At Virgin Atlantic’s new business lounge at London’s Heathrow airport, passengers have been offered “mind-gym” clinics, where they can be coached in mind-improving techniques; BlackBerry clinics, where they can get tips and information on how to use their portable handsets; and sunglasses styling clinics, where they are shown which sunglasses best suit their features.
Virgin Atlantic’s Heathrow offerings will look either gimmicky or useful, depending on your point of view, but they are also a sign that business lounges are having to do more than just provide a comfortable haven from the hustle and bustle of the terminals.
“There has been a huge shift in what people want from their travel experience,” says a British Airways spokeswoman. “In the 1980s, business lounges were very much about the experience of getting there, but in the 1990s people started to really want the time they were spending travelling given back to them, so [business lounges] have become destinations in themselves.”
This means that an increasing number of business lounges, in addition to providing the usual array of services – free buffet-style food, tea and coffee, comfortable seating, wi-fi and newspapers – are competing to offer an improved architectural and interior design experience, a range of themed bars, branded beauty and therapy centres, and swimming pools.
Malaysian Airlines’s lounge in Kuala Lumpur, for example, has a glass-enclosed rainforest, with a river running through it, along with a gym, bedrooms, a computer-games corner and a nursery with babysitting services.
BA’s lounge at JFK offers a Molton Brown Travel Spa, with hydrotherapy showers, reflexology treatments and specially designed pre- and post-flight massages, while Cathay Pacific’s lounge at Hong Kong International airport has private cubicles, complete with personal showers, beds and oversized tubs.
“Consumers are far more demanding. There is much greater awareness of the effects of jetlag and an understanding that travellers don’t want to arrive at their destinations exhausted,” says BA.
In part, the changes have been driven by upgrades to airport facilities. With many terminals providing even economy-class flyers with comfortable seating, a choice of restaurants and an extensive range of shops, business lounges have had to do more to differentiate themselves from the mainstream.
“If you have wi-fi and a comfortable place to eat anyway, the value a lounge delivers starts to fall,” says Henry Harteveldt, vice-president and principal analyst of travel at Forrester, the research company. He says that many airlines in the US objected, for competitive reasons, to airports installing wi-fi in public spaces. “Given that the argument was with their landlords,” he adds, “there wasn’t much they could do about it”.
The improvements have also been driven by the need to justify corporate expenditure on first class travel, traditionally the main users of business lounges. With companies cutting back on business and first class flights and encouraging staff to take both economy seats and use budget airlines, the high-end of the market has been forced to prove it is worth the expense.
“Travellers and corporations have to believe the premium they are paying for a first class or business class ticket is worth it,” says Mr Harteveldt. “And if you are really a frequent flyer, what you care about are small courtesies. Airline travel is stressful and you want to be cushioned from its harsh realities.”
In some cases, companies are offering lounge access to compensate their staff for the economy class tickets bought for them. This has fuelled a proliferation in both independently run, pay-as-you-go lounges and schemes offering lounge access as a benefit. Thus, where once airport business lounges were restricted to the privileged few, travellers can now buy access for between £10 and £20 a person without the expense of a first class ticket.
Jennifer Archer, US director of marketing at PriorityPass, says: “Corporations can save thousands of dollars by purchasing an unlimited access membership ticket to business lounges instead of buying a first class ticket. It’s a no-brainer; a huge reward for almost no investment.”
Although lounge services like this have been around since the early 1990s, they have grown in popularity as the extra waiting time associated with increased security over the past few years has grown. With passengers being asked to arrive at airports several hours early, even for domestic flights, business lounges are playing an even greater role in providing a place where passengers can get some work done or relax and enjoy time spent out of the office.
“It’s an insurance scheme,” says Ms Archer. “You never know when you might be at an airport longer than expected. With the increase in security, people are anticipating long lines, and now they can do something with any time left over. They can be productive and turn airport time into their time. And the increase in security demands isn’t something that’s going to go away today.”
Some lounges are better than others. Not all offer day pass access, and for good reason. BA, for example, says that its business lounges are already busy, so it sees no need to open them up for casual use.
There are also differences between the US and Europe. Forrester’s Mr Harteveldt says that US airlines in general tend to take a more mercantile approach to business lounges than European and Asian airlines, which tend to reserve them exclusively for their first class passengers, viewing them as a sanctuary and part of a paid-for privilege.
“American airlines tend to view lounges as just another product to be sold,” he says, “and they’re much better at up-selling to customers. So, it’s just like when you go to McDonald’s and they ask if you’d like fries with your Coke. They will ask if you’d like a business lounge pass with your economy ticket.”
This trend is now spreading to Europe, with third parties selling airport lounge passes, including budget airlines such as EasyJet.
Business lounges have had to adapt to cultural trends. BA says an increasing number of men are using its spa treatment facilities, reflecting the overall rise in men using beauty products. Tailored services are also appreciated. Japanese travellers, for example, love spas, particularly foot treatments, the airline says. This suggests that business lounges, unlike their luxury-seeking clients, are being forced to undergo head-to-toe makeovers just to survive.