The sky’s no longer the limit for leading airport-lounge operator Plaza Premium Group, as Mei Mei Song steers their global brand of luxury and convenience to train journeys, too.
What is the story behind the Plaza Premium Lounges? How did it all start?
In the ’90s, my father [globetrotting Malaysian entrepreneur Song Hoi-see] found it frustrating that international airports were not equipped with functional places for economy-class travellers to utilise their time efficiently between long-haul flights. A safe place, accessible to all, to rest and unwind, prepare for meetings before hopping on the next flight – perhaps for a fee; there was a clear gap in the market for that kind of experience. An opportunity came when both Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur were building new airports, and he pitched the idea of a pay-per-use lounge for all travellers to the authorities. After a lot of initial hiccups, the world’s first independent lounge opened at the Hong Kong International Airport in July 1998. We’re going to celebrate our 25th anniversary soon.
After starting your career in the media, you are now Global Brand and Product Transformation Director at Plaza Premium Group. Was it always your plan to join the family business?
I studied economics and politics [at the University of Edinburgh] and toyed with the idea of becoming a politician. But I grew up in the aviation space, and airports always fascinated me. The passion that my parents have for the business is truly inspiring, and it rubbed on to me. The exact moment I knew I wanted to join the family business was when I was travelling to London for Fashion Week. I was scheduled to land at 5am and had back-to-back meetings at 9am, 10am and 11am, but the hotel check-in wasn’t until 3pm. I desperately wanted a place to shower and freshen up before the start of a workday. I wanted to jump into the family business and expand it so people could fully utilise their long layovers and benefit from a calm, luxurious lounge environment.
What have you learned from working with your father who is credited with transforming the global air-travel experience?
My father started this business from scratch through relentless hard work, grit and determination. He brings a strong foundation and the viewpoint of a different generation to the table. Everyone wants to succeed but does sustainability fit into your growth plans? Do you put customers’ needs ahead of everything else? One of the most important things he taught me was how to be a good leader, and that founding a successful business is not enough. How you conduct that business and the strength of your vision and values are key.
How challenging has Covid-19 been for a company in the business of aviation?
Extremely challenging. It’s no secret that aviation has been the hardest hit global industry in this crisis. At one point, travel came to a complete halt – 95-percent of our lounges were closed. That said, as a business we are agile, dynamic and entrepreneurial, and we took this period to revamp, regroup and reinvent. How you rise from adversity is very telling of the nature of your company. So, we took this opportunity to rebuild and recentre ourselves. We are currently at 230-plus lounges and by 2025 our goal is to have 550 lounges around the world.
“I’m most pumped about our foray into train lounges – people are increasingly travelling by rail and sea, and that’s an untapped market for us”
As a mother of a three-year-old, how did you balance work and the home front at the peak of the coronavirus pandemic?
It was hard for everyone during this period. But I’m very grateful for the incredible family support, a tight network of mums, friends and even amazing colleagues. It’s not easy for parents to do the balancing act of work and home on their own, especially at a time of global crisis. It really does take a village, doesn’t it?
What is the reality on the ground for the travel industry right now? Are Plaza Premium’s lounges fully functional?
Economic recovery is slowly setting in for our industry. The road is long, but the silver lining is the rising vaccination rate – as that picks up, we see an upswing in air travel. Factors like the length of quarantine and government policy in different countries also play a role in getting travel back on its feet, but as far as Hong Kong is concerned, the last two months have seen a massive uptick in travellers. We are a busy transit hub and university students from China are now flying back and forth. The European markets are on the road to recovery as well – the UK, Finland, the US and Canada have all experienced a surge in leisure travel and this is an encouraging trend.
Any upcoming projects you’re excited about?
We’ve just opened a lounge in Africa, which is an exciting development and a first for us on the continent, so growth possibilities are endless. China is touted to be the world’s biggest air travel market in the next decade and we have strong expansion plans there. I’m most pumped about our foray into train lounges – not everyone travels by air; people are increasingly taking rail and sea routes and that’s an untapped market for us. We’ve launched two premium train lounges in China – it’s a game-changing opportunity and a new benchmark of hospitality in the travel sector.
Will travel ever rebound to pre-Covid levels?
Travel has changed, for better or worse. Many aspects of it might have changed for good. Expectations around health and safety are at the forefront. People want a digital, seamless, touchless experience when they travel. As technology blurs the work-life boundaries, ‘bleisure’ travel (blending business and leisure) is a rising trend – conducting business from a beach in Bali or extending a work trip for some well-deserved rest and relaxation. We’re optimistic about travel picking up again, but a lot depends on vaccination rates and how quickly governments roll back travel restrictions and open borders.
“Founding a successful business is not enough. How you conduct that business and the strength of your vision and values are key”
You are an avid traveller. What’s your favourite holiday memory?
I am not your average traveller. I love airports, stopovers and transits – rootless, functional places without identity and a confluence of different identities and cultures. One time I did Singapore, Abu Dhabi, New Delhi, Bangalore, Hyderabad, Dubai and London in seven days, just to visit all our lounges. That’s my most memorable, exciting travel memory.
And your least favourite travel memory?
Once I became a mother and resumed my robust travelling schedule with an infant in tow, I realised that services and facilities are not geared towards young mums. It was frustrating not to have diaper changing stations, feeding rooms and kids’ rooms when you need them the most. That’s when we made systemic changes to include a kids’ room, highchairs and children’s cutlery in all our lounges. We also have changing tables in men’s toilets as well as women’s because dads are now doing the parenting, too.