Trends and expectations for peak travel and beyond.
By Melissa Thomas
And while the low demand is in the rear-view mirror, there is now another set of challenges, with demand soaring as the peak travel season stretches from Thanksgiving weekend well into the New Year. This increased demand in business aviation is great for related vendors.
However, this brings other challenges, such as hiring and supply chain limitations. Nevertheless, the business aviation industry is known for delivering outstanding customer experiences, and inflight caterers are planning to deliver despite the additional known challenges.
What several of the inflight caterers recognized in the 2021 Pro Pilot PRASE Survey have in common is a strategic plan for working together with operators and FBOs to ensure success in managing passenger desires and expectations throughout this high-demand season.
Business aviation passengers consider all the flight amenities and logistics services when evaluating their customer experience.
Business trends in the inflight catering industry during the pandemic have mirrored those of the aviation industry as a whole, with all aviation businesses having been hit hard from March 2020 through the summer.
In August and September 2020, leisure travel markets like West Palm Beach FL, Scottsdale AZ, and resort cities across Mexico saw demand return more quickly than business travel markets as the whole world embraced virtual meetings and working from home.
Manuel Romero-Vargas is director general of Manny Aviation Services in Mexico, with offices in Toluca, Querétaro, San José del Cabo, and Cancún. He estimates that leisure travel is carrying the higher demand trend, representing about 70% of the current total demand.
Business travel continues to come in at about 30%, indicating that it hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels. In addition, many US-based inflight caterers share that they are also experiencing a much higher share of leisure travel than occurred prior to the pandemic.
They have also reported that demand matching 2019 levels occurred in February of 2021. And, since March 2021, demand has increased by up to 30% compared to 2019 levels.
Industry veterans Joe and John Celentano founded Rudy’s Inflight Catering nearly 3 decades ago. The brothers started the business operating out of their father’s family restaurant kitchen, which has since grown into to a 17,000-sq-ft freestanding building.
Joe Celentano shares that current workforce shortages and supply chain issues are some of the strangest challenges they’ve had to meet.
While Rudy’s could certainly hire 30–40 additional staff today if applicants were available, they are very lucky to have a large core group of dedicated team members.
“With demand extremely high, everyone is pitching in to meet the needs of the business,” declares Celentano. “It is an all-hands-on-deck situation, and the family of team members are working together to meet the challenges.”
The size and intensity of a challenging situation are almost never the defining factors in determining the outcomes. The defining factors almost always come down to the passion and attitude of leadership. Steve Sipprell, founder of California-based Stevie’s Inflight Catering, exudes both of these sentiments when asked for his thoughts on managing his business through these challenging times.
He notes, “In the 30 years I have been doing this, the real-world challenges have been brutal. However, the risk versus reward has always been a win. I would not trade it for the world.”
With the uptick of personal and leisure travel, there are some new catering trends beyond the now normal request for healthier cuisine that matches today’s most popular diets. Caterers are seeing demand rise for their concierge-type services.
Many inflight caterers provide concierge services that include shopping for retail products, gift baskets, celebratory food items, and even fulfilling requests for supplies to decorate the aircraft for special occasions.
These hospitality concierge requests are a chance for caterers to get creative with their culinary skills, and showcase their party planning expertise.
Paul Schweitzer, SVP global sales & marketing, and cofounder of Tampa FL-based Air Culinaire Worldwide, remarks that the industry leisure travel is booming. He goes into specifics about the fun and interesting catering and concierge service requests.
Passengers traveling to sporting events or camping destinations are requesting tailgating and camping items such as propane grills and air mattresses. Also extremely popular are requests for special occasion gift baskets and decorations to celebrate engagements, bachelorette and bachelor parties, birthdays, graduations, sporting events, new babies, new puppies, new homes, and job promotions.
Delivery from locally famous restaurants and for locally popular cuisine are other commonly requested concierge services. Seafood from Joe’s Stone Crab Restaurant is a popular request in the Miami market. A little-known fact is that passengers can order catering in their arrival city instead of their departure city. Also, a nice personalized touch can happen when a crew finds out at departure about a passenger birthday.
With some quick action, the crew can coordinate to have a box of cookies or slice of birthday cake packaged to go, so it can be presented on arrival in the destination city. Mike Linder, owner of Silver Lining Inflight Catering in the south Florida market, remains positive and focused on solutions. “It is important to always understand that extra unique concierge service requests take extra time,” he explains. “Extra time is required for the caterer to shop for items.
In a perfect world, the caterer would like a minimum of 5 days to ensure they have time and staffing to shop, prepare, and deliver the request in an amazingly memorable way for the passenger. Teams of chefs, concierges, customer service representatives, and logistics professionals are ready to help ‘wow’ business aviation passengers and crews.”
Fivestar Gourmet is the catering division of Pentastar Aviation at PTK (Pontiac MI). Specializing in all client requests from charcuterie boards and champagne to fresh salads and sushi, Fivestar prides itself on offering a wide variety of healthy and hearty options that are fit for every occasion. Head Chef Joseph Jamieson takes his culinary creations to the next level by extending Fivestar’s reach beyond Pentastar and providing catering and provisioning to neighboring airports.
The top 3 challenges are workforce shortages, rising costs (food, labor, and gasoline), and supply chain interruptions. Like all US employers, inflight caterers are competing to hire and keep their workforce.
Offering higher wages, hiring incentives, examining flexible work schedules, expanding benefits, and providing referral bonuses are just some of the hiring strategies being utilized to address the workforce shortages. Derrick Peterson, manager of Atiki’s Inflight Catering, comments that they recently employed the strategy of using a temp staffing agency to help fill open positions, which is something they have not done in the past.
Interestingly, caterers in Mexico report that they are not experiencing the extreme workforce shortages and supply chain interruptions that the US is experiencing. Rising costs are challenging for all types of aviation business this peak travel season.
One way that operators can help keep their catering costs as low as possible is to ensure they are placing orders 72 hrs or more in advance, and 5 days or more in advance for any specialty items that will need to be shopped for. This will give caterers the time to compare prices and purchase items at the best price for their customers. Combating supply chain issues is a top priority for inflight caterers.
In some markets, everyday food and beverage items like Coca-Cola, as well as specialty items like Johnnie Walker Blue Label scotch, can be surprisingly difficult to source right now. More than food and beverage items, it is their catering packaging that has been most affected by the supply chain shortages.
Nearly every caterer has expressed that their largest supply chain concern was catering packaging supplies. High-volume markets, on the other hand, are in less of a crisis, as they typically keep very large volumes of supplies on hand.
Improving customer experience
Here are some tips on how 2-way communication, flexibility, resourcefulness, and teamwork among operators, FBOs, and inflight caterers are going to be key to delivering excellent customer service through these challenging times and record peak travel demands. Communication. It needs to be proactive and frequent.
Informing the crew of industry supply chain shortages is an important step in the communication process. After all, crews are the ones face-to-face with passengers who may question catering item substitutions and/or items that were not available for the flight due to supply chain interruptions.
Place catering orders as far in advance as possible and share the need to do so with aircraft passengers. Proactively communicating when items are not available, and suggesting alternatives, are going to be crucial to customer satisfaction.
The focus needs to turn to what can be sourced to manage the customer’s expectations and overall service experience. Flexibility. It helps all parties concerned reach solutions more quickly. Most people are well aware of the challenges businesses and families across the country are facing with food item shortages and rising costs.
As long as they are given alternative options to meet their needs, most people will be flexible and understanding of the circumstances. Resourcefulness. This is needed from every person involved in the flight experience. Inflight catering orders communicated early allow time to identify and resource items in short supply. Operators with stock lockers will have an extra resource to leverage.
Caterers can shop for specialty items well in advance and have the best ability to fulfill specialty requests. Operators who know they will have multiple crews in high-volume cities on peak travel days can order in advance some extra crew meals and healthy snacks beyond those ordered for specific trips to keep crew members fueled up. A weather event on top of a peak travel day can leave passengers and crews tired, frustrated, and hungry. Planning ahead for delays can save the day.
Handling a difficult situation well often leads to a customer for life. Teamwork. This is going to be critical across aviation companies this peak travel season. The industry is expecting aircraft demand to exceed the number of available aircraft.
It is going to be difficult to manage the needs and wants of every customer. The workforce shortage is going to increase the stress of the season and add to the challenges of high demand. People will be working long hours to serve an industry they love and customers who are counting on them.
In order to have a successful travel season into 2022, the industry needs to come together in just the way it did to manage through the early days of the pandemic. Early and frequent communication, managing customer expectations, understanding what items are being affected by supply chain shortages – all of this backed by staff professionalism, patience, and understanding – are going to be the keys to meeting and exceeding the travel experience that our GA customers expect.
Melissa Thomas is the founder and CEO of Moxie Global Consulting. She served as senior director of brand extension for Signature Flight Support, and has held senior leadership positions with Flight Options/Flexjet and The Walt Disney Co.