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Meet Pauline Cheung (left) and Shereen Lee. They’re part of one of the aviation world’s most incredible success stories, but one whose success has generally been told away from the headlines and simply by getting on with business. Lots and lots of business.
Hong Kong-based Pauline is Group Sales & Marketing Director for Plaza Premium Group, the family-owned, world-leading provider of airport lounge, hotel and other hospitality services. Shereen is Operations Manager for the company’s burgeoning operations at London Heathrow Airport, where we met yesterday.
Plaza Premium Group was founded by Malaysian businessman Song Hoi-see in 1998, with the opening of two airport lounges at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and Hong Kong International Airport in rapid succession. Mr Song (pictured below) had left his job as an investment banker to set up his own (unrelated) business. Suddenly forced to travel economy, he found the airport experience unfriendly and often downright unpleasant. Nowhere to charge his laptop; nowhere quiet to work; no place to send a fax (remember them?). He soon found out what millions of economy passengers in the late 90s already knew – if you didn’t travel business or first class the airport ‘experience’ would likely be inconvenient at best and “dreaded” (to use his word) at worst.
A simple but great notion took shape in his mind. What about creating an airport lounge available to all, regardless of airline or class of travel? His thinking coincided with the vision of far-sighted, consumer-centric airport companies at two important new Asian gateways – Hong Kong International and Kuala Lumpur International. The two airport operators wanted to position themselves as traveller-friendly and world-leaders in passenger services.
Plaza Premium Lounge Limited (now simply Plaza Premium Group) was born and for millions of travellers through the two airports ever since, time at the airport has been a much more relaxed part of the journey.
I first met Mr Song a few years back when I was speaking at a Kuala Lumpur International Airport commercial revenues conference. As all who know him will attest, he has that almost indefinable quality of presence. I recall to this day the very real warmth of his smile; his infectious ebullience; the feeling that you were in the company of someone who simply makes things happen.
17 years on from the company’s founding, by goodness have things happened. Today Plaza Premium Lounge Management operates over 130 lounges, hotels and other guest facilities at airports around the world. By 2018 it plans, amazingly, to raise that number to 300. The portfolio now embraces airport lounges; transit hotels; meet and greet services; airport spas; and airport dining, with more, much more, to come.
I met Pauline and Shereen in the new Plaza Premium Lounge in Heathrow Terminal 2 Arrivals (below). I was deeply impressed. In an aviation world synonymous with noise and crowds here was quiet and peace. It’s such an oasis of calm, soothing music playing, candles glowing, natural wood floors and walls combining with understated tiling. It feels like a fusion of Asian elegance and Scandinavian naturalness. It is also deceptively large, with the spa, bedrooms and shower rooms cleverly tucked off in a separate area. With no natural light, the company has opted for a low-lit, boutique-hotel like ambiance. It’s lovely and how often do you say that about an airport facility?
In researching this piece, I came across a Blog from a regular business traveller who wrote: “Whilst I feel a bit strange writing this, it feels almost romantic – which is not something you often say about airport lounges.
“This is an impressive, calm and relaxing lounge to pass an hour or so. It is NOT a good place to come with a group of friends if you want to make some noise and see how much you can drink before your flight goes. United Club is the place to go for that. If you are with your partner and want to spend a couple of hours taking it easy in a quiet, classy and relaxing atmosphere, I would recommend it.”
Indeed it is not. And indeed so would I. Take it from someone who spends more time in airports than most (I’m heading to Heathrow in about two hours en route to Jordan). Amid all the high-profile corporate success stories in the airport and travel retail worlds, it’s good to see one based on simple (yet simultaneously profound) family values and a desire to put the consumer first. The fruition of the vision of a Song but not a dance man.