Image: Max Pixel

APEX Insight: No longer just a staid room in which to sit and sip a drink before a trip, airline lounges are seeing a renaissance as a destination unto themselves. Findings from a newly published YouGov-Spafax survey suggest younger passengers appear inclined to take that even further, with virtual reality (VR)-based experiences adding to the entertainment and ancillary revenue potential. What does this mean for the future travel experience inside airports?

Passengers are split on what makes for a great pre-flight experience, with many of the differences matching demographic borders. Younger travelers want a more engaging and interactive experience on the ground and in the air, according to a recent YouGov survey commissioned by Spafax of 2,110 UK-based respondents. Could the results shape the way airport lounges operate in the future?

Consider the opportunity to “walk” along the Great Wall of China thanks to a treadmill and a VR headset. Nearly half (44%) of the full-time students surveyed suggested they would enjoy that experience while only 23% of retirees were so interested. Charles Vine, head of Brand Alliances at Spafax said the study’s findings could help airport and airlines make more informed decisions about how to improve the way travelers experience airports.

“Customers expect an experience before they even get on the plane – and brands can take advantage of that moment where the customer is in repose and attentive or let it pass.” – Charles Vine, Spafax

“The findings of this survey support our proprietary research which highlights that airport lounges and the airport experience as a whole are going through a radical change. Customers expect an experience before they even get on the plane – and brands can take advantage of that moment where the customer is in repose and attentive or let it pass. We predict an increasing appetite for the clever use of lounge space by brands,” said Vine. “Artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and VR are vehicles through which to enhance the traveling experience. And that is precisely why we help airlines collaborate with external brands to help make that happen.”

Lounges historically focused on relaxation and isolation from the terminal mall crowds. However, Vine believes that lounges could be a “destination, even a place of contemplation and creative thinking given the right triggers.” He also thinks lounges can also be places for shopping or marketing, driving incremental revenue. Findings from the YouGov-Spafax survey add weight to idea of VR or AR being used in lounges, albeit with more enthusiasm from male respondents than female: Around 27% of the men surveyed said they would test drive a new luxury car in VR, while only 17% of women said they would.

But turning lounges into retail and marketing spaces could be a risky proposition as passengers want to avoid what Vine describes as “perfume snipers and poster campaigns.” Instead, airlines and retailers should focus on experiences uniquely conceived for the space with options that enhance the lounge time rather than add to the stress of travel. Technology can help solve this dilemma. For example, liquor tastings in a lounge are not a new concept but adding a VR or AR angle could make the experience more compelling and engaging for travelers: Using a gin tasting as part of a VR-powered guided tour of martini bars in the destination might help a traveler prepare for the trip and create a memorable moment in the lounge. And there’s a far better chance that the featured drink is ordered at the destination or picked up at duty-free along the way.

“VR headsets have to be 100% reliable, the lounge team need to be able to help customers use them and talk about the content they are showing,” Charles Vine, Spafax

Making these experiences easy for travelers in lounges is also key, according to Vine. He said this will require heavy dependence on lounge staff to make sure the experience is seamless. “It needs to be accessible and witty and, ideally, use the mobile device [staff] have in their hand to activate it. VR headsets have to be 100% reliable, the lounge team need to be able to help customers use them and talk about the content they are showing. So, as ever, it comes down to the airline’s human teams to make the technology work perfectly.”

“[Airports] are realizing the opportunity that people waiting in an airport lounge present – a captive, and highly select, target audience who want engagement and entertainment,” Charles Vine, Spafax

Can this be achieved without the VR elements? Some elements could, while others (e.g. the Great Wall experience) depend heavily on the technology. Key to the success is making sure the passengers are engaged and entertained. These systems present a tremendous opportunity to deliver on that goal while also generating revenue for the airline and passenger loyalty for both the airline and the brand. “[Airports] are realizing the opportunity that people waiting in an airport lounge present – a captive, and highly select, target audience who want engagement and entertainment. This space has never been exploited to the fullest extent in an enticing and bespoke way,” said Vine.