x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Airports must embrace social media to engage with passengers

The Life: By being slow off the mark to embrace social media, airports are missing out on an opportunity to engage with passengers.

A flash mob breaks into dance in Dubai International Airport last year to promote the DBX Connect pre-paid credit card. Courtesy DXBconnect
A flash mob breaks into dance in Dubai International Airport last year to promote the DBX Connect pre-paid credit card. Courtesy DXBconnect

Dubai International Airport's corporate communications team knows the power of social media.

Last year, the airport's video of a flash mob breaking into dance in the Duty Free section to promote its new DBX Connect pre-paid credit card went viral on YouTube.

The video had a "huge impact", says Lorne Riley,the airport's head of corporate communications. It has now racked up more than 2.5 million hits and won a global award for best use of social media.

While many airlines have pounced on social media to connect with their customers, airports have been slower to grasp the benefits, says Shashank Nigam, the chief executive of SimpliFlying, an aviation consultancy, who wrote a recent report on airports and social media.

But he points out that travellers are increasingly relying on social media when deciding which airport to use and when accessing information while on the move.

"Airports are pretty conservative, especially compared to airlines," Mr Nigam said at a recent conference in Abu Dhabi. "It's not been a focus, but it's something that's coming. People access the airport website on their mobile phones.

"Airports must ask themselves if they are providing the right information … on Twitter, Facebook, where people are [surfing] if they are sitting at the boarding gate for an hour."

His study of 55 airports identified a "top 10" of airports active on social media and the initiatives they launched to engage with passengers. These include big airports such as Schiphol in Amsterdam, but also smaller regional airports such as Aberdeen in Scotland.

Helsinki Airport wanted to make travelling through its airport a more enjoyable experience for customers. So it asked eight people it identified as "quality hunters" to look out for great initiatives from around the world.

In collaboration with online followers, they came up with 260 ideas, to make the airport a better place including the favourite, a book swap.

Helsinki is a transit hub and passengers can now exchange books for free that they finished on one leg of their trip for fresh material to read on the next leg.

England's Gatwick Airport also teamed up with the supermarket chain Tesco to provide a virtual supermarket at the transit area. Travellers scan items on virtual displays via smartphone and can pick their groceries up at the luggage carousel or have them delivered after they arrive home.

In this region, Dubai International Airport, which was not part of Mr Nigam's survey, launched a Facebook page in 2010 and followed with Twitter in English then Arabic.

A spokeswoman for Ras Al Khaimah International Airport said it did not use social media and had no plans to do so. A spokeswoman for Abu Dhabi International Airport said the company was not yet active on social media, but planned to become so. She declined to provide details.

Mr Nigam gives Abu Dhabi airport points for its mobile site. When activated on a mobile device, the site delivers customised messages to passengers regarding flight details and the nearest shopping offers. He also likes the blog run by the Abu Dhabi Airports Company.

"All of the blog posts are written by key airport marketing staff and showcase their expertise, and allow them to connect with the online aviation community," he says.

However, he notes the airport's three Twitter accounts have languished since last year.

At Dubai airport, three staff look after the Facebook and Twitter accounts as part of their jobs. Their personal mobile phones are linked to the accounts so they can respond as quickly as possible to queries or comments.

"We don't want customers to see posts and questions and that no one has answered," says Atif El Kadi, the airport's internal communications and publications manager.

The airport has 6,655 "likes" on its Facebook page. Abu Dhabi airport has 273 likes, Gatwick 1,250 and Doha 8,130 - but way out ahead is Los Angeles International Airport with 30,200. Dubai also has 13,500 followers on Twitter and receives 20 to 100 tweets per day.

While Mr Riley plans to spend money next year on social-media training and YouTube, he will allocate more resources when the volume of social media exchanges exceeds what the current team can handle. But he says he learnt one thing from the success of the flash-mob video, and that is focus on quality, not quantity.

"I would say don't post corporate videos on YouTube; post something vital or don't do it at all."

lgutcher@thenational.ae