Friday: It feels like a scene out of Groundhog Day. Suddenly I’m back at Miami International Airport, filling in a five-hour gap before my flight home to London.
Straight off the 30 minute flight from Nassau (goodbye beautiful Bahamas) and there’s the same rather disappointing Bacardi Mojito bar that I saw a few days back, the same Islander Bar & Grill where I first tried Conch Fritters (to be left in the shade by those I discovered in Nassau) and the pretty desolate atmosphere of the end-gates at Miami International.
After a quick ride on the excellent intra-airport train, I’ve jumped off early to fill a five-hour wait for my Heathrow connection at the American Airlines-run Admiral’s Club lounge. This would, shall we say, not rank as one of the finer airport lounges in the world. And in saying that I am being polite, only because the staff, Carlos and Melissa, try so hard.
I only wish Travel Food Services and Performa (Gate Gourmet), which together run the common usage lounge at Mumbai Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport’s new Terminal 2, which I wrote about in a recent Blog, could take over this operation. They would revolutionise the (currently non-existent) customer experience.
Whereas my Admiral’s Lounge experience starts like this:
“I’ll have a beer please, Samuel Adams [the name of the beer not the bartender].”
“Certainly Sir.” Melissa [definitely not a Samuel] pours me a draught beer.
“That’ll be US$7 please.”
“Really? I have to pay? In the lounge? But I’m flying Business Class on your airline.”
“Yes, the Bud Light is complimentary Sir but you have to pay for the other beers.”
The Bud may be but I don’t feel too complimentary. I’m not sure why that information was not supplied before I ordered the beer but decide not to grizzle as Melissa is friendly, fast and no doubt doing a tough job. But that doesn’t make the practice right. I go and find a quiet spot in one of airport world’s more disheartening lounges. The WiFi doesn’t work. Other passengers are making the same complaint. I move to several different locations. No luck. What was that I said in my keynote speech at the OTG conference a day earlier about the glamour of travel?
Demoralised I go back to the bar where Melissa is doing her best to maintain her equilibrium in the face of some ignorant boors from the Midwest. Before I order, I ask Carlos about the wine offering. He volunteers that the house wine, a Trinity Oaks Californian Chardonnay, is free – everything else is chargeable. Better.
I’m not in the mood for Chardonnay but I decide to try it, drawn of course by its name. Heck, maybe I’ll drink too many and end up conducting my own Trinity Forum, interviewing my fellow passengers live at an airport bar. Some say I talk to the trees anyway.
Actually the wine’s ok, though its sweet woodiness certainly lives up to the Trinity Oaks billing. I reckon at least three giant sequoias have gone into this one.
I order a Cheese Quesadilla (below), served with sour cream, pico de gallo and a mountain full of tri-coloured tortilla chips. It’s tasty but just too much. America is in the grip of an obesity epidemic (you think I exaggerate? Then try this super-sized portion of information: Obesity rates have more than doubled in America adults and children since the 1970s and over two-thirds of adults are overweight or obese) but doesn’t appear to realise that the size of its restaurant servings is a major contributor.
I watch a very large woman from Wisconsin (I overhear her phone conversation) munching on a healthy salad. Or it would be a healthy salad if the plate didn’t contain enough to feed a family of four. Make that eight. She finishes the lot.
I turn my attentions instead to food & drink of a different, better kind, and reflect on a brilliant few days at the OTG meeting in Nassau. It culminated at a gala dinner on Thursday night where many of the reasons for OTG’s spectacular rise over the past two decades were there for all to see.
Founder & CEO Rick Blatstein is a class act. He’s a showman but at the same time a pragmatist, an astute businessman and, above all, an innovator. Every major airport in the world could do with a Rick Blatstein-run food & beverage (or even retail) outlet. He and OTG bring innovation, energy and sheer (in the good sense) chutzpah.
At the dinner (above) he roamed the room, singling out various OTG crew members from around North America and presenting them with gifts for epitomising the OTG spirit. It was inspirational and in an odd way moving. His children, Justin and Samantha (below), both heavily involved in the business, also spoke – a chip and chipette off the old block respectively. Both got it just right – Justin supercharged, pumped, driven; Samantha buoyant, ebullient, infectiously enthusiastic.
People may think otherwise but it’s actually not easy for kids to come into a business, let alone advance to senior roles. Respect is hard-won – and should be. As their proud father noted in introducing and thanking them, the two Blatstein offspring have truly earned their place in the company, a company incidentally that has in the space of a few years (OTG opened its first airport concession in 1994) moved from a kind of cheeky maverick newcomer status to a major force within (and influence on) the North American airport food & beverage scene.
Family companies at such points of transformation – from small to large; from tolerated newcomer to serious rival – can go in several directions. Some sell (often with fatal consequences); some struggle with their new-found status and lose hold of the very values that got them to where they were in the first place; and some seem to know exactly when and how to manage the growth process, resourcing properly and not trying to hit every target out there.
OTG strikes me as such a player. US business writer Jim Collins wrote an acclaimed book about successful company transitions called ‘Good to Great’. It addresses a single question: can a good company become a great company, and if so, how? Rick Blatstein uses the phrase ‘Good to Great’ a lot. As he does the term ‘OTG Experience’. Put the two together and what do you get? A great OTG experience. And that is increasingly what the house that Rick built is delivering.
[OTG's amazing new Ramen bar Kaedama by Shoushin Yanaur, planned in conjunction with United Airlines at Newark Liberty Terminal C]
Footnote, Tuesday: What a wonderful shop the Britto store (below) is at Miami International Airport. It features the work of Romero Britto, the world-renowned, Brazilian artist whose artwork has been displayed around the globe, in museums, on cars and on (Absolut) vodka bottles. The store offers prints, souvenirs, clothes and other collectibles featuring Britto’s artistic creations at popular prices. I just love the brilliant colours, the zest, the exuberance, the sheer… joy of Britto. I bought several items and on a bleak London morning as I finish this Blog, just looking at them is cheering me up entirely.
The Duty Free Americas store was also pretty good but if you wonder why airport food generally has a low place in public affection then signs like the one below might explain it. It reads: “Airport good food… three words you don’t often see together.” It’s positioned outside La Carreta Cuban Kitchen (below) and besides the fact that I wouldn’t say the food looks spectacularly good to me (nor the décor), I really do question why an airport restaurateur would perpetuate a long-time negative stereotype about food & beverage.
In fairness the outlet has been rated highly by Conde Naste Traveller but so have many other airport restaurants. So let’s not go singling ourselves out for glory while damning our competitors and the reputation of the sector, ok?
In my keynote speech at the OTG conference last week, I criticised how airports and their restaurateurs often communicate with passengers, notably in terms of signage that is anything but appetising. I include some examples below, the top two from Hong Kong International Airport pointing to an SSP Food Court, in which I can’t tell if the man with the chopsticks and rice is eating or throwing up (but I sure as heck know that it doesn’t make me hungry) and the others are from Nathan’s at Miami International Airport.
I talked about the obesity issue (now a major problem in the UK as well). I just wonder when the day will arrive that the food & beverage sector may have to play its role in countering the problem? It surely won’t with signs like these. I’m sure the meals are popular and hey the super-sized burger below looks tasty. But it’s just so big. Restaurateurs will respond that they are just catering to (lots of) public taste, that travellers will complain if servings are less. They may be right.
Oh dear. Already I’m missing the fresh simplicity of the Nassau street food, served from shacks on the waterfront (below). And I’m missing little Nassau Airport, a tidy and efficient facility with the marvellously reassuring sign in the middle of the airside concourse that “the farthest gate is only three minutes away”. Oh for a simpler, less super-sized world.