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No lounging around

`Song Hoi-see’s Plaza Premium Lounge Management will open 50 new airport lounges by 2015 as the industry finally takes off

It is seldom possible to trace back an industry to its roots to know exactly when and how it started. In the case of the pay-in airport lounge, however, that is not so.

It all started in 1992, when Song Hoi-see, founder and chief executive of Plaza Premium Lounge Management, left his job as an investment banker with Lehman Brothers to start his own business. Forced to downgrade to flying economy class in the process, he lost the privilege of using airline lounges.

While travelling around Southeast Asia setting up serviced offices – a new idea at the time – as part of his new business, Song found out that 85 per cent of airline business carried economy- class passengers. He also found out that many of these passengers would be happy to pay for using an airport lounge in which to work or rest. He saw a business opportunity in taking care of this large segment.

In 1997, the Provisional Airport Authority put up the running of Chek Lap Kok airport’s business centre for tender. Song promoted the idea of the pay-in lounge – comprising working space, restaurant and resting place, together with all-round passenger service for a flat fee – and the authority liked it.

“The Hong Kong Airport Authority is very forward-looking. They gave me an opportunity to try something new,” Song says. “We were the first in the world to offer pay-in lounge services to any airline passengers.”

Since then, Song has been busy taking Plaza Premium Lounge to 29 international airports with more than 110 outlets. He has also introduced a range of new services, such as meet and greet, concierge and limousine services, wellness, private resting areas and transit hotels. This is in addition to adding airport business and conference centres and running other lounges on behalf of airlines.

As the company expanded into many different markets and cultures, it needed a solid structure for its management systems and standard operating procedures. It was the first airport lounge network to receive an ISO 9001:2008 in quality management systems, a certification measuring business standards and granted by the British Standards Institution (BSI) Group.

For its more than 2,000 staff, Plaza Premium Lounge set up a training academy in Hong Kong and has worked on its own syllabus that takes into account the different cultures in which it operates. Following plans for fast expansion in Asia, the company also set up training centres in Malaysia and India – its two newly appointed regional centres.

“Our vision is to become a household name at airports and our objective is to pamper customers, provide convenience and value, and bring happiness,” Song says.

To celebrate Plaza Premium Lounge’s 15th anniversary, the company recently opened its flagship payin lounge in Hong Kong. The largest of its kind in Asia, the new addition is situated on level 7 of Terminal 1.

“This is the fifth generation of our lounges,” Song says. “We change the look and feel every three years. Without this kind of vision, it is hard to survive. Cookie-cutter operations won’t survive.”

The new look and feel includes a mix of open and closed areas. Different seating areas are designed for those who want to work, chat, or are travelling with family. Each area has a different feel according to its function – a relaxing vibe for the bar, more upbeat for the dining area and so on. Technological developments have even seen the introduction of a special Skype area, while there are also two showers for freshening up.

There is also a good variety of food provided, from salads to bowls of hot noodles. “In Europe, they still give you potato chips and peanuts, maybe some sandwiches,” Song says. “We were the first ones to introduce hot food and now we do live cooking. We change the perception and try to be contrarians to wow the customers.”

By 2015, Song intends to open 50 more lounges. He already has 18 projects on hand, including entry into the European market via London’s Heathrow airport and into Australia via Sydney Airport.

He doesn’t need to limit his ambitions – he says that there are at least 1,000 commercial airports around the globe which are viable for this business, together with 15 million travellers as potential customers.

“Airports, airlines and customers drive our business,” he says. “There is a large vacuum and it allows exponential increase.”


Song Hoi-see bestows some nuggets of business wisdom

Do what you love “If you are in business but you don’t have the passion for it, don’t even try.”
Keep up with the times “We strive to understand customer requirements. Culture, people and expectations all change with time.”
Listen and respond “Customer comments and feedback are very important for us and we always make sure to act upon them.”