In today’s climate of shrinking vacation time, perpetually slashed budgets, cross-cultural cache, and brand awareness, passengers are relentless in their attempts to make their time away as memorable as possible, while airlines are looking for the most effective way to improve the inflight experience and promote their product. In the business and first class cabins, one solution for both passengers and airlines is the amenity kit.
For passengers, these well-appointed satchels are the difference between merely surviving a 12-hour flight, and actually enjoying the experience. For airlines, amenity kits are a way to remind passengers of their stylish and comfortable journey long after they’ve cleared the jetway. And for the makers of the branded products inside, these kits allow them to put their products in the hands of a select group of potential customers.
Amenity kits are one of the few items that passengers in first and business class are likely to take from the aircraft (sometimes emblazoned with the airline’s logo). These often-overlooked cases are designed to suit a myriad of future uses that may not have even been dreamt of yet. The airlines also hope that for passengers in other parts of the aircraft these stylish lagniappes will serve as aspirational items, encouraging economy customers to find a reason to treat themselves to a higher level of service.
Inside the bags, the lip balms, eyeshades, earplugs, slipper socks, and other items are chosen with an eye towards softening the harsh onboard realities of dry air, cramped quarters, and a noisy cabin. While the personal care items (dental kits, mouthwash, skin cream, comb/brush, etc.) are selected to help passengers look and feel their best on the flight, and upon arrival (for their business meeting, or the start of their vacation).
According to Leonard Hamersfeld of Buzz Products, an award-winning supplier of airline amenity kits, “These products are seen as travel essentials – those small items that you would be likely to require whilst in transit.” Beyond these products there is a great deal of variation in what’s inside amenity kits. Some airlines differentiate kits my gender. “Male kits” may include a shaving set and comb, while “female kits” might include items such as vanity packs with cotton swabs, make-up pads, and a hairbrush. That said, contents vary from airline to airline and from region to region.
Petros Sakkis, VP of international operations for amenity kit supplier Wessco International, tells us, “Different airlines ask for different things. They have different philosophies behind their kits. But they are all asking for us to help them with differentiation (from other airlines) and to help them earn customer loyalty.”
With regard to regional kit variations, Sakkis elaborates, saying, “Broadly speaking, the Middle Eastern and Asian airlines want luxury items (items with cache, prestige, and luxury associations), while North American carriers tend to ask for high-end functionality (such as results-driven skincare items).”
Catering to the needs of each airline, their unique philosophy of service, and a wide range of cultural and regional variations is the job of a handful of amenity suppliers spread around the world. These suppliers draw ideas from a range of sources in interior, industrial, and fashion design, as well as current and future trends in technology to design kits that satisfy the airlines’ desire to keep their travel experience fresh and new.
BUILDING THE PERFECT KIT
Anywhere from one to three years before an airline deploys a new amenity kit, suppliers like Buzz, Wessco, FORMIA and a few others meet with representatives from a broad spectrum of departments (marketing, sales, customer experience, in-flight services, supply/logistics, etc.) to assess the airline’s needs, and present them with targeted concepts that will help the airlines surprise and delight their top tier customers with an amenity package they’ll be happy to take with them, and one that will be reflective of both their values and those of the airline.
Every item in the amenity kits (and indeed the bags/boxes/kit containers themselves) is painstakingly designed with an eye toward practical function (can they be used in the passenger’s daily life?), airline marketing public relations (matching or complimenting logos and interior cabin colors, etc.), and coordination of branded contents, in addition to accounting for regional/cultural preferences. Of these, practical function is the key. If the passenger can’t, or won’t, use the bag and its contents during and after the flight, then the others are mute.
As much as the contents of the amenity kit are vital, the design of the kit container itself is critical. Because it is not a product that will be used up, and has the potential to last for years, the bag, pouch, or box used to hold the amenities must be something that can be adapted to a variety of uses, stowed easily, and, above all, aid the passenger rather than inhibit them. For these reasons, airlines tend to rely on soft fabrics that are practical and easy to stow and go. Off the aircraft, they may double as makeup bags, headphone bags, or small purses. Again, the bags must also fit the airline’s image, and, as such, must be stylish, fashionable, and contemporary.
And given the growing tend in pervasive technology (smartphones, tablets, laptops, e-readers, digital cameras, and the like), it’s not surprising that many of the coming year’s kit designs are expected to double as cases, and stands for those items. By making certain that their amenity kits accommodate their passengers’ use of technology, airlines are not only helping their customers, but are also helping to ensure that passengers have another reason to take their amenity kit with them, and fondly recall that flight on their vacation, and beyond.
While the airlines design focus is squarely on offering a premium amenity to their first class and business passengers, the containers must also conform to the styles of the premium branded products inside.
WHAT’S IN A NAME?
For airlines, the ultimate in passenger pampering lies in delivering a product that passengers already aspire to, or, better yet, haven’t heard of yet, but promises to be the next big thing. And, for those brands, first and business class airline passengers represent quality conscious, somewhat captive, members of their target audience.
When asked what airlines look for in their amenity brand partners, Chris Babb, manager of customer experience for Delta Air Lines, responded by saying, “We look at a range of data and research to select brands that are aligned with the Delta brand and customer preference. We strive to differentiate Delta’s amenity kit from our competitors.” And when asked what brands the passengers are looking for, Babb told Airline Passenger Experience that they want, “brands they know and trust such as Tumi and Crest”. Buzz’s Hamersfeld notes, “Amenity kits that are attributed to well-known, premium brands and are generous in their contents are highly sought after and appreciated by the recipient.”
Suppliers try to broker the ideal union of brand and airline, one that showcases both the product, and the carrier. The branded product must highlight the airline’s approach to customer service, and the airline must provide passengers likely to appreciate the product. The goal is to increase awareness of both the airline and the product.
While they work with a range of tried and true brands, current/popular trendy labels, and emerging brands, suppliers look for brands that are in a growth phase, but have invested in distribution because Increased awareness is most useful when the passenger has a way to act on their newfound love for a brand.
If airlines and their suppliers can’t find just the right brand partnership, they have the option of generating their own “private label” line of onboard amenities for their kits. This is generally a less expensive option than using branded products because, although brands often subsidize some of the costs simply to get their products on board, established, premium, brands still command a high price. Yet there are downsides to private label amenities. While some passengers may like the idea of having a product that can only be obtained in first class on a given airline, others might feel undervalued if they don’t receive a known product, or a sample of the “next big thing”.
For airlines, another advantage to private label programs is that they can control the contents and product design to a much greater degree. When they can change the scents and packaging without having to consult with brand partners, it’s much easier for them to make seasonal adjustments to their amenity kit contents, and continually refresh the program. But, for that to work they must have manufacturing partners that they know and trust.
A MILLION TINY DETAILS
With the amenity kit development process taking anywhere from one to three years for full rollout, amenity suppliers spend much of their time working with manufacturers in Asia and other parts of the world modeling and testing various methods of producing everything from iPad-friendly leather bags to dental floss.
In a finished kit with up to a dozen fully customized items, a supplier may use five or six manufacturers to source the highest quality products and insure they are completed in a timely fashion. These items must then be delivered to the final manufacturer who assembles the kits and distributes them by the container load to various onboard supply hubs around the globe.
It’s crucial to the airline’s purpose that this process work perfectly so that roundtrip passengers get something special on each leg of their trip (e.g. the red bags on their way to Europe, and the green bags on their way home). When it all works properly, a finely tuned amenity supply chain of this sort can assemble tens of thousands of kits in 40-50 days, with individual carriers taking delivery of several million kits each year.
While that’s a lot of kits on one airline, it’s a fraction of the airline’s overall volume. For economy passengers, receiving an amenity kit has, so far, remained alluringly out of reach. But with airlines looking at a host of new revenue generating schemes, that may change, or not.
SOME THINGS ARE MORE EQUAL THAN OTHERS
Bonny Roualet, an International service manager for a major US carrier reports that “On occasion I will see a person from coach scan first class for amenity kits, new or used, to pocket.” With reports like theses, clearly, there is a desire for the kits and their contents in the economy and economy plus cabins.
While most airlines focus their amenity kit campaigns on their first class and business customers, in an effort to enrich the experience for all passengers, some airlines have considered offering amenities to economy and economy plus passengers by way of onboard retail programs, or alternative kit programs. While these programs may offer an enhanced experienced for more passengers, and/or create additional revenue for the airlines, they are not without risks that must be carefully evaluated.
By offering the kits themselves, or individual luxury components, as onboard retail items, airlines may generate more brand awareness, and brand tie-ins, but they may also dilute the perceived value of the first class/business kits, and the value of the first and business class service levels altogether. Balancing one against the other is tricky, and may one day be solved by offering different brands in an economy level kit, but only if airline budgets expand significantly.
Then the question becomes, “does the kit’s unique value proposition reside in the components, or in the actual act of the airline presenting you with the gift of a kit?” And, if it’s the latter, will different levels of kits still meet the airlines’ core objective of enhancing the passenger experience while providing an “aspirational item” that is both a genuine symbol of the airline and a functional amenity that customers will value enough to take with them.
For airlines and passengers alike, the amenity kit is much more than just a casual freebie. It has the potential to make or break the passenger’s experience. And the kit itself may well live on long after the flight, not just as a symbol of where they’ve been, but of where the future may take them.
[DISCLOSURE: The author worked for Wessco International from 2001 until 2004. Photo at top courtesy of Buzz Products. Main photo on homepage and photo within text courtesy of Wessco. ]