Saturday, May 03, 2008

Note to Tyler Brûlé and departing EOS employees: Service is relative

I was happy to see the return of Tyler Brûlé's Fast Track column in today's weekend FT. It provides breezy opinion-rich accounts of the life of business travel of the black credit card variety - no Little Chefs here.

Despite regular suggestions from an unbelieving public that Tyler's column, which charts the antics of a diva-like jetsetter stomping carbon footprints around the globe, must be the handiwork of one of the FT's relentless micky takers, the man does actually exist. Tyler made his name founding Wallpaper* magazine and is now back with Monocle - a cross between the Economist and, well, Wallpaper*. He does indeed live a colourful life, bouncing around the globe with boundless enthusiasm. I've met him several times and enjoy his company - though can't keep up with his travel tales, since Nokia's travel policies make me turn right at the plane door.

And business travel is the subject of his column today. He is shocked by the failure of EOS, an all-business-class airline that jetted execs between "London" (or Stansted, 40 miles north) and New York. He provides some lessons in hindsight, but I think he misses the most important one that applies to just about any "all elite" service such as an all business airline. It's an oxymoron.

Elite is relative.

It's not just about having more leg room. It's about having more legroom than you.

Of course, I'm humble (see above note about turning right) and can't afford to have an ego or let such superficial, competitive thoughts enter my mind, but how many fat cat businessmen are as charitable as me, St. Stephen? These people eat babies for breakfast and oneupmanship makes them tick. They're unhappy with a million dollar bonus if their mate gets more. So I'd suggest that a good part of the value they receive when their secretary pays several thousand pounds for a flight ticket is comprised of exhibitionism and the feel good sense that comes with attaining what others can't get, and want. Gore Vidal put it well, "It's not enough that I succeed. Others must fail." And there's no point in succeeding if you're hidden from view in a separate airplane and a separate airport.

I'd hazard a guess that the Venn diagram of people rich enough for such premium services, and those immune to such posturing has not much by way of overlap.

With that in mind, am interested in how Singapore Airlines will manage the experience for their customers of their new Suites product. It uses the massive space on the A380s to take first class to a new level of exclusivity, providing enclosed cabins for those paying £6k each way to escape from the crowd. But, as a word of advice from me - don't cut them off too much. Give the execs the joy of jealous looks from those traipsing to economy class, or the ability to share a smug smirk with their fellow cabin-travellers. After all, if good service was everywhere, it wouldn't be good any more.


lucy liu said...

interesting theory and probably applicable to egomanical types like vidal, but lets consider an alternative.
as a past flyer of the french equivalent, l'avion, i was very disappointed in my experience. my sentiment did not stem from the fact that i could not gloat from my throne in first class to other less-fortunate travelers. rather, i was simply very disappointed with the level of service.

billed as an all business class airline, i was crestfallen to learn that l'avion was, in fact, a regular coach class flight with more legroom. the plane still had the narrow aisles. it still had the endless walk to the toilet. and worst of all, it still had that darn beverage cart... and ne'er a stewardess to be found when my headphones did not work.

so, while there may be a rampant global army of arrogant folk who like to validate their self-professed superiority through observation of the inferior fortune of others, i am hopeful that there are more hardworking people who actually expect some level of service when paying a small fortune to fly.

davdin said...

On a related topic, have a look at Day Jet story. It tells of how you can innovate by looking at the market in a different way and combining that with technology enabling a business to run profitably.

Stephen Johnston said...

Thanks Lucy. Your disappointment in what the experience should have been is routed in some subjective norm that you have created in your mind based on other air travel experiences, and you assume is shared by execs at L'Avion. But what if those execs actually thought that economy class should involve wooden benches, no food and open windows. The experience you had in their "all business" plane would have been entirely consistent with their corporate values. If they had, as I imply, instead delivered a multi-class option, then it would make their corporate values, strategy and offering more transparent. Perhaps they would depend on their customers valuing impeccably turned out staff and traditional gallic hospitality to win space in the competitive air travel market. You'd know full well what you were getting yourself in for in advance - you'd have been uncomfortable, but not surprised.

Davidin - interesting piece, thanks. Jetsons-like individual aviation experiences are long overdue. Would love to think that heavy maths can solve one of the most intractable problems with these types of things - empty seats travelling. Without keeping the jets earning money every day, they're not going to be cheap enough for mainstream. Linking to Lucy's comment, these planes will probably have poor legroom and may not even have a drinks trolley, but represent a different differentiation strategy - the route, not the inflight experience. That by definition will make it hard to show off to fellow cheapo flyers. In this case, I'd recommend DayJet produce baseball hats, keyrings and bumper stickers so their less charitable customers get their own chance to gloat.

stavros_k said...

Interesting points...
I think there are multiple reasons for this specific service failure.

I agree there is some element of 'showing off' that goes with anything 'premium' yet these airlines could have managed that better (separate check ins / lounges, small things like flashy leather baggage tags, maybe pitch for a slot at LHR etc).

After all, the most elitist of air travel (private jet that is:) is a one-class offering and maybe the most discreet one (I see the Gulfstreams coming and going at London City Airport, yet their passengers go through a private check-in area, separate immigration etc so no much in terms of showing off there; yet am sure they have a way to make it known to their circles that they use a private jet). EOS / Maxjet should have looked into this.

The likes of EOS and Maxjet seem to have gotten wrong both how they targeted their selected segments and the offering they targeted them with. It does not seem that the ultra-rich would be their target so that leaves them with either business travelers (and their travel agencies/depts who control policies) or wealthy tourists. As per the FT article, I am not sure EOS and Maxjet offered a compelling proposition (status, convenience, comfort etc) to either groups to make them switch from BA or Virgin (as we know, Lon-NY is a very competitive route with well-established offerings from BA & Virgin -US airlines are not there yet-...while air miles count and one needs a strong reason to switch :)