In the heart of Honolulu Airport, TheDesignAir talks exclusively with Avi Mannis at Hawaiian Airlines on their home turf, discussing the past, the future, brand and livery, plus what it means to be a truly successful ‘destination carrier’
The Roots of the Hawaiian Airlines Brand
Sat in Hawaiian Airlines offices just on the edge of Honolulu Airport, you’d be forgiven for thinking you were already transported a few years into the future, with a modern open plan office featuring massive plasma TV screen walls in the reception, crew training rooms, a large mural, placing Hawaii at the centre of the earth and a spacious restaurant featuring benches for Hawaii’s famous communal ‘Pot-Luck’ dining concept. But the offices are exactly where the airline wants to get to in terms of product – a modern and progressive spin on Hawaiian culture.
We are sat with Avi Mannis, Senior Vice President, Marketing in a mood lit meeting room that feels more W Hotel than office space. Excited to finally speak with the carrier in length, we get Avi to take us through the recent changes at Hawaiian Airlines. “It’s been a really interesting process. Last year we laid out a map of where we were today and where we want to be in 2017. It’s not our nature as a relatively small carrier to do a ‘big bang’ rebranding. It’s expensive and doesn’t feel organic. So what we wanted to do was follow a multi-year process to bring all the elements of our product to where they need to be.”
Having been given the grand tour of their new workspace we can’t help but see a signature design style, unique to Hawaiian. Its fairly easy to connect the dots and see the same design cues that can be found in their new First Class cabin which will be rolled out onto their A330 fleet – such as the resin dividers between the seats which already feature in areas of the offices.
Whilst the carrier already has a strong visual vision of what its future will be, Avi is quick to remind us, that this powerful Pacific boutique carrier has cleverly stuck to its roots and the true island spirit when thinking product and brand.
“The core of our brand is in our front line staff who are largely from Hawaii, delivering service with a degree of Aloha and care that you wouldn’t see on any other carrier in the world. It’s something that no one else can replicate.”
It’s a familiar sentiment, with many carriers who have invested in their hard product, trying to create a stronger identity through the genuine service of their staff, just as Alitalia have recently refined, by sending their staff to the Etihad training centre in Abu Dhabi to develop their service offering whilst maintaining their traditional Italian roots that make them unique.
“From a brand and identity standpoint our job is to listen to who our staff are. To take those values and come up with a corporate identity and design that takes what we do and brings it into a more contemporary global vernacular. We will always be rooted here in Hawaii. We aren’t going to transform ourselves into a Korean or JAL or ANA, no matter how much I admire those airlines.” Avi Mannis continues.
The airline has long standing roots in the Pacific, originally starting as a shipping company ruling the waves between the islands. The airline is proud of the history, with not only archives on site, but a historical timeline of the carrier on display at the entrance to the offices. “We want to find a new language that expresses what we have done since 1929, but to do it in a way that feels rooted here in Hawaii yet still at home in New York City or Tokyo. That’s been a really fun design challenge.”
The Future for Hawaiian
Like any carrier, the airline has to look to the future to be able to grow effectively. As the carrier has established a new fleet and increased aircraft orders, there is a prime opportunity to reflect on the brand and introduce a future-proof product. We have seen this already with the introduction of Hawaiian’s new First Class product, but the brand journey goes much deeper.
“We started this journey with colour and the use of colour, then moving to typography and on the identity side, digital and photography standard have been brought up to a new level.” Avi states, talking mainly about the new website, which is already live. Yet Hawaiian Airlines doesn’t seem to want to stop there.
“In the next 12-18 months, we will look at our logo, livery and uniforms. I am 90% sure that we will have a new uniform line launching in 2017.” It’s not confirmed that the carrier will actively change their corporate identity, but it is clearly wise to use this transitional time to take a look at how the brand is perceived.
“The logo is now ten years old and works pretty well. There are things that we can do to freshen the look and contemporize it. Certainly whenever you bring a new aircraft into the fleet it, an airline would look at livery because there aren’t a lot of other opportunities to make a change that are as inexpensive as when you are buying new aircraft. We are looking at this, but we want to keep a lot of what we think is working as our livery is still really well received by our guests.”
The uniforms are also an area that will be developed. “They are seven years old now and we are looking at every aspect of the expression of our brand and trying to make sure that as we have grown, become more global and become positioned as a ‘destination carrier’ that every element of our product lives up to our brand. We have made some big steps but we have a long way to go.”
Whilst the carrier could have rested on its laurels with the introduction of the new first class cabins, the airline has realized the global stage continues to evolve and brands have to adapt to passenger needs. “We are in a period of the industry where design and brand have taken a big leap forward. It was pretty stagnant for a while and we’ve seen many of our competitors invest in better execution of their corporate identities and we want to make sure that we continue to do that too.”
The New Hawaiian Fleet
It’s not just a matter of out with old and in with the new. Hawaiian’s older 767’s may just help the carrier adapt to its ever expanding network. “We have a degree of flexibility with our 767 fleet to help us with our growth, but they are clearly going to be phased out, and we will see most of them exit the fleet in the next couple of years.”
Sadly the older 767 fleet won’t see the new First Class cabin, but their new fleet of A321neos will have their own brand new First Class product to compete on the West Coast routes. “The new first class product will be retrofit into the current A330s in the second quarter of next year, and probably be complete by the end of 2017. We will take the A321neos in mid 2017. Instead of the same seat, they will feature a whole new product that will be great and the right size for that market. We try to tailor our first class product that reflects the mission of that aircraft and the guests that we are serving. We don’t want our A321neo cabin to look like anyone else’s.”
It had to be reassuring to Hawaiian to have Paul Wylde, North America’s cabin designer at the helm on their 717 retrofit and new A330 product. The designer already has shown his skill in the US with his Mint product for JetBlue.
“It’s actually really challenging as the narrow-body gives a lot less palette to work with when designing a First Class cabin. On the A330 project it was about trying to find a language for the cabins that was unique and expressed our brand.”
Proof of an ever-increasing importance of brand spaces in the airline environment is clear with Hawaiian’s fairly recent employment of an external design firm to help craft their cabin look and feel.
“We hadn’t ever worked with a designer before this A330 project working purely on a cabin design. It was always ‘buy the seats and pick the swatches out of the swatch book’. I think it was reflected in the cabins. They were different, but they didn’t feel they had a coherent language to them, and even though the 717s look completely different from the A330s, there is now a continuity of design that we have purposefully built in to all of them. They are very suited to their mission.”
Working in the Pacific would seemingly be difficult, as suppliers would be hard to come by, but being so remote hasn’t been a factor for the carrier. “It’s been terrific working with an Optimares (an Italian company) for the A330 First Class Cabin, they are a relatively new supplier, but with experience built from other companies over the years. Because we were first to market with this seat we have had a very dynamic design process with them, so between them, Paul Wylde and us, we’ve had 18 months of working the product really unique.”
Teaming up with a supplier so far away has had an unusual but welcome benefit for the carrier. “We will be the first commercial launch carrier for the new seat type. A lot of the seat design will be owned by us, and whilst many airlines may take interest in the seat type, none of them will look like ours.”
Hawaiian’s Competitive Landscape
Hawaii is a destination that is coveted by many carriers. In Asia there are a great wealth of flights vying for the most lucrative passengers to the islands, and in North America, competition is fierce with the big three US carriers, Alaska and now even Virgin America, whom Hawaiian codeshares with. “We codeshare with every big carrier that flies here and codeshare with all of them. We continue to have a partnership with Virgin America, and whilst they don’t have a large capacity to Hawaii right now, we have a great product to compete with them. I actually have great admiration for their branding and their product, and we have a good working relationship with them.” Avi states.
But on their home turf, Hawaiian have a home advantage, as the aging Honolulu airport has a wealth of small lounges available to most carriers, but none as spacious as Hawaiian’s. “We have now completed all of our lounge renovations here in the Islands, including the Plumeria lounge for our international business class guests here in Honolulu.”
It’s a different story though on the mainland. HAL’s only outstation lounge in North America, LAX has now closed meaning domestic First Class guests won’t have any lounge offering. “It’s different if you are leaving internationally from any of our outstations as we do have lounge partnerships in each of the airports which are great.”
Honolulu has been under renovations for some time, but none more important for growth than the new concourse which will be built in the years to come. “We will be the primary occupant of the concourse when it is built here in Honolulu. But it is far away from being built. It’s taken much longer than we hoped. Renovating the airport is something we really need to do, not just as an airline, but as a destination. It has its charms, but it is showing its age. You could almost bring it back to its 1950’s fabulousness but it hasn’t been maintained to that state.”
It hasn’t stopped Asian travellers who continue to grow as a market to the Hawaiian Islands, but finding the sweet spot has been a challenge for a brand which isn’t so well known outside the USA. “We grew extremely quickly over three or four years prior to this one. Some of them have worked out fabulously well for us and some of them didn’t. Some of them are still in developmental phases, as you would expect. I think our success rate is actually quite good in Asia. We still think the future for us as a destination airline means we need to look at the growth of travel in Asia, from markets such as China, Korea and South East Asia, so that will continue to be key to our growth, but with growth at a more moderate pace.”
It’s not so easy in North America either, where the dominant carriers can still offer a network of connecting flights through to the Hawaiian state. “The challenge the further east we go, is the more options our guests have, and whilst we think there is value in a non-stop flight (and New York is starting to demonstrate that), guests would be choosing either a non-stop flight to Honolulu or up to 100 other connecting options, some of which may be much less expensive depending if a route is on sale. The reality is the longer that flight gets and the more connection options over the route there are, the harder it is for us to operate a non-stop service.”
We ask about one still untapped connecting market, that of Asia to South America, where Hawaiian is perfectly positioned. “There are markets in South America that are in range, but there aren’t developed enough as visitor markets to Hawaii so that you could sustain a service. But in the same way that economies are growing over in Asia, and much likely to become much bigger, the same is true of Latin America. And there are some interesting traffic flows between Asia and Latin America and there are some interesting opportunities.” There is truth in this, as Japan’s second largest Japanese population can be found in Sao Paulo.
Finally we talk to Avi about the near future of airlines, and where the battle will be fought to gain the custom of the all important premium customers. “The arms race between hard product isn’t done, I think that’s going to continue for the core business market to be the focus of a lot of carriers. It’s about how do we get bigger, better nicer seats, faster connectivity. These are things that will continue to be important.”
While Hawaiian Airlines has already invested heavily into their hard product, and have set their stall for the next few years to come, the carrier has got a secret weapon already up their sleeve. “The one element that I think is really interesting is how to be ‘nice to guests.’ A sense of hospitality and real human interaction.” Avi picks up his phone as it vibrates, as if on cue.
“I think more and more of my daily life is mediated through a device. The moments of true human interaction are becoming scarcer and scarcer but equally more important differentiators. I think it’s important as a brand to create those moments of genuine human interaction that aren’t scripted or formal. That cut through the noise of daily life and resonates with guests. We see that all the time with comments from our customers and that’s one of the things that stand out with Hawaiian.”
It seems that airlines in North America may be taking note of why people are choosing to fly Hawaiian. Avi notes that some competitors are already trying to offer a better customer experiences. “Delta, JetBlue and southwest are all doing really well at this. There is a real shift to ‘can we be friendlier. Can we solve guests problems in a more empathetic way – it’s a space we play in very competitively.”
But what is clear to see, as we leave the offices, sent off with warm Aloha smiles by all the staff, is that with an improved hard product and already successful service ethos, Hawaiian will be one competitor in the Pacific that other carriers will have to work hard to beat.