: “We have to be very focused on how we bring great ideas to market and have a very clean and clear development cycle, focused on the passenger experience and helping airlines adapt.”

The merger of gategroup and Servair, plus the investment made by HNA has strengthened the company’s ability to respond in this fast evolving environment he says, adding: “Servair has a deep excellence in all things culinary, and gategroup has a lot of expertise and experience in product and logistics. Now we will take the innovations of each to drive the organisation forward.

“We see four key areas we need to focus on to support our clients: hospitality, execution, technology and retail. There is no point just offering amazing concepts, we have to be vastly practical too.”

Comprised of eight different companies with specific specialities, gategroup will focus on making it easier for airline partners to work with them by simplifying its interactions with clients. “We need the group to be truly connected so we are tightening up the relationships within the company and the way we all help the client. Our Centres of Excellence across the regions ensure innovation and execution are linked in a simplified way.”

The investment by HNA, he says, helps this process: “HNA has significant experience, it built Hainan Airlines into a great airline business in China, which is a massive market, and it has a powerful and proven network. The management there wants to invest in innovation and we believe together we can achieve an accelerated pace of innovation. Gategroup has been very successful in LatAm and Asia, in management, kitchens and supply chains, and has knowledge we can roll out more widely without reinventing everything.”

Eerdman Rauer, ceo LSG Group, doesn’t argue with the predictions of change ahead. But he sees a different route through the challenges.

With group brands including Retail inMotion, SkyChef, Spiriant, Oakfields and Skylogistics, he says: “We have a different set up to our peers. While a lot of companies are moving to a packaged product, we believe we can accomplish a competitive edge and bring catering value through segmentation combined with system-wide logistics. We want to show we can help airlines increase efficiency, improve customer satisfaction and improve operations behind the scenes. We have to be the partner of choice and believe we can do that by offering a broad portfolio within which there are many exciting new opportunities.

“We have positioned ourselves differently, as best in class, in a disciplined way, stressing our relationships with our brand partners. From an organisational position it is vital that we maintain this separation but we have to think about synergy and common understanding too. The governance all parts of our group have to do is the same, but front end they can differentiate themselves to ride the market. If they see a problem in their area of expertise, they will be the ones looking for the solutions. This is the formula we will use, giving them the tools to do what each is best at and mixing them to make the perfect cocktail for the client. We favour this set up because in this industry we have to be agile, international and careful about growth. We have respect for our brands and try to see how each can learn from the experience of the other. We have to remain responsive.”

But he warns: “Don’t underestimate the disruptive changes ahead. Global influences such as Brexit in Europe, passenger growth in Asia and China or the development of low cost carriers mean it isn’t always easy to know where we are going, but we do know there will be opportunities to develop and challenges to overcome. We have to clean up our structures as we go, evolve, keep competitive and constantly adapt to the needs of our clients.

“I’m convinced we have the right strategy. Feedback from airlines is good and while costs and investment is one element, it is what you do with the money that really counts. There is no one with endless budgets, you can go for market share but you still have to address the changes that are happening. We respect what the Chinese (HNA) are doing, we don’t know the end game but we read the strategy as showing we have a fundamentally difference approach. They are going to bricks and mortar, we are looking to our team and their ideas, our products and the way they can match airlines’ needs and brand; and our strategic belief is that technology and processes will be key.”

He highlights the range of options offered by Oakfields, ranging from frozen hot meals to package meals and hot snacks brokerage, produced centrally off-airport and standardised for distribution across Europe or the US as an example of how brands and products will adapt. “The future is going to demand many more modular concept options, products that are easy to load, easy to use and based on components which can be used in many varied ways.”

At DNATA, senior vp catering, Robin Padgett, says it is critical that in responding to change caterers don’t forget the key issue is food. “We have to get back to the food. We have 500 chefs across 15 countries and spent last year trying to really understand their skills and flexibility. They have a lot of transferable skills.

“We’re going back to basics and putting culinary skills and expertise at the heart of what we do. For instance, Chinese airlines are expanding into Europe and we have Chinese chefs in other areas of the world with transferrable skills which could work for them. We now have an in-house talent management programme which means we can monitor the assets that we have.”

He expects the trend for BoB to continue but doesn’t see it as a threat: “The trend for retail onboard has migrated from low cost carriers to legacy carriers, most notably with British Airways’ decision to move to a BoB service for its short haul Economy passengers. This was a bold move and a correct decision. British Airways will not be the last company to do this and I think the next step will be buy-on-board for long haul routes.”

While that may shock some, he insists: “A strong and well-executed BoB programme can add value. Charter airlines are the unsung heroes of buy-on-board. We’ve been doing it for a long time with them and we have the brochures, POS systems and other tools needed to do it well. Our only mistake is not pitching it more aggressively to push more airlines to consider it. Looking forward we’d like to expand our BoB offering geographically too. DNATA will continue to grow organically and through acquisitions. There are lots of areas we are looking to move into and Asia looks likely. We’ve been operating in Singapore since the early 2000s and Asia is a great market with a dynamic aviation industry.”

With a clear US perspective Flying Food Group’s executive vp sales & marketing, Nicolas Rondeau, says: “It is difficult to predict the future in our world today. Our industry is dynamic and sometimes volatile, and dependent on global economics, fuel costs and other factors. I am an optimist and see continuing trends towards better service and quality for passengers. Passengers continue to value fresh, healthy food and that will drive culinary decisions.

He expects airlines to continue investing in onboard catering and says: “Inflight meals are a key determiner of a positive passenger experience: great meals make a difference when passengers choose a carrier and we are proud to be part of this.”

He acknowledges that some airline customers have been proposing multiple options for premium passengers, and upgraded options for Economy. Pre-ordering is on their agenda but not yet significantly in demand. “If a customer were to request it, we would certainly team with them to provide affordable, appealing options,” he says.

And that is probably the key to surviving disruption from wherever it may come. To keep catering, caterers have to be constantly ready to cater for change.