How MAG’s new tech and e-commerce startup is creating a culture of innovation


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Manchester Airports Group’s Andrew Harrison, CEO, Airport Services, and Charlie Cornish, CEO, together with Nolan Hough, Managing Director of MAG-O, during the official opening ceremony.

With a clear brief for innovation, last year Manchester Airports Group (MAG) launched its tech and e-commerce business, MAG-O, to respond to technology-driven changes and to move the airport experience into a new digital era. Nolan Hough, appointed Managing Director at MAG-O in 2017, spoke to FTE about the startup’s ambitions to be “commercial to the core” and double its revenue in the next five years.

“Moving the airport experience into a new digital era”

Attracted by the challenge of modernising the passenger experience, in December 2017 MAG-O opened its new, specially designed offices at Manchester Airport, bringing together a strong team of forward-thinking experts from the technology industry.

MAG-O has been designed to encourage innovative and fresh thinking, and a core aim is to improve the end-to-end passenger experience at the group’s three airports – Manchester, London Stansted and East Midlands – through the introduction of advanced technology and innovative new online products.

“We are responding to changes in passenger behaviour and need to move the airport experience into a new digital era,” says Hough. “We’re looking to build a startup ethos and part of that is being physically separate, not constrained by the big company thought process. I’m lucky that I’ve been given the go ahead to build a fresh culture from the word go – we have new offices, we’re more flexible and we’re more collegiate.”

“Bringing a higher level of enjoyment to the airport environment”

The idea behind MAG-O was born following feedback from passengers, which showed that they were underwhelmed by the digital experience on offer at airports generally, and that in recent years their expectations of customer service had increased. “I’m realistic – by today’s standards I think passengers in airports are often disappointed by the standards of the digital experience. People are used to excellent experiences and reasonable is no longer good enough. That’s what we are addressing with MAG-O.”

Nolan Hough, Managing Director, MAG-O: “We are on a journey together and aiming to double our revenue in MAG-O within five years. Ultimately, I want the teams to push themselves, be customer-centric, create a culture of innovation, not be afraid to fail and, perhaps most importantly, be commercial to the core.”

He adds: “It’s all about bringing a higher level of enjoyment to the airport environment, eradicating the pain points that we have all become familiar with and ultimately providing passengers with a much smoother and stress-free experience.”

Indeed, to respond to these changes in passenger needs, the team is seeking much of its inspiration from outside of the airport industry and has already trialled, tested and introduced several new initiatives across MAG’s digital footprint. Hough explains: “We are still essentially a startup but already MAG-O has introduced some small changes to the wider MAG operation that have made a seismic difference to passengers, including how they are able to find and book flights, live flight notifications, travel itinerary, services and FastTrack Passport Control.”

Other projects include building VIP products, travel insurance, concierge services, apps, chatbots and new distribution deals. MAG-O has also undertaken a complete redesign and relaunch of the Group’s airport websites, with each one now delivering significantly faster load speeds and a more intuitive user experience.

Looking ahead, Hough already has a clear vision on the potential of the digitalisation of the airport experience. “In the future, we are targeting a truly personalised airport experience where as a passenger, you will be guided directly to your parking space via mobile web services, have your food ready and waiting for you at the restaurant of your choice and be able to take advantage of personalised discounts in our shops, and then finally be guided to the plane at exactly the right time of boarding.”

Customer-centric approach

The startup’s customer-centric approach is truly at the core of its strategy, and the company is continuously engaging with passengers to improve its services further. “Our way of working is agile – and that means that we create a hypothesis, build a minimum viable product, conduct user-tests in a lab environment with actual users and launch to market in very short cycles.”

He concludes: “We are on a journey together and aiming to double our revenue in MAG-O within five years. I want the teams to push themselves, be customer-centric, create a culture of innovation, not be afraid to fail and, perhaps most importantly, be commercial to the core.

“Ultimately, what we’re trying to do is create an excellent digital passenger journey that will make people want to travel from MAG airports.”

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