How does real world adversity enable entrepreneurial ingenuity?
With the travel industry on its knees from global COVID-19 lockdowns and their family business facing the toughest test of its 24-year history, Plaza Premium Group’s founder and CEO, Song Hoi-see, his son Jonathan and daughter Mei Mei made a remarkable decision. They would run toward the approaching storm.
As aviation businesses everywhere downsized with ferocious speed, the Hong Kong-based family surveyed the scene, held their nerve and decided the time was right to grow their business.
Despite a 95% drop in traffic in the pandemic, the entrepreneurial Song family moved decisively. Acting counterintuitively during a time of turmoil in the industry, they increased their airport lounge portfolio by 75% and focused on building back better. They grew from 160 to 280 lounges around the globe and enlisted EY teams to help shape a digital solution that could bring new choices directly into the hands of younger travelers.
A warm and energetic man with a self-deprecating sense of humor, the Malaysian-born businessman says, if his business was like a bungalow, then at the time he was down to its “last two walls.” But Song knew there was truth in the Chinese proverb “to look for opportunity in a crisis.”
“As a family business, we know it pays to be agile. One of the best ways we can do that is to recognize that there are times where we can step forward when others are stepping back,” says Song. “It’s why we’re always on the lookout for moments when others might not want to take on new business.”
The family admits the aviation crisis prompted by the COVID-19 pandemic was the worst for its business since Song was inspired to create the firm in 1998. A former Lehman Brothers banker, Song had understood the comfort and conveniences that first-class lounges provided. When he left the company and worked on his own start-up, traveling frequently on his own dime, he found the airport dwell time inefficient and struggled to send faxes and find electric power sockets. He knew there were lots of people traveling on business who felt the same way. Seeing this opportunity led him to open the world’s first independent pay-in lounges in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur.
It pays to be agile. One of the best ways we can do that is to recognize that there are times where we can step forward when others are stepping back.
Recognizing global shifts before they happen
Plaza Premium Group’s ambitious transformation began during the depths of the pandemic, based on the family’s analysis of where the market would go after the pandemic. Together, the Plaza Premium Group management agreed that the creation of a digital platform could bring together Plaza Premium Group’s existing airport lounges, hotels, dining and meet-and-greet businesses into one convenient location for their customers, alongside a range of other airport operations.
The decision to create an app anticipated several different worldwide trends including a greater focus on comfort and convenience for a younger generation, a move towards earlier check-in times and a surge in air passenger travel across Europe and America compared to the firm’s traditional Asian market.
“One of the factors we noticed was a rise in transport hubs, where it was essential to have good transit facilities and hospitality services to accommodate passengers for those long transit hours,” says Jonathan, the Plaza Premium Group's global business development director. “At the same time more passengers began seeking out what we call 'affordable luxury.'”
“Most passengers may not splurge on business class tickets, but they want to enjoy the luxury of flying. So, we looked to provide them with an affordable luxury “realm” of lounges and hotels, meet-and-greet services, buggy hire, luggage wrapping, car parking, duty-free and other services that could be incorporated into a single passenger journey and be a win-win for everyone,” Jonathan says.
The strategy aimed to eliminate the pain points familiar to millions of airline passengers, who are forced to deal with a host of different siloed businesses on their travels. It also aligned with the family firm’s principles of offering passengers “convenience, comfort, love and care, and value,” Song says.
But first there were some major hurdles to overcome. With many airports operating different digital systems, the new platform needed to be integrated with a variety of complex operating protocols, while also connecting to cloud services and blockchain technology, and providing a secure database. It also required improving the combination of technologies to facilitate their integrated lounge services. The answer meant enlisting a specialized team with a wide range of international digital expertise. With its sophisticated global network, including member firm offices in over 150 countries, EY teams were perfectly placed to help future-proof the Smart Traveller program.
Screenshots of the Smart Traveller app.
“Plaza Premium Group wanted to create a seamless experience for travelers,” says Willy Wong, Partner, Technology Consulting at EY Hong Kong. “The idea was to cut out the irritation factor and give travelers decision-making capability at their fingertips by approaching international travel from a digital-first mindset."
“In creating a flexible digital platform, the team wanted something that airports themselves would adopt, aligning with their infrastructure and providing built-in data analytics and intelligent personalization with a program of rewards and incentives,” Wong explains. “The result was a framework that could be replicated quickly in new markets, helping to control costs but allowing for localization and the ability to connect passengers with a different network of businesses at every destination.”
Providing a pleasurable return to business and leisure travel
In meeting a desire for more seamless travel experience — one of the longstanding challenges of the travel industry — Plaza Premium Group is pioneering a new culture of care across the travel industry. The innovation is also inspiring a new generation of entrepreneurs in an industry that is traditionally dominated by big players.
Preliminary data indicates the company's loyalty program, Smart Traveller, now has the potential to be one of the aviation success stories of the post-COVID-19 era. As Plaza Premium Group’s solution partner, EY supported the expansion of the Smart Traveller program by connecting them to new airport ecosystems around the world.
“We wanted to reinforce the idea that happiness would come from bringing people together again,” says Mei Mei Song, the Plaza Premium Group's global brand and product transformation director, adding that “positive experiences should start before you enter the terminal.” Amongst the firm’s forthcoming plans is catering for an increase of passengers who are combining both business and leisure journeys, dubbed “bleisure travel.” New initiatives will include encouraging professionals to spend their working day in the airport lounge prior to boarding their flight — helping to ease the transition from work to travel. With fast Wi-Fi, dedicated meeting rooms and healthy meal options, business travelers can avoid commuting during rush hours and board their flight seamlessly. The outcomes include a less hectic, more considered approach to business travel, better rested executives, with less stress on their families and personal lives, and more productive outcomes.
“We’re quite agile and very resilient,” Mei Mei says. “It’s part of who we are as a business — but we also try to look at things holistically.”
Adds Jonathan, “We’re grateful for the support EY has given us to grasp the vision and make sure we asked ourselves better questions about what we were trying to achieve. Our father created the airport lounge business because he realized there were many more people like him with the same issue. We’ve been looking to solve problems and make travel more convenient ever since.”
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