Victoria Loomes, senior trends analyst at TrendsWatching. presenting at the Passenger Experience Conference in Hamburg. Image: Maxim Sergienko

APEX Insight: How can the industry adapt to a growing interest in the “experience economy”? Startups and brands are coming up with high-tech solutions that reimagine the types of experiences an airline can provide.

Attitudes toward luxury are changing and consumers are increasingly opting to indulge in far-out experiences in favor of investing in luxury items. To accommodate this shift, startups and brands are harnessing recent technological advances to reframe the travel journey around experiences versus hard-product transactions. A recent study from The Martini Report found that 80 percent of affluent consumers would choose a luxury experience over a luxury item, a 50-percent increase from the previous year.

“We’ve been tracking a really interesting shift in luxury markets that’s moving from displayed status to luxury status,” says Victoria Loomes, senior trends analyst at TrendWatching. Loomes points to Dinner in the Sky, a novelty restaurant that suspends dinners 150 feet in the air from a crane, or London’s Hot Tub Cinema, which is exactly what you’d expect, as examples of this trend.

But as the availability of novel experiences becomes more abundant, the social capital they carry dwindles. “People are becoming experience connoisseurs,” says Loomes. “It’s increasingly difficult to surprise and delight them with experiences.” The virtual world, however, provides boundless experiential horizons, and technological advancements may allow users to be convincingly immersed in exotic environments. “Experience in the virtual world can accrue as much status as it does in the real world,” says Loomes.

But interest in experiences isn’t only limited to affluent travelers. “Who said that passengers who buy cheap tickets want to eat cheap food,” asks Jaap Roukens, founder and chief executive officer of iFLEAT, an app-based service that provides flyers with the restaurant food experience in the air. After downloading the app, travelers can browse local menus and select a three-course meal for their flight by filling in their name and booking code. Using the same logistics as a traditional airline catered meal, iFLEAT procures the food for the order and delivers a standard half-size trolley for the flight.

“Millennials are used to ordering online and they have $40 billion spending power,” says Roukens, commenting on the growing demand for special airline meals. The company partnered with airberlin, rebranding the service as airgusto, and its currently been made available on long-haul flights departing from German hubs. At an average ordering price of €24.50, the meal service isn’t cheap, but, “We see customers willing to pay the extra euros for a better dining experience,” says Nils Steinig, project manager of Product Development and Innovation for airberlin.

Design concepts from Seymourpowell push airlines to retail space rather than seats, a more abstract offering that implies something more experiential. “It’s all driven by a desire to celebrate difference,” says Jez White, head of Transport for the design agency. In economy class, Seymourpowell’s Morph Seat can be easily adjusted, so that passengers can choose and pay for the amount of space they need. Additionally, layouts can also be adapted so families can book a seat-facing arrangement, for example.

In order to meet varying seat arrangement requests, the agency developed an algorithm that sorts seat positions like Tetris pieces. “Passengers don’t order seats, they’ve ordered a condition,” explains White. “When you combine the hardware with software, you offer the opportunity to define new service paradigms.”

Katie is a writer for APEX Media, based in Paris, France.