A Moët & Chandon champagne bar. A Turkish tea garden. An outdoor swimming pool.
These aren’t the features of a new luxury hotel. Instead, they’re all offerings in modern airport lounges around the globe — at Dubai International, Istanbul Ataturk and Puta Cana International airports, respectively.
Now, lounge operators in the United States, where the concept of the airport lounge first launched in LaGuardia airport in 1939, are increasingly revamping their own pre-travel perks, from craft cocktails to on-site hair and makeup to sonic meditations led by famous gurus. The common thread? A focus on improving the customer experience for the modern traveler.
“Lounge design has to account for a family with two kids heading to a ski trip and for the businesswoman who needs to close a deal,” says Vicki Eickelberger of Big Red Rooster, a JLL company that worked on the design of all nine American Express Centurion Lounges. “When a customer’s varied needs are met — maybe some needs they didn’t even think of – that sense of comfort creates lasting brand loyalty.”
Here are four areas that are taking the lounge experience to new heights.
Air travel is rarely a stress-free experience, even for those flying first class. New lounge amenities are aimed at minimizing the disturbances caused by time zone changes and long periods of sitting.
“Modern travelers care much more about their well-being, and airport lounge design has changed to reflect that,” says Eickelberger. “More lounges now have spas and tranquility rooms that offer respite from the stress of travel.”
Etihad, Emirates and Virgin Atlantic are among the international airlines with spa services in their lounges. The Centurion Lounge at Miami International Airport, which opened in 2015 and is currently undergoing a $6.7 million, even offers complimentary massages. Meanwhile, at Delta Air Lines’ Sky Clubs at John F. Kennedy International Airport and Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, guests can sit in a zero-gravity chair and listen to light-and-sound meditations led by Deepak Chopra.
Ten years ago, the average airline lounge guest might not have cared whether the complimentary sandwiches on offer were organic and locally sourced. Today, lounge operators compete by drawing in celebrity chefs and mixologists who use local ingredients to woo customers with increasingly sophisticated palates.
The United Polaris lounge at Chicago O’Hare International Airport includes a menu developed by award-winning chef Art Smith and waiter service that mimics fine dining. It has curated wines, premium spirits, craft brews and handcrafted cocktails designed by mixologist Adam Seger.
“If the customer weren’t awaiting a late-night flight, what would they be doing? Probably having an enjoyable dinner with a wide range of food options to choose from,” says Rick Lindstrom, Vice President, Projects, at JLL’s Project and Development Services division. “The trend is giving the business traveler what they would normally have — even if it’s just for an hour.”
While good food and pre-flight massages may appeal to all travelers, those flying for business often have a singular top priority: finding a quiet space to work.
Chicago’s Polaris Lounge recently redesigned its work areas to maximize each individual’s personal space. Each guest has their own area to recharge devices and have semi-private phone conversations with strong WiFi to ensure emails reach their intended destination.
Centurion lounges, which are now in nine U.S. airports including Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport and LaGuardia Airport, have soundproofed childcare areas. Parents keep an eye on kids through glass walls, as they take advantage of high-speed WiFi to get work done in silence on the other side.
“The airport lounge is basically a co-working site for the traveling executive,” Eickelberger says. “The more a lounge tailors the experience to meet their needs – which range from personal space for productivity to high-quality furniture for quiet contemplation — the more value it has for them and the more likely they are to return.”
An exclusive environment
Travelers are willing to pay a premium for lounge access because they want an exclusive experience. The Private Suite at Los Angeles International Airport is the ultimate example of this. Rather than a lounge within the airport, it’s a private terminal with its own entrance.
Members get private security screenings, and await their flights in suites equipped with a bathroom, a food-service pantry and a two-person daybed. They can book complimentary in-suite manicures or get their hair and makeup done by professionals. When it’s time to board, they are driven across the tarmac in a BMW 7-series sedan, Head-of-State style.
The service does not come cheap. On domestic flights, it costs $2,700 per group of up to four people, on top of a $7,500 annual membership fee.
While the Private Suite experience takes exclusivity to the extreme, it’s hardly a new concept for airline lounges. The main draw for membership, in fact, has long been a level of convenience that is not available in an airport’s main corridors.
“If you’re a club member, you get everything you need in one comfortable place,” Lindstrom says. “That’s a major perk that people are willing to pay for.”