US airport ammenities not world-class, but improving

Minute SuitesWhen it comes to air travel, our airports are falling far behind in customer-friendly services, but hopefully companies such as Minute Suites can provide a capitalist answer to improving the experience.

The airport friendliness bar has been set very high in places such as Singapore's Changi airport. Here, waiting travelers can enjoy a nap in a recliner in the Rest Room, watch a free movie in a theater, take a free dance class, stop for a consultation at the medical clinic, take one of the free city bus tours, go swimming in the airport's outdoor pool, work out in its gym, check e-mail at a free Internet terminal and generally be treated like a human being rather than a heifer.

One human-friendly concept that is becoming more common is the private room in an airport that can be rented by the hour, where weary travelers can sleep on a bed in relative privacy during their layover. Heathrow, Gatwick, and Schiphol in Amsterdam offer units by Yotel, 108-square-foot rooms with bed, shower, desk, Internet and cable TV. The larger rooms rent for $65 to $88 for the minimum four-hour stay. Smaller, cheaper rooms are also available.

The concept is gaining traction in this country, too. I had the opportunity to speak by phone with the Daniel Solomon, the Managing Member of Minute Suites, LLC about his company's new by-the-hour micro-rooms in the Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport in Atlanta, and how he views the market for this concept in the rest of the U.S.

Who do you see as the primary target market for one of your rooms?

Solomon tells me that, after much market research, the company determined that frequent travelers (8 or more flights/year) over the age of 40 are the most likely customers. These people are often biphasic (used to napping) and prone to sleep deprivation. They also are likely to have the discretionary income to afford a suite. Solomon noted that business travelers fit this profile well.

The company has also seen a great deal of interest from female business professionals. According to Solomon, "Women really place a higher premium on privacy than men do," pointing to the trend in hotels to offer women-only floors. They also sometimes have different needs. Among the earliest of Minute Suite's customers, for example, was a mother traveling without her infant. She was lactating and needed a bit of privacy to deal with the situation.

Another market segment Solomon expects will embrace the concept are passengers arriving from West Coast on red-eye flights, who often arrive sleep-deprived and facing long layovers.

How long do people stay?

The suites have been open only a short time, and Solomon tells me that to date the average stay has been 91 minutes. He expects this duration to expand as overnight travelers begin to discover the product.

What about the price of $30 an hour?

Solomon gently rebuked me for my criticism of this price point in an earlier post. The company's pre-launch research, he told me, determined that the price was not only acceptable, but perhaps undershoots the market. Of those surveyed, 28% told them that $75 dollars an hour would still be a good value.

I have to admit that there have been numerous times while traveling where I would have paid $30 for an hour of peace and the ability to lay my head on a soft pillow. If I need to catch some sleep during a multiple-stage flight, paying for a sleeping room during layovers is sure cheaper than upgrading to a first-class ticket so I can sleep on the plane.

What do your customers want?

Solomon and his partners, two prominent physicians, started with the vision of "Fit and Fresh", an airport area where travelers could work out, eat healthy food, and get quality rest. However, subsequent research showed that customers were drawn especially to two benefits; a comfortable place to sleep and a convenient place to work. A workout area finished very low in the list of desired amenities.

Where might we see this concept next?

Market research by the company, Solomon said, suggests that there are around 22 major airports in its first cut of expansion possibilities, such as JFK in New York. Demand could also drive expansion, especially if the company was to partner with an airline that doesn't have special lounges for its best customers, such as AirTran, which operates out of Atlanta. I asked him if it was possible for fliers to redeem frequent flier miles for suite rentals, and he responded that this idea was one on a long list of possible strategic moves. Right now, he said, they are focused on making sure their new guests are absolutely thrilled.

Personally, I'd be absolutely thrilled if our airports were more like Changi and less like Guantanamo, but we have long, long way to go. The concept of Minute Suites, actually providing what travelers want/need for a change, is a good start.
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