The calibre of the retail experiences at former BAA airports are a telling indication of the instrumental part that Brian Collie played in making airport retail what it is today. The former Group Retail Director of BAA plc sent ripples through the industry when he announced in 2004 that he would end his 13-year stint with the operator at the age of 50. Nearly a decade on, and Collie is at the heart of another travel industry institution – as Chairman of Irish hotels group Jurys Inn. Ahead of his Aer Lingus flight to the group’s Dublin headquarters, Collie sacrificed his well-treasured airport shopping time to meet with Amy Hanna at Gatwick Airport, where he once stood as a Board member for four years.
Collie thrives on delivering experiences, and is very much at home in the people-driven hotel business. Jurys Inn owns and manages 31, what Collie calls, 3*+ hotels. “If you were looking at the low-cost carriers we’re more like easyJet than Ryanair,” he said. Jurys Inn Heathrow is the group’s only hotel on airport grounds, and while the group has enterprising plans for expansion, competing with the dozens of hotels that hem the UK’s airports isn’t a priority. “We look for good locations like every other good operator – the right location that attracts the right guest,” Collie stated.
At the company behind ‘Exceptional everyday hotels’, Collie explained, delivering an outstanding customer experience is not all that different to doing so in an airport retail environment, except with greater face-to-face opportunities to add that crucial customer service to a good fundamental product “– be it comfortable beds or a smooth route to security”. “And then, underpinning all that has got to be value for money. And that’s the same at the airport. You’ve got to get the formula right – the environment, the product, the customer service, and the value for money. It’s not rocket science – it’s just what people want, in real life.”
As well as developing the World Duty Free brand and giving life to the Heathrow Express, Collie was responsible for the retail operations of 20 airports during his time at BAA – an experience he relished. His excitement for the industry is contagious, and he remains at its forefront – an advocate of all things online, he is a keen supporter of advancements in home delivery, pre-ordering and Shop & Collect, a service he pioneered.
The once Board member still has an affinity for his local airport. “I’m a huge fan of Gatwick – I think they’ve probably got the best operation of any UK airport, and I think the work that Stewart Wingate and his team have done here operationally has been terrific,” he said. “The entrance to both the terminals is very special. The security is second to none. They’ve expanded it, they’ve made it easier, the people are friendly – they’ve just lifted it to a whole new level.” Commercially though, Collie (who initiated the extensions at Gatwick’s South and North terminals) doesn’t agree with everything that has been done. “I always think that retail should be on the way and not in the way,” he said. The walk-through duty free area, he explains, is “convoluted and disorientating”, and doesn’t create the same sense of place that was the essence of the first ever walk-through store that Collie established at Heathrow’s Terminal 3. “You’ve got to remember that people aren’t here to shop, they’re here to get on a plane. You’ve got to make them feel comfortable that they’re in control of their time and where to go,” he said.
Six months after leaving BAA Collie rejoined the Board of designer outlet operator McArthurGlen, and shortly after became a partner. Since then the company has grown from having eight or nine luxury centres to 21 across Europe today. The firm is now building its first centre in North America in a joint venture with Vancouver Airport operator YVR. Located at the end of the runway, it will be McArthurGlen’s first airport site. “We’ve been approached by a lot of airports since we launched the YVR relationship, but we’d first like to see how it works,” commented Collie. “We open early next year, and we’ve got extremely high hopes for it.”