United Airlines is ramping up the opening of new Polaris airport lounges as it plays catch-up to not only arch-rival American Airlines and its expanding Flagship Lounge network but to its own schedule, which proved to be overly optimistic .
Following the debut of the first Polaris lounge at United’s Chicago hub in December 2016, two more – at San Francisco and Newark – were promised to open from mid-2017, albeit in a phased two-stage process, with Los Angeles and London to follow before the year was out.
However, the Polaris San Francisco lounge opened just last month.
“There were a lot of lessons learned” after the Polaris lounge at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport (below) opened, admits Alexander Dorow, United’s Director of Premium Services.
“What we opened in Chicago was nothing short of amazing, and our customers spent more time in our lounge than we had ever seen in any of our products to date” Dorow tells Australian Business Traveller.
“People came to the airport earlier just to be able to stay there and our Star Alliance partner customers (also) took advantage of it and that's really what we want.”
“It was a little more than we expected and we learned from that grouping and we intentionally slowed down our schedule to ensure that we could incorporate that feedback.”
In effect, Dorow says, United hit the pause button on its Polaris lounge rollout to revisit what was to follow.
The shower equation
“In my office I have a stack of drawings that's probably a solid ten inches tall at this point, with everything from how we resized shower suites to the methodology for how many we put in. I have an analyst who came from Cornell, which is a world-famous school in terms of hospitality.”
“And we did everything to learn how many shower suites do you need? How many customers are going to be coming in at once? How long does it take somebody to shower? What's the average connection time? These are all the things that we wanted to think of to ensure that as a customer, we don't keep you waiting.”
Another hallmark of forthcoming Polaris lounges will be the private booths intended for phone conversations.
“That was actually a learning from O’Hare,” Dorow says. “Our customers told us that while they love this concept, they at times still do want a private room to take a call, or send out some emails, or maybe have two people sit and have a real quick (confidential) meeting.”
Each lounge will be “familiar but different”
Dorow promises that while each new Polaris lounge will be immediately recognisable as part of United’s portfolio they will also be “distinct to the market, because we want to ensure that as a customer it's not monotonous.”
“You want to feel that you're in San Francisco, or LA, or Chicago. We are are very fortunate to have hubs in some great cities around this country, and we want to capitalise on the spirit and personality of those cities and ingratiate each one into our lounge environment.”
Ironically, Dorow sees that environment as ideally being less of an airport lounge.
“How do we offer you something that feels more like you're sitting at home or in your office, and not so much in a lounge that is very cold and not necessarily as inviting? And, so everything from the seating types to the wall covering to the light fixtures, it's very residential in feeling.”
“Our goal here is to make you feel at home when you're travelling because we recognise the stress that comes with travel, especially long-haul international travel. We want to give you that sense of calm, take you out of the chaos of the airport experience, so that by the time you step on the aircraft, you're ready to relax, unwind, and sleep and feel refreshed when you arrive.”
Reminded that Cathay Pacific’s new-look lounges designed by Ilse Crawford have adopted the same ‘residential’ influence and aim to slow things down for the busy business traveller, Dorow smiles. “I always say that imitation is the highest form of flattery. We've learned a lot from our competitors."
Service to suit the schedule
Dorow sees United’s lounge experience as “moving from service to hospitality, to a hospitality- centric environment.”
This will include timing the types of meals to the flight schedules, which in the case of the new Polaris lounge at San Francisco includes serving sushi “aligned with our Tokyo and Osaka departure times, as well as those with our partner ANA. We want to make sure that we're recognising that customers typically travelling to and from those cities are looking for things like sushi, and we want to make sure that we provide it at the right time of day.”
Each successive Polaris lounge opening will also see a different à la carte dining menu based on its flight destinations, “although items like the United Polaris Burger had such rave reviews in Chicago that we wouldn't dare open a lounge without it.”
Beyond an “extreme focus on food and beverages,” Dorow says he also intends to focus on “ the little, thoughtful touches.”
“If you want to take a shower, in any Polaris Lounge, before your late night flight, we even stock it with pyjamas so that you can change right into the pyjamas before you even get on the aircraft.”
“Those little touches are the things that we're thinking of so that we are truly enabling your time on the aircraft. Because I can't make your flight go any faster, but I can certainly take care of you on the ground and give you a very custom experience to make that flight more comfortable.”
David Flynn travelled to San Francisco as a guest of United Airlines