All that glitters is not gold: The Truth Behind F&B in Travel Retail

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By Marco Passoni

It has been a pleasure in recent years to see the rapid development of exciting F&B concepts in the travel retail market. With almost every new opening there are new brands entering the F&B space, some of them bringing big, recognised names with them, while others are putting niche superstars into the global market.

F&B is the most valuable tool for travel retail, it creates experience and meets a core consumer need, helping to disrupt travellers from both the path of their journey and their mobile device. So it is great to see these exciting names coming into the space and bringing with them the unique and exquisite experiences which have made them so beloved.

Except in many cases, they are not. All too often, these shiny new concepts are simply fresh packaging for the same big operators, who are experts in delivering economies of scale in the airport space, and driving revenue for landlords, but cannot to my mind deliver the bespoke and tailored experiences expected of these brands and their reputation.

I understand the challenge for a new F&B brand – however big the culinary name at its head – in entering a market as unique as the travel retail sector, and there is no doubt that the big operators have much they can teach in terms of how to operate within this ecosystem. But this cannot be done at the expense of the quality of service, experience or food expected of the brand.

All too often, these shiny new concepts are simply fresh packaging for the same big operators

We speak much in this industry about passengers’ concerns over fancy packaging which hides an unremarkable product, or passengers’ unwillingness to be misled by lip service, all too often this seem to be exactly what is happening in the F&B space. Big operators opening a new branch of an exciting concept, but just delivering their usual service – and sometimes menu – is misleading to customers and damaging to the brand reputation.

Most of the time, these eye-catching brands come with a service, story and experience which is expected of them. If the operators who have licensed the name cannot deliver that service and quality then they have no business promising it to travellers. I myself have had experiences stepping into an airport restaurant excited about the prospect of a meal I either know I enjoy or excited to try something new, only to find the same service and offer as I would find in a global chain in any airport around the world.

This is bad for our industry – and not just the F&B sector. As F&B becomes a more common partner for brands looking to create something unique in the market, the actual brand experience is more important than ever.

This brings us back to a topic I have raised many times on this blog – direct brand management. Airports and landlords must trust brands to operate their own spaces and give them the flexibility to do so. Only a brand, either in retail or F&B, can deliver its own experience properly. So the most iconic and recognisable brands must be allowed to do so. Even if that means taking a lighter approach to the economics. We talk so much about playing a long game for engagement and spend, but until we can put our money where our mouth is, that is all just wasted air.

Airports and landlords must trust brands to operate their own spaces and give them the flexibility to do so

It is absolutely correct that the F&B offer in airports should be raised. Exciting brands should be brought in and encouraged to take advantage of the unique opportunity in this market. But they must also be allowed to do it themselves. If, behind the glossy signs, all the experiences are the same, then they are pointless, and once consumers figure that out we are all in trouble.

Marco Passoni has decades of experience in the travel retail sector. He has spent the majority of his career in senior leader positions throughout the market, including a 12-year tenure as CEO of a leading international Duty Free distribution company and a further 8 years running a retail firm that operated fashion mono-brand stores in several international airports.
Today, as Senior Executive VP and founding partner of 2.0 & Partners, he leads the company’s efforts in developing and innovating services which create new opportunities and partnerships for all members of the travel retail Trinity. A former elite-level sailor, with a World Championship to his name, Marco now spends much of his time airside, experiencing the changing travel retail industry first-hand, to better guide partners and clients on the best way to do business in this vibrant and unique market.