How do you digitally transform an airport?

That’s the challenge facing Heathrow’s Simon Chatfield, the man in charge of eBusiness & CRM at Europe’s busiest airport.

Heathrow welcomes 200,000 passengers per day, most of whom remain largely anonymous to the company’s own marketing team.

So how can the airport use digital to create an enjoyable, personalised experience for people who are often in a rush?

Chatfield gave a quick overview of the business’s strategy during a Q&A at the Adobe Summit yesterday.

Here’s a summary of what he said...

The challenge

Heathrow has been undergoing some major infrastructure changes in recent years, adding a whole new terminal and bidding to build a new runway.

As part of this, the airport has been looking at new ways to deliver an improved, personalised customer experience.

According to Chatfield, from a digital marketing angle the onus has been on assisting the business to get closer to customers.

Historically we don’t know much about our customers. They’re with us for a very short amount of time, we don’t know who is coming tomorrow or even today.

Heathrow’s aim is to get the brand in front of people from the moment they begin to plan their trip.

That means getting them to look at the airport’s website, download the app, or sign up to the loyalty scheme.

“We want to give people a great service and put them in control of their time,” said Chatfield.

Of course, this “golden hour” that passengers spend in the airport is where Heathrow’s retail partners stand to make their money.

Transformation from the top

Heathrow is in the enviable position of having a digital transformation programme that is being driven by its board.

Econsultancy’s research into Organisational Structures and Resourcing found that 27% of businesses identify lack of board buy-in as a significant barrier to digital progress.

Chatfield said that having identified digital as an area of focus, senior management asked the wider business for help and ideas on how to implement it.

Heathrow's homepage

The programme initially began with a working group, from which came a new role of director of service transformation.

Service transformation is now part of the company’s KPIs, so the whole business is targeted on improving its digital capabilities.

Single passenger view

How do you get a single view of a customer who hasn’t technically bought anything from you, and will only be on your premises for a few short hours?

Quite the logistical challenge, made more difficult by the variety of partners that operate Heathrow’s different services.

Chatfield explained that the business’s architecture is quite disparate, with the website, parking, Wi-Fi, etc. all operated by third-parties.

They key to unlocking it all is by using unique visitor IDs, which can join up the data when that user does something identifiable (e.g. booking parking, logging on to Wi-Fi).

Ultimately Heathrow wants to “propagate” this single customer view down to the frontline employees who can then offer a more personalised experience to passengers.

From a retail perspective, the most powerful tool is the loyalty scheme which currently has around 1.5m members.

It enables Heathrow to track where people are spending across its estate, with some of that data then shared with retail partners.

Chatfield gave the example of a customer who might spend time shopping in luxury stores like Tiffany’s, then go and buy a sandwich from Pret.

The two activities might seem incongruous, so it’s necessary to find data to highlight these sorts of customer journeys so Heathrow can improve the overall experience.

For more on this topic, check out Econsultancy's digital transformation hub.

David Moth

Published 12 May, 2016 by David Moth

David Moth is Editor and Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or connect via LinkedIn

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