Learning lessons the Southend way

Bernie Baldwin

London Southend Airport amalgamates the characteristics of a capital city airport with the best attributes of a regional. Its CEO, Glyn Jones, shared some of its methods with CONNECT delegates.

For an airport, finding and keeping airlines is a challenge in good times, never mind when it’s been hit hard by a global pandemic. It’s a task which Glyn Jones, chief executive officer of Stobart Aviation (which owns London Southend and Carlisle Lake District airports) faced over the past two years and in Tampere, he took the time to explain the strategies the company employed.

Accepting one simple lesson was the starting point. “Everybody thinks they know this, but we can always know it better, but with the pace of change in this area is so rapid, we must remind ourselves to understand the consumer. We can’t do it enough. I used to say that once you’re bored of an advert, the consumer is probably just starting to get it. So keep reminding yourself of that need to understand,” Jones stressed.

“The pandemic showed that the consumer changes all the time, not only in areas we would traditionally expect to understand, demographics for example, but more importantly, in terms of their motivations. That’s because in the last 20 years there has been commoditisation of short-haul travel,” he continued.

“And it is a commodity like any other. People behave like consumers in any other market. They are simply buying a flight rather than a pair of jeans or going out for dinner. So understanding their motivations, particularly their emotional motivations, is a big thing that we’ve picked up.”

To help understand the customers, both airline and traveller, Stobart Aviation recruits people from airlines to work in an airport environment. “We made that part of our DNA, to have people who understand the airlines and the relevance of marketing communication support,” Jones remarked.

“The availability of information means everyone is potentially a journalist, with a view of the world on their own experience, so it is vital that airports deliver on what we say they’re going to deliver in terms of customer experience.

“We focused on that enormously at London Southend. Like many, we don’t have dozens of competitive advantages. One that we do have is a great reputation. We were voted best airport in London for six years running and are renowned for better delivery. To have that reputation, you have to earn it every day by delivering both operationally and critically, emotionally, which is a difficult thing to measure,” Jones remarked.

The CEO also advocated for revenue diversification, particularly against fixed costs. “At the same time, there’s the necessity for sustainable aero income. One of the things that we’ve absolutely found is that airports, particularly small airports, is that they cannot carry indefinite risk. If you have very little aero income work, you are carrying huge loads,” he commented.

“I talked about understanding the consumer. While we understand the split between VFR, business and leisure traffic and so on, we must understand the detail – as far as we can – of their qualitative, rather than quantitative, demands.

“One of the things that I cannot repeat enough in our own business is the absolute necessity to acquire more customers, particularly as we went gone from roughly 2.2 million passengers to fewer than 100,000 valuable passengers at London Southend. We need to sell seats. It isn’t just the airline’s job to sell seats, just as it’s not our job to do all of the branding marketing for an airline. We need to do that work with our airline colleagues to help them, because it’s in our interests just as much,” Jones emphasised.

Southend Airport is all about delivering end-to-end. It is 45 minutes to central London by train from the airport. For those driving to the airport, the car park is a five minute walk away and there is a hotel on site. “Taxi times are five minutes and though we’re in London airspace, I’ve never, ever seen a hold in the six years I’ve been there. So all of those things, whether for the consumer or the airline customer, we absolutely deliver on every day.

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