“Jan-du attitude” will continue to drive “Budapest’s bouncebackability”

Kam Jandu, Chief Commercial Officer, Budapest Airport, talks to Airport Business on his decade (plus) at the airport on the eve of “going backpacking”.

Kam Jandu (52), raised in the UK’s industrial West Midlands to an Indian family, originally started his career in the aviation-related field of rent-a-car, from the very beginning in customer-focused roles on the front desk of Budget, before joining the management of Hertz, where he worked indirectly for a certain James Hogan, VP Marketing & Sales, who later went on to Etihad fame.

Jandu’s move to aviation came in the late-90s when he joined then-named British Midland in a Sales and Marketing role. He did this “so well” that when bmi joined Star Alliance in 2001, Star Alliance tapped into his marketing and sales skills, leading him to move his family to Frankfurt for three years as the group’s Director of Sales. Moving up within aviation he stayed within the Star Alliance family when he moved his family back to the UK to become GM Sales for bmi.

Then, following the 2008 financial crisis, AviAlliance, the owners of Budapest Airport (and the airports of Athens, Düsseldorf, and Hamburg), went in search of a new Aviation Director – an expert airline marketeer with inside knowledge of the carriers. Ostensibly the new job was to build traffic for the much re-developed Budapest Airport where AviAlliance had heavily invested in the new ’SkyCourt’ terminal, the heart of the modern airport. “They sold me the job on the basis of needing my marketing and sales background – what I didn’t immediately appreciate was that the ’Aviation Director’ post also came with responsibility for security and operations – I ended up with a lot more than I bargained for, including 800 staff – 70% of the workforce,” explains Jandu, who once again moved his family to an entirely new cultural setting. The year was 2009.

“Not being a security or operations expert, I had to learn and build up – and simultaneously do the same for sales and marketing – it all needed to be done in time for mid-2011 and the opening of SkyCourt – we achieved those deadlines, but unfortunately Malév missed its own recovery targets and collapsed in 2012.” Despite the potentially catastrophic loss of the national and home carrier, Jandu doesn’t like to dwell on the Malév failure. Instead, he summarises the episode with a casual but profound observation: “We recovered the traffic we had lost within 12 months.”

However, the loss of Malév permanently changed the demographics of the airport: “Part of Malév’s failure had been its effort to deliver a hub and spoke system over Budapest – with that path abandoned, we went after point-to-point European traffic – after all it didn’t matter to us financially where a passenger had come from, furthermore these people stayed in Budapest, rather than connecting, and spent their money in Hungary.”

Bounce-ability: Jandu’s impressive aviation development record is recognised with the industry’s highest accolade for airline development: ‘The Best Airline Marketing Award’ at World Routes in Adelaide 2019. (As there is no award this year Jandu claims the airport remains “reigning champions through 2020-21.”)

The move to retail: “it’s just economics after all”

Following the swift traffic recovery, Jandu was promoted to become Chief Commercial Officer in 2014: “This change meant I lost responsibility for several hundred staff I had managed in security and operations, but I was immediately given control of retail – something I had little experience of before, other than as a consumer.”

Once again, Jandu set about learning new skills, observing at the time that “retail is just economics after all”. However, Jandu saw important structural synergies to the combination of aviation marketing and retail, which would bear real fruit during his stewardship: “The integration of the two departments produced vital understanding of the opportunities – while traffic had recovered, the airport’s retail was in need of change, and we were able to quickly understand that the loss of long-haul had meant that the offer was imbalanced with too many high-end brands, which didn’t work with the dominance of the European short-haul business – we needed to increase the value for our concessionaires.”

Overhaul of the retail mix followed, heavily allied to unified campaigns orchestrated between the airport, retailer, and brands on the ‘Trinity’ model. The results were emphatic: “Most retail revenues doubled by 2015 – a upward trend which continued to accelerate through 2015-19; we had exactly the right demographic for what they were now offering, all the concessionaires were happy, and everyone wanted to renew and grow.”

BARTA – bringing the airline and retailer together

Dublin 2017: Launching BARTA – the ‘Brand, Airline, Retailer, Technology, Airport’ cooperation initiative at Future Travel Experience along with Wizz Air and Heinemann Duty Free. “The airport, airline and retailer have worked together through BARTA principles at Budapest Airport, proving that it will deliver growth for all parties.”

In another prime example of the synergies of operating both airline and retail development, Jandu’s department went further and hard-wired the two commercial activities together in a scheme which became known as the “BARTA” cooperation, a pioneering financial arrangement launched in 2017 whereby Wizz Air would directly promote Budapest Airport retail – namely Heinemann Duty Free, from the very point of booking. (BARTA, a termed coined by Future Travel Experience, stands for: ‘Brands, Airports, Retailers, Tech companies and Airlines’.)

“There was nervousness that the revenues of each side would be impacted, but BARTA proved that it did deliver growth for all parties – it was a leap of faith made possible because I was in this unique, privileged position of dealing with the senior management of both the airline and the retailer.”

The BARTA experiment has currently been paused by COVID-19, but Jandu believes that airports must return to its principles: “It does work, the technology is there, it just needs relationships involving openness and trust. Airport retail will be relevant forever, but we must address the fact that young people want to manage their entire lives on their phones, and that will mark the lasting importance of BARTA-type airline-retail partnerships first trialled in Budapest.”

Bringing the long-haul world back to Budapest

Jandu’s tenure at Budapest Airport spanned 2009-20 and has seen a precise doubling of throughput to 16.2 million passengers by year-end 2019.

As Jandu and his team set about their aviation development tasks the airport achieved record years of growth every year until end-2019 when it attained its 16.2 million highest-ever point – exactly double the passenger throughput of 2009 when Jandu had first arrived.

Despite the structural shift to concentrating on European point-to-point, Jandu agrees that the headline achievements often go to the long-haul routes – American Airlines to JFK in 2010, then connections from Qatar, Emirates and Air Canada Rouge. “Then in a single year we went from one Chinese city to six as we welcomed China Eastern, Hainan and Air China.”

Of course, LOT also now has a hub at Budapest Airport offering long-haul to New York and Seoul – a route that is competed with Korean Air. “We’re missing Japan,” concedes Jandu, laying down a challenge for his yet-unknown successor.

Of course, today Wizz Air is the adopted home and ‘national’ carrier: “We have a winning partnership, a good close, collaboration – although we also have that with Ryanair – we regularly give the airlines route suggestions and we’re thrilled when they take up them up – it’s testimony, both to our team, and Budapest Airport’s continuous potential to just keep on delivering.”

Despite the reconnection to long-haul, Jandu maintains “core growth and strength remains firmly rooted in intra-Europe – the potential is by no means near exhaustion – besides the LCCs, we are also firmly in the targets of all the network carriers who have put a high value on the links between their hubs and Budapest.” By example Jandu cites how British Airways increased its Heathrow frequencies to four/daily in 2018: “Heathrow slots pairs can change hands for well in excess of $50 million, so the expansion into this spread of frequencies shows just how strongly they believe in the value of the Budapest market.”

Jandu’s impressive record was recognised with the industry’s highest accolade for airline development with presentation of ‘The Best Airline Marketing Award’ at World Routes in Adelaide 2019. “As there is no award this year, that also means we’re reigning champions through 2020-21,” observes Jandu wryly.

December 2019 – the launch of Hainan Airlines’ Chongqing-Budapest services: “In a single year we went from one Chinese city to six as we welcomed China Eastern, Hainan and Air China.”

Runner of 10 marathons – and eight Budapest Runway Runs

Jandu’s other trophies are more personal – 10 marathon finishers’ medals, including all six Majors – a record of some courage considering that he nurses a genetical heart condition which had cruelly taken the life of his father and brother at a far-too young age. This probably explains the philanthropic side to his sport, with Jandu having driven the establishment of the pioneering Budapest Airport Runway Run, now an annual fixture in the air transport industry’s sporting and fundraising calendar. “Runway runs are common in the US where many airports have four or more runways, but they were unheard of at major airports in Europe until we made a major commitment to an annual event almost a decade ago. Since then, we’ve been widely copied, and I am only too delighted by all the fundraising efforts of other airports – but we’re still the only airport that does it in true style, with well over 1,000 runners from all over the world coming to Budapest each year to run the race in bright Saturday sunshine.”

Jandu reckons some 6,000 runners have competed in the 10k runway run covering a collective 60,000km – the equivalent of 1.5 times around the globe. “But the biggest achievement is that we have raised over €200,000 for local and international causes along with our core partners and sponsors – anna.aero, Airbus, Qatar and Wizz Air.”

Will it survive the departure of its founder? Jandu asserts it will: “I think it was very significant that despite this year’s turmoil, including a total ban on inward travel to Hungary, the race still took place – that sets a great precedent for the years ahead, that it will continue for its charitable aspects, as well as the passionate belief of all participating stakeholders, customers, and staff.”

Jandu drove the establishment of the pioneering Budapest Airport Runway Run, which has raised a cumulative €200,000++ for charitable causes and is now an annual fixture in the air transport industry’s sporting calendar drawing well over 1,000 runners.

Wizz Air CEO József Váradi runs the Budapest Airport Runway Run with Jandu.

Next up: The backpacking adventure

Despite over 30 years on the front line of marketing, Jandu does not intend to hang up his spurs just yet, but he is going to take a sabbatical of several months: “I’m going to backpack around India and Australia, and some other exotic places – if we are allowed to travel.” Those who know Jandu will wonder just how rough this ‘backpacking’ experience will be, and whether it involves room service and minibar access, but we don’t doubt the beneficial value he will bring back to his trade in his desire: “to help better understand our industry through immersed travel in those markets.”

Significantly, Jandu did not dwell heavily on COVID-19 in this interview, despite the fact that Hungary’s blanket ban on entry by all foreigners has made its impact even more felt. Believing that the industry standstill needs no additional comment from him, Jandu instead prefers to give an optimistic recovery forecast – not least in Budapest: “The stakeholders of Budapest have a good hand – the preponderance of European point-to-point traffic, together with Hungary’s affordability, gives Budapest Airport and all its partners great prospects of recovery – Budapest has what it takes – bouncebackability.”*

*’Bouncebackability’ is indeed a word listed in the Oxford English Dictionary, originally coined by the coach of the nearly-relegated Crystal Palace in 2004, before working its way into the business parlance of Central Europe’s preeminent airport.

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