It has been two years since the baggage carousels at Heathrow's Terminal Five (T5) stuttered into life. Hailed as the future of air travel, the impressive terminal, which took nearly two decades to complete at a cost of £4.3b, promised to change the passenger experience for good, banishing the horrors of queues and claustrophobic spaces. And alongside the revolutionised check-in experience - designed to take no more than an unprecedented 10 minutes - would sit a groundbreaking retail and food and beverage offer.
BAA's aim, of course, was to give today's discerning traveller what they want - original, freshly prepared food and a slice of the high street to boot. And while the trend to bring in high-street brands such as Yo! Sushi, Pret A Manger or gastropub group Geronimo Inns was already gathering pace in other terminals, T5 presented the perfect opportunity to completely rethink the food and beverage offer. This extended to its lounges, which are considered flagship operations, offering the kind of food passengers would expect to find in a five-star hotel.
"T5 has more space than any other airport in the UK and the choice of restaurants is unrivalled," says Chris Annetts, head of category for food and beverage at BAA. "We introduced a collection of completely new brands at T5 and the selection is as good as any high street."
Indeed T5 saw first-time airport signings by a number of established high street restaurant brands including Carluccio's and Wagamama as well as fledgling businesses such as boutique sandwich group Apostrophe and sushi chain Itsu, not to mention the most high profile chef of them all, Gordon Ramsay.
"Passengers have reacted really well to the restaurant offer at T5," Annetts adds. "They have recognised how different it is compared with other airports and their response has been very positive. On average, around 50% of all passengers at T5 tend to sit down for a meal so we've fed in the region of 25 million people in the last two years."
But it hasn't all been plain sailing. From the global credit crunch to hiked security measures, threats of industrial action and unprecedented snowfalls, it has been a tough take-off for British Airways, the sole occupant of the new terminal. And let's not forget the T5 opening fiasco, during which the airline was forced to cancel more than 5,000 flights and misplaced 42,000 bags.
DELAYS AND CANCELLATIONS
Annetts brushes these issues aside. "The problems at the beginning were very short-lived and really didn't affect the food and beverage side of things," he argues.
"What tends to happen when problems such as delays and cancellations occur is that passengers spend a lot more time before security, waiting to see what's going to happen. Once passengers have gone through, things tend to carry on as normal so the operators inside the terminal building don't really notice much of a difference."
According to Andrew Wood, operational performance manager for the British Airways lounges contract at Compass Group, passengers have made allowances and arrived at the terminal's restaurants and lounges with plenty of time to enjoy the high level of hospitality.
"Because any problems have been so well advertised, people are getting through earlier," he says. "They arrive at the terminal earlier and are processed quickly by security, leaving plenty of time in the lounges."
Once there, passengers are met by lavish surroundings more akin to a boutique hotel than an airport lounge. And while passenger numbers have dwindled during the recession, British Airways has been able to use the exclusivity of these lounges as means of attracting what business is available by opening them to a wider spread of passengers. So when the carrier is light on first and business class passengers using the lounges, footfall will remain constant, thanks to offers and inducements.
"Five years ago airlines saw lounges as a necessary operational area and didn't really focus on them as such," adds Wood. "Now it's seen as a differentiator. Many have opened new lounges in the last 18 months with a focus on higher quality. So one of the operational challenges is to try and stay ahead of the game."
To maintain British Airways' position at the forefront of hospitality, Compass has enhanced its food and beverage offer beyond the levels specified when T5 opened. All three tiers of lounge (Club, First and Concorde) have been improved.
"It used to be the exception that hot food was offered, but now it's the norm," adds Wood. "Passengers expect hot food to be available, even between meal periods."
When T5 first opened, the Concorde Room, which can accommodate 156 first class and invited guests, would serve hot food only at specified meal times. Now it offers an all-day dining menu capable of satisfying the most demanding customer. At any time passengers are presented with the option of a three-course meal including a platter of Parma ham grissini, roasted artichokes, sun-blushed tomatoes and gazpacho followed by herb-crusted haddock on rosti potatoes and chargrilled peppers dressed with tomato and balsamic vinegar, and rich chocolate ganache torte served with vanilla ice-cream.
ADAPTING TO SECURITY REQUIREMENTS
While Compass has changed along with British Airways to keep its food and beverage offer at the top of the industry standard, it has also had to adapt to security requirements. Passengers tend to leave more time when security is heightened, but it's difficult for a contract caterer to leave more time for recruitment when often the vacancy becomes available at short notice.
"The time it has taken us to recruit staff has been our greatest challenge," says Compass's director of aviation business, Geoff Wilson.
"There's a strict vetting system we have to use, which slows up the recruitment stage. It takes an average of three months to get someone on board."
Compass is working with BAA to establish a protocol that will satisfy its security requirements. But neither Compass, British Airways nor any of the 22 other food and beverage operators can control the weather and its effect on passenger numbers, flights and deliveries. As far as the recent adverse conditions and consequent flight cancellations and road closures are concerned, Annetts says that strong contingency plans are in place.
"We're lucky to be located near two major motorways, which means even in severe weather conditions, deliveries are still able to reach us," he says.
"We ensure that deliveries of fresh produce are increased when delays and cancellations are envisaged. For instance, certain operators like Costa Coffee will increase their milk order when an increase in volume of passengers is expected."
Security hikes, bad weather and threats of industrial action aside, Annetts concedes that BAA has had to rethink some of the food and beverage offer.
"One outlet has closed and another has rebranded," he explains. "We had a Caviar House & Prunier Seafood Bar in the satellite building, which didn't attract the anticipated amount of interest. While the seafood bar in the main terminal is doing really well we decided to close the outlet in the satellite building and concentrate on the Apostrophe sandwich and JD Wetherspoon bar offering there, which seem more appropriate for that location."
Meanwhile Amato, an Italian café serving fresh pastries and cakes, has rebranded as Espresso. While previously all of its cakes were delivered from its flagship store in Soho, it now prepares all its food - including pastries and sandwiches - freshly on site.
Other restaurant brands, which were new to the airport environment, took some time to settle in. "Some operators are well established on the high street but were new to the airport environment so it took them a little while to get used to this kind of market," Annetts says.
Gordon Ramsay's Plane Food was a case in point. The biggest restaurant in T5, holding 180 covers and employing a brigade of 35 in its £1m kitchen, Plane Food experienced severe teething problems. It lost more than £780,000 in the first six months and faced winding-up petitions from HMRC at the end of last year over unpaid debts.
Stuart Gillies, chef-patron of Plane Food, says the first few months at T5 were a huge learning curve for Gordon Ramsay Holdings (GRH). "We didn't fully know what we were doing and it cost us a lot of money," he admits.
"It took us about six months to understand the market and what customers want - which is a high-end product, fast. We spent too much time on table plans and letting customers settle in before ordering. We had to learn that what people want is to be in and out of there in 25 minutes."
GRH addressed the initial service problems and Plane Food is now one of its most successful brands, serving 600 to 700 diners a day. The restaurant has also introduced a picnic service, allowing travellers to take a three-course meal onto their flight, which, thanks to a high-profile endorsement from Victoria Beckham, has proved increasingly popular.
Gillies adds that with 75% of passengers being regular business travellers, the secret is to build up their trust. "It's incredible how many people spend three or four days a week at Heathrow and we get regular customers, just as we do at our other restaurants. It's about building up their trust and giving them what they want," he says.
A consideration all operators have had to get used to is the fact that all produce has to be checked in via the Heathrow Consolidation Centre (HCC), two miles from T5. Here, the goods are security-scanned before being delivered by BAA in temperature-controlled vans. The restaurants should receive ingredients within three hours of their delivery to HCC but there has to be room for leeway.
"Because all the deliveries have to be security checked there can be unforeseen delays," explains Gillies. "So we have to order everything one or two days in advance and can't use ingredients that are too volatile."
Looking ahead, the next milestone at Heathrow is the redevelopment of Terminal Two (T2) which is currently being rebuilt and is set to reopen in 2014. The new £1b building, part of a larger rebuilding programme across Heathrow, will handle an estimated 20 million passengers per year. It will be opened in two phases, the second of which will see T2 extended into Terminal One, which will itself be closed down when the second stage is complete.
Annetts says important lessons have been learned. "T5 was a great opportunity for us to show the quality of what can be delivered," he says. "We want to take this to the other terminals."
HOW THE HOTELS HAVE FARED
It might not have been the ideal time to open a luxury hotel at an airport, but the past two years have been successful in more ways than one for the 605-bedroom Sofitel London Heathrow.
Linked to Terminal 5 by a bridge, the hotel has done better with its conference and transient business than expected and has celebrated a trio of awards.
"While we have been slower than forecast in picking up traditional corporate and leisure business, we have compensated by being busier with conference and transient bookings, which account for nearly 30% and 55% of our turnover," says general manager Vincent Madden.
Overall, average occupancy at the hotel has achieved a respectable midweek figure of 75%.
The access to the airport, ease with reaching London by the Underground and the closeness to the road network has made the hotel, which is owned by Arora Hotels and operated under a Sofitel franchise, particularly attractive to conference bookers.
"It seems that in these days of austerity we have benefited from conference organisers not wanting to be seen to be booking jollies for companies in resort hotels," says Madden.
"We are seen as a more serious option and when guests arrive they are delighted to find that we offer all the quality they are used to in a resort."
Having announced on opening that one of the hotel's mission statements was to be the best airport hotel in the world, Madden and his team of 285 staff are delighted to have been named the Best New Business Hotel in the World in the UK Business Traveller Awards 2009 and the Best Airport Hotel in the World at the Business Traveller magazine Hotel Awards 2009 in the USA as well as winning a bronze award for accessibility in the Meeting & Incentive Travel Awards 2010.
Key features of the hotel include Brasserie Roux, overseen by chef consultant Albert Roux; two other restaurants, one serving afternoon tea and the other displaying live cookery; two bars; 45 meetings rooms; and a spa with a hydrotherapy suite.
HOSPITALITY IN TERMINAL 4
Last year BAA spent £200m refurbishing Heathrow's Terminal 4 (T4). In addition to extending the landside departure concourse and check-in facilities, the 85,000 sq ft of catering and retail space was transformed in a bid to provide passengers with improved facilities and a higher standard of service.
Alongside premium retail brands such as Jimmy Choo, Cartier and Cath Kidston is contract caterer Delaware North's quirky, British-themed Dining Street restaurant.
The firm, founded in the USA, has a wealth of experience in the travel market outside the UK and the 180-capacity restaurant is the result of Delaware North's decision to pursue food and beverage opportunities in UK airports.
Simon Dobson, the firm's UK managing director, says there was a long time spent building relations with BAA, which led to specific talks about available space at T4.
"BAA wanted something with a British theme, so we developed the quirky and very British Dining Street concept, which aims to leave passengers with a good sense of Britain as they depart," he says.
Plans to develop the concept include the introduction of a Brick Lane sub-theme, to be launched at Easter.
"It would be really easy to just put a couple of curry dishes on the menu," explains Dobson. "But it made sense to create something specific as a lot of flights out of T4 head to Asia and the East. It's a bit of fun as well."
While the concept is designed to be easily rolled out to other sites, Dobson emphasises that any plans to expand will be tailored to location. For example, Delaware North opened the Gathering restaurant, takeaway and delicatessen at Edinburgh airport in November last year as part of a £40m redevelopment of the Scottish terminal. The 220-cover restaurant has an Edinburgh theme, deliberately without clichés, and is designed to lift the quality of food and beverage offers available air-side while reflecting the values of the city.