Executive Traveller exclusive
Qantas has permanently ditched its once-popular airport meeting rooms, but rival Virgin Australia isn't following suit and will re-open meeting facilities in Melbourne, Canberra and Perth, an airline spokesperson confirms.
When that will be, however, remains up in the air.
It's an interesting play for Virgin Australia, which is repositioning itself as a 'mid-market' carrier rather than a full-service brand: particularly when its full-service opponent has exited that 'meeting room' arena.
But for Virgin's new owner Bain Capital, it's an opportunity to drive revenue from facilities that have already been built, and that reside within lounges the airline continues to operate.
Virgin Australia's airport meeting rooms
Virgin Australia began 2020 with meeting rooms across seven terminals at six airports.
As the year progressed, some lounges permanently closed, and the meeting rooms within them followed suit.
Perth would be the first domino to fall, with Virgin's Terminal 2 lounge – housing one meeting room – pronounced shut in August 2020, after having been temporarily closed since March.
That was followed in November 2020 with the closure of the airline’s lounges in Cairns, Darwin and Mackay, where meeting rooms had also been offered.
As well, Virgin Australia has ended the lease on its 'overflow lounge' at Brisbane Airport, known by some as the 'cafe lounge', although Executive Traveller understands the airline can resume this lease if the space becomes needed and hasn't otherwise been claimed.
In the years gone by, Brisbane's overflow lounge had provided additional seating for guests at peak times, and before that, was home to the airline's meeting rooms.
What remains now in Virgin's meeting room portfolio is a small four-person space at Canberra Airport, two rooms in Perth Airport's Terminal 1, and two rooms at Melbourne Airport: including a flagship boardroom boasting tarmac views.
Executive Traveller understands that one roadblock to their reopening is the current requirement to wear masks at all times within airport terminals, except when eating and drinking.
This significantly reduces the appeal of hosting meetings at the airport, when organising the same elsewhere – even at a nearby airport hotel – would not currently be met with the same restriction.
Virgin Australia meeting room pricing
Prior to the pandemic, Virgin Australia's meeting room charges were significantly lower than Qantas', but assumed that attendees would already have Virgin Australia lounge access.
This made them more of an 'upgrade' from the regular lounge space, rather than a destination in their own right.
Most bookings ran at $50 per hour, except the flagship boardroom at Melbourne Airport, which sold for $100/hr.
To use a meeting room, attendees also needed to have access to the Virgin Australia lounge itself, whether by way of lounge membership, travel ticket, frequent flyer status, or as the guest of an eligible member.
Delegates attending meetings beyond these entitlements – or when booking a meeting room when not otherwise able to visit the lounge – were charged a per-person fee, in addition to room hire.
In Canberra and Perth, this charge was $55, or $65 in Melbourne.
Virgin Australia is yet to reveal any changes to these prices, but as these facilities are temporarily closed – and its competitors rooms stay permanently shut – the airline isn't under any time pressure to do so.
Airport meeting rooms cater to convenience
The major drawcard of an airport meeting room has always been convenience.
Within minutes of waving goodbye to the seatbelt sign, a traveller could say hello to colleagues or clients in their own private meeting space: swapping the traditional airport transfer with a quick stroll from aisle seat to boardroom seat.
Whether for a one-on-one discussion, a small group roundtable or a formal company board meeting, members could fly in, get down to business, and jet home with the job done.
But jumping on a plane to attend a single sit-down is no longer the ‘convenient’ and time-saving choice it once was.
For a large part, the surging popularity of video conferencing is to blame: not to mention corporate belt-tightening across the board.
Budgets buck brief business trips
Even with video conferencing in play, businesses will still have plenty of reasons to travel: but getting on a plane for a same-day, 'in and out' journey will be seen by many as an unnecessary expense.
It's a reality that reduces the appeal and need for airport meeting rooms, and a view echoed by Virgin Australia's CEO Jayne Hrdlicka.
"People will probably not pick up and move between two cities for one meeting, unless they’re selling something or it’s a new relationship," Hrdlicka said at the December 2020 CAPA Live summit.
"I think some trips come out of the market, particularly with very big businesses where there was a lot of intrastate and interstate travel ... between different offices, particularly Sydney-Melbourne."
The trends among business travellers support that assumption.
In Executive Traveller's most recent reader survey, a staggering 93.5% of responders indicated they'd been using video conferencing either "somewhat more" or "significantly more" in the workplace than before COVID-19.
Of those still using video conferencing, 84% indicated they are now travelling less than in 2019, with a further 6% no longer travelling at all.
This could see Virgin Australia's airport meeting rooms being marketed beyond their traditional purpose.
For instance, the privacy they provide would be highly valued by some – particularly if Virgin Australia's separate invitation-only lounges don't return.
Some larger families, particularly with young children, might also enjoy hiring the space as something of a kids room.
Qantas drops its own meeting rooms
The outcome of Virgin Australia's meeting room wager will be intriguing, particularly as Qantas recently shut its entire portfolio of 26 meeting rooms across eight airports.
“All Qantas meeting rooms have permanently closed,” a spokesperson for the airline confirms to Executive Traveller.
While all the airline's meeting rooms were temporarily closed back in March 2020 – coinciding with the shuttering of airport lounges across the country, due to COVID-19 – a more recent decision made that measure permanent.
But even before video conferencing became the norm, Qantas' meeting rooms had already begun losing their place.
Back in October 2019, Qantas permanently closed its entire meeting space at Melbourne Airport – being separate from the airline’s lounge precinct, situated along the departure concourse – for which it would have been paying considerable rent to Melbourne Airport.
After its closure, Qantas continued to offer meeting facilities at eight other airports until the COVID shutdown, including a flagship space in Sydney, spanning nine meeting rooms.
The largest of those could seat up to 22 attendees, costing companies $1,055 for a four-hour meeting, or $844 if one of the attendees held Chairman’s Lounge, Platinum One, Platinum or Gold status, or a Qantas Club membership.
Qantas also had meeting facilities in Adelaide (five rooms), Brisbane (six rooms), Canberra (two rooms), Darwin (one room), the Gold Coast (one room), Perth (one room), and Townsville (one room), each of varying sizes.
When asked whether the defunct rooms would be opened up for regular lounge guests to use as workspaces – or removed entirely in favour of extra general seating – a Qantas spokesperson advised that “we are yet to decide how this space will be best utilised for customers going forward.”
However, as those meeting rooms fell within the footprint of the airline’s Qantas Clubs or Business Lounges in all but Sydney and the Gold Coast, Qantas will have a few options up its sleeve.
Chairman's Lounge is a traveller's ticket to privacy
For now, the privilege of a private airport meeting room becomes a perk exclusive to Qantas' Chairman’s Lounge members and guests.
That’s because Qantas’ Chairman’s Lounges – found in Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, Canberra, Adelaide and Perth – provide private meeting spaces within the confines of each VIP lounge, for the complimentary use of members.
The same, of course, can be said of Virgin Australia's The Club lounges: but their fate remains uncertain, and these largely remain closed.
Melbourne is the exception, where The Club is currently catering to regular lounge guests as maintenance works continue in the airline's public lounge.
But what's normally The Club's private boardroom here has been repurposed as a general seating area, to maximise available space in this cosy location.
Whether business travellers miss the humble airport meeting room in 2021, or embrace the opportunity to exit the terminal and embark on fewer – yet longer – trips, will certainly be interesting to watch.