When everybody’s a VIP, no one’s a VIP.
Today’s typical airport lounge experience is a far cry of what American Airlines envisioned back in 1939 when the carrier launched the first club ever at New York LaGuardia Airport. Initially intended as private havens for the lucky few and designed with the allure and flair of gentlemen’s clubs, airport lounges have become more accessible, more mainstream, and thus more crowded than ever. Modern lounges cater to the whole family—but finding a seat has occasionally become a challenge.
Membership schemes, generous guest policies, discounted and promotional one-time access passes have led to a steady increase in traffic. But it’s the advent of a new mass market for premium credit cards, fueled by a competitive banking industry and finely-tuned marketing strategies, that tipped the scale a few years ago. The most popular premium cards come bundled with club memberships, or a membership in a global lounge access scheme such as Priority Pass, Lounge Club, or DragonPass.
Airlines and independent operators are increasingly responding by segmenting their offer. This means building new, more exclusive lounges with an expanded portfolio of services and amenities, for true premium customers who pay top dollar for the service.
In the US, American Airlines Flagship Lounges and United Polaris Lounges are off-limits to club members and coupon holders. In United’s case, access rules are stringent: even top-status passengers don’t have access unless they’re flying in intercontinental business class.
Plaza Premium launches Plaza Premium First, an up-market airport lounge concept
Based in Hong Kong, the Plaza Premium group runs 160 lounges, spas, hotels, and restaurants at 37 airports worldwide, most of which are complimentary for members of popular lounge access programs such as Priority Pass. Plaza Premium Lounges have earned a reputation for their culinary offerings (they typically offer a full complimentary hot buffet) and solid amenities (many clubs have showers) but they’re chronically busy.
The Plaza Premium First concept aims at offering an elevated and upscale experience while retaining Plaza Premium’s core value proposition: the clubs are open to all passengers, regardless of airline or class of service, for a fee. There’s no bargains to be had at Plaza Premium First: prices start around a hefty USD $110 for 3 hours, and membership cards are not accepted (but Priority Pass members may purchase access for a much more modest $25 USD fee—guests are extra.)
Plaza Premium First offers personal service and a-la-carte dining
Plaza Premium First aims at mimicking First Class Lounge service. Guests receive a tour of the lounge by an “Ambassador” who shows them around the space and amenities. Upon settling down, they receive a refreshing welcome tea mocktail, and are invited to sign up for a ten minute complimentary neck and shoulder massage.
Interiors build upon Plaza Premium’s signature design with natural materials, stylish furniture, wooden textures, and a soothing ambiance. Customers have their choice of high-backed seats with a power outlet within arm’s reach, dining booths and tables, and loungers. Small groups will find convivial living-room arrangements around coffee tables; while larger parties may reserve a private “Infinity Room” with seating for 20 or more guests and an array of customizable options.
Plaza Premium First offers a self-service buffet with a selection of snacks, salads, and desserts. The crown jewel of the concept is the complimentary full service a-la-carte restaurant, Primo, where guests may dine in serene surroundings and order from a generous menu of hot breakfast items and seasonal cooked-to-order entrees. The bar dubbed AeroBar features over 50 drinks with a focus on whiskeys in partnership with Pernod Ricard (including Glenlivet 25 years old, Aberlour A’bunadh, Longmorn 16 years old, and Scapa Glansa), a full range of cocktails, and barista-crafted Lavazza coffee and espresso.
Other amenities include shower suites with Elemis skincare products, Wi-Fi, and a selection of newspapers and magazines.
Plaza Premium First lands at Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong airports
Plaza Premium quietly unveiled its new concept at Kuala Lumpur airport a few months ago. The Plaza Premium First Lounge is located within the satellite terminal, near gates C21- C27, and is open 24 hours a day.
Several airlines have opted to offer Plaza Premium’s enhanced product for their business and first class passengers. The lounge welcomes Turkish Airlines Business Class passengers, and most Japan Airlines elite and premium customers.
The opening of the Plaza Premium First Lounge at Hong Kong airport, on the operator’s home turf, marks the brand’s 20th anniversary.
At Hong Kong airport, the new Plaza Premium First Lounge has taken over the space formerly occupied by the “classic” Plaza Premium Lounge, near gate 1. The original club has been relocated nearby, in a much smaller footprint.
Lavishly decorated, the Plaza Premium First Lounge is open 24 hours a day and spans over 8,770 square feet, offering ample space to work, relax or socialize. Highlights of the décor include a large forest mural, marble surfaces, and inspiring monochrome photography and motifs. However, the club is windowless—an unfortunate trait at an airport known for its expansive spaces and striking architecture, and where most lounges boast open-air mezzanines with panoramic views.
The a-la-carte selection includes Maine Lobster and Capellini served with aromatic lobster velouté, Traditional Marinated Goose with Marinated Egg served with steamed rice, and a vegetarian plant-based burger dubbed Beyond Meat Burger, served with sweet potato fries. Kids benefit from a special menu with staples such as mac and cheese and sweet potato fries.
With Plaza Premium First, the world’s #1 independent lounge operator goes upscale, and makes its foray into segmentation with a premium, more exclusive product that’s off-limits to pass and membership holders.
Is it good news? That’s a matter of perspective. Plaza Premium offers a new option with substantially enhanced service and privacy, at a relatively affordable price point for Priority Pass members. Some airlines will choose to use Plaza Premium First for their business and first class passengers, thus offering them a welcome upgrade over the more mainstream and crowded lounges.
That said, at Hong Kong airport, the classic Plaza Premium lounge has been relocated to a smaller space, and it may only be a matter of time before amenities are cut in order to encourage buy-ups to Plaza Premium First.
Then, there’s also the question of cost for pay-in customers. Overall, it’s difficult to justify USD $100 for a restaurant-style meal and a shower, when affordable alternative options abound. At Hong Kong airport, the Plaza Premium First Lounge lacks daylights, and the remodeled space lacks individual private rooms, which are typically a hallmark of Plaza Premium’s offering.
Finally, some perks such as the introductory tour, welcome drink, and 10-minute massage (subject to availability) are essentially token amenities.
It’s up to customers to choose the price of privacy. Plaza Premium’s move is very much in line with current business trends. There’s a new mantra in the aviation industry: if you want it, pay for it.
Photos courtesy of Plaza Premium