MCA talks to Simon Smith, chief executive of SSP UK & Ireland, about partnerships, the evolution of the travel hub market and developing new concepts

MCA talks to Simon Smith, chief executive of SSP UK & Ireland, about partnerships, the evolution of the travel hub market and developing new concepts

Do the recent partnerships with Grind and Crussh, represent a shift in the type of operator customers are demanding at travel hubs?

Not really no. Customers in the travel sector have always looked for good quality comfort food and innovative new ranges, and it’s always been important for us to bring new brands and services to the market. Over the last three years we have entered relationships with 20 new brand partners. These range from well-known high street brands such as Leon to artisanal and small independent brands such as Grind.

Our new outlets at London Bridge are an example of the breadth of brands we look to offer our customers. At this location these range from our new M&S Simply Food store to the latest Starbucks serving nitro-brewed coffee. These sit alongside our own SSP brands such as Upper Crust. This means we’re well placed to offer choice to all of our traveling customers, whether they want “something for now” or “something for later.”


Have travel hubs been slower to react to the dynamic changes of the high street, and if so, does that mean there is plenty of scope for development of these spaces?

I don’t think travel locations have been slower to react. Customers in travel hubs are the same customers as those who are shopping on the high street, and they expect to find the same great range of services in a rail station or airport. It’s important to offer something that meets all needs of the travelling public, whether this is a family looking to enjoy a burger at Burger King or a business person looking for a meal and a glass of wine at one of our upscale restaurants.

Travel hubs are increasingly combining international brands with local brands to create a sense of place. A good example of this would be at Belfast International Airport, where we have just opened a premium bar and restaurant, Sip & Stone, which takes inspiration from the Giant’s Causeway and serves local and international dishes made using locally-sourced ingredients such as steak and Guinness casserole or sausage & champ made with Ulster sausages.

Another example would be our Factory Bar and Kitchen at Birmingham Airport, which heroes the culinary heritage of Birmingham and its diverse food culture, offering dishes such as wood fire stone-baked pizzas and Balti burgers.

Food and beverage in airports and railways has, as a sector, seen steady growth over the last 15 to 20 years, and we anticipate this growth to continue in the foreseeable future.


Are more differentiated concepts, with artisanal and healthy eating attributes, the direction of travel for travel hubs?

Whilst we’ve never considered our customers as “captive”, of course, it’s important that we reflect changing consumer trends in our food and beverage outlets, whether that’s serving artisanal coffees at Grind, or wholesome options at our Camden food co. and Crussh outlets. We also frequently update our menus across all our other brands to meet new demands from our customers.

Across our estate, we’re constantly adapting to changing trends and passenger needs and revising our offerings accordingly. If we take Manchester Airport as an example, SSP offers a wide range of choice and has a number of food-led bars including the Grain Loft and the Spinning Jenny, which offer on-trend menus of food and drink, alongside familiar favourites such as Burger King, which remain perennially popular with the travelling customer.


Do you expect to make more similar announcements in the future? If so what types of operator / concept / offer are you looking for? What attributes are you looking for in partners?

We’re always looking at new brands and partners and we’ll join forces with more depending on what our customers demand and the opportunities we see in the market. One of the things I think SSP does well is to take brands that work well in the high street and adapt them for the travel market, lending our expertise to everything from shop layout to tailoring food ranges for the travelling customer. Where it works best is when we combine all the knowledge and passion of brand partners with our operational expertise.

We have long-term partnerships with all our partner brands, some stretching over 30 years, and this often helps shape the F&B strategy of our clients. A great example of this would be with Network Rail, one of our key partners in the rail sector, where we have agreed a three-year strategy which includes new brands and services. Among the names that will feature are Leon, now open in Victoria station and Crussh, already open in Paddington


Alongside these partnerships, will you continue to focus on and grow your core brands such as Ritazza and Upper Crust?

We will absolutely continue to invest in our core brands. This might be giving a new look and feel to a particular brand, as we have done recently with the opening of our new Ritazza branch in Euston last year, which has done really well. We’ve also updated our Millie’s Cookies brand, and we’ll soon be opening the first new look Millie’s Cookies.

We also invest to keep our menus relevant and to give customers reasons to come back time and time again. We’ve recently introduced a new premium bakery range for Ritazza to offer customers an even wider choice. We also launched a new Upper Crust seasonal range, which is proving popular.

Our core brands are important not only in the UK but internationally as well. For instance, we have opened a number of Camden food co. units in the US and recently opened an Upper Crust at Brisbane Airport, which is performing very well. Our Millie’s brand also has potential to translate to other international markets – for instance, our new franchise partner in India has recently opened its first Millie’s Cookies.


Can you talk us through the offer at Urban Express, and why it stands out in this category? How many do you expect to open in this format?

We opened our first Urban Express at London Bridge earlier this year. It’s performing really well, and sales are well ahead of our original forecast. Urban Express brings our customers a wide selection of products from some much-loved UK brands, including wines from Berry Bros. & Rudd, frozen meals from COOK, and books from Foyles. We’re really excited about this format and think it will work well both in air and rail locations.


In addition to partnerships, are you developing any of your own new concepts?

Airports and rail stations are always looking to offer their travelling customers something a little different that sets them apart from their competitors, and something that reflects the cuisine or culture of the regions they serve. Therefore, we are often called upon to develop something completely bespoke to a specific location, such as our stunning Factory Bar & Kitchen at Birmingham.

Hamish Kiernan, Commercial Director for Network Rail Property, with whom we work closely, has often spoken of Network Rail’s aspirations to make its key stations destinations in their own right. Unique and inspiring food and beverage is an important part of helping stations achieve this.

Is it your experience that travel hubs are still outperforming the wider market / high street? Do you expect it to continue to do so?

The food and beverage market in travel hubs has been growing consistently over the last ten years, and while the impact of Brexit is uncertain, the medium-term forecast points to continued growth. The UK airport market in particular has seen strong growth and we don’t see that trend changing any time soon.


Could travel hubs be impacted by the same customer squeeze in the high street? How mindful do you need to be on price point in this respect? Any sign that are scaling back their airport / railway station spending?

Customers have always been aware of value for money and we won’t see that trend changing to any large degree. Our research shows however that the most important things our customers want is to find what they want and be served quickly so they can be on their way. When travelling for leisure, our customers are also often looking to be treated and are tempted by more premium ranges. We’re responding to this demand in a number of ways, such as testing a new deli range of artisan sandwiches at our Starbucks at Heathrow.


Specifically on airports, has there been any noticeable change in F&B spending as airlines scale back their in-flight free food?

We haven’t noticed any material changes in F&B spending as airlines scale back in-flight free food. This is because this is mostly limited to short haul flights, and also because most of the growth is coming from low cost airlines, who didn’t offer free food anyway.


Likewise has there been any impact over negative publicity over pre-flight drinking at airports? Do you anticipate the government stepping in and changing airport licensing laws?

We take the issue of responsible drinking very seriously, and all our colleagues are trained to help clients and partners ensure that our customers travel sensibly