In a recent 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 couple 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. This road warrior, for one, welcomes and rewards those airline partners that do.