Wednesday, January 12, 2011

How Melbourne Airport could get a flying start

Melbourne, like most major cities, spends a fortune trying to attract international visitors to its myriad attractions.  Disappointing then, to experience the inadequate and dehumanising process of arrival through the International terminal of Melbourne Airport. Yes, I am recently returned from a wonderful jaunt to New Zealand and feel that my airport experience can serve as a salient tale for marketers - it's no good getting people to your door if the customer experience is rotten.  Sound familiar?  Marketing dollars spent to get your audience to take action but the product/customer service/website... let's them and you down. 

So where did Melbourne go wrong?  Certainly the building is long overdue for a refurb, but more importantly the absence of helpful, multi-sensory cues turned what should have been a straight-forward exercise (leaving plane, forming queue, screen passport, collect bag, screen declaration) into a navigational nightmare.  So here are some thoughts about how Melbourne Airport could get a flying start on creating a wonderful tourist experience.

1. Treat passengers as customers, not problems
Every effort in the Customs and Immigration process seems to be around obscuring which city you are in and how long it is taking.  This not only points to an implicit acknowledgment that the process is undermining the city's marketing effort (ie we are not proud of our Airport process and don't want to remind people they are in Melbourne as they are enduring the exercise) but signals a clear disrespect for these paying customers.  Your time isn't as important as our systems.  How about a "time taken" clock so that I can  make a choice about spending more time in Duty Free whilst the queue frees up?  Why not have entertainers or tourist info officers parading the queues to keep people pleasantly distracted?  Disneyland, the mecca of queues (with the added challenge of small children), uses this time to delight their customers, keeping them happy and ensuring the whole experience is magical.  If Melbourne is serious about being a tourist destination, surely this is a big opportunity to exceed expectations?

In your business, do you appreciate the effort that it has taken your customer to get to you, and made every part of the exercise a positive?  And if you are not proud to present your Brand at every step it's a clear sign that your customer experience is not up to scratch.

2. Manipulate the mood
It beggars belief that the Customs process seems to want to put people in a defensive and bad mood.  Surely relaxing people will mean they are more open to scrutiny and willing to tow the line?  Just because Customs is a serious thing doesn't mean it should be a bleak experience.  Air NZ and Virgin have proven this with their in-flight safety briefings that convey serious material in an engaging, positive and memorable way. 

When your customers call you, walk in your door, are visiting your website, what's their mood likely to be and how can you ensure you are doing all you can to make their mood a positive one?  If they are tired, how can you alleviate decisions or the need to concentrate?  If they are panicked, how can you calm and assure them? If they are angry, how can you pacify and move them to resolution? 

3. Appeal to as many senses as possible
There is no universal language - but we all possess a range of senses that Airports and businesses like yours can play to.

Sound - power of music is well known.  Why not pipe calming music through the Airport building, changing the type and tone of the music as passengers pass through different stages?  Build the excitement as people exit the formal areas and move towards their "release" to the great city and great experiences they are hoping to have. Evoke an essence of the city so they find themselves humming a happy tune as they jump in their taxi, meet their loved ones, hop the bus.

Smell - mine was just about the shortest international trip we Aussies can take, but many who are visiting have travelled 8, 10, 14, 22 hours just to be here.  Do they smell and feel scungy? You betcha.  How about some pleasant smells wafting through the building, calming the mind and helping people feel energised and humanised?

Sight - scary signs are the preserve of Customs authorities.  But why not some positive language and imagery rather than the terrifying?  For example, tell me about what success the screening process has had in preventing drug importation so that I can feel better about participating. "Through drug screening last year we saved 189,000 lives, so we need your help..." would be pretty powerful.

Touch - people who are travelling are usually laden with bags and clothing, but have to complete paperwork, pull out important documents, store them, pull them out again.  How about supplying passengers with a disposable neck pouch into which they can carry their passport and paperwork as they travel through the processing sections? 

For your business, try experiencing your customer process without the usual emphasis on language.  How about getting someone from overseas to try using your website?  If they can intuit their way around, you're probably on a good thing. 

I would love to hear from people's experiences of other International Airports - who is getting it right and who can do better - so please drop a comment. 


  1. I can finish work in downtown Singapore at 5pm, jump on the metro, get to the airport, check in, clear customs and immigration, go to the Qantas club, have a shower and grab a gin & tonic by 6:15pm. I can't even get check in at Heathrow in that time!

  2. Hey Jon, I'm interestied in whether the experience coming into Singapore is as good as going out? In Melbourne they seem to specialise in last impressions rather than first!

  3. Going into Singapore is the same. Melbourne sucks, inbound and outbound, but I suspect thats also related to my travel patterns/frequency.

    I've just been to Paris on the Eurostar. London-side check in by the French is much better than Paris-side check-in by the English.

    Worse check-in I've ever experienced would probably be Manila - I had to stand on scales three times and go through medal detectors 3 times....closely followed by Mumbai and Delhi.

    So whats the behavioural economics heuristic(s) at play here? Probably not the band-wagon effect, 'cause there doesn't seem to be a lot of airports following Singapore's lead.

  4. It's an interesting one- seems Customs and Airport management are stuck in an old paradigm of 'law enforcement' which will only be stripped away once there is a convincing commercial argument ie Melbourne loses commerce to other Australian gateways. No doubt they have records of passenger traffic, but it would be interesting for them to survey inbounds as to why they are travelling through Melbourne - by choice or by force.

    In terms of traveller behaviour, I think we too are stuck in the old model and a relative few have experienced the alternative. Throughout the Auckland Airport were messages about their aim to be worldclass and soliciting feedback. I therefore knew that they were taking my experience seriously, and I would choose to travel through Auckland in future.

  5. Got out of Melbourne Airport at 1am this morning. The arrivals hall of this airport is the worst I have ever been in, with the possible exception of Mumbai. It is a national disgrace and I cannot think of any logical reason for scanning baggage on arrival other than to produce reality TV shows.

  6. Jon I've sent this blog to both Melbourne Airport and Tourism Victoria. I'll let you know if there is any follow up.

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