Swiss International Airlines has established where the best journeys begin: offline.
On a chilly afternoon in Zürich a wealth manager called Heinz finds himself making a familiar stop. Ducking through a doorway on Bahnhofstrasse, one of the most expensive shopping streets in the world, the 60-something is greeted warmly and offered an espresso. “They all know me here,” he says at Swiss International Airlines’ newly designed ticket office.
A frequent business traveller, today Heinz is booking a trip to Cape Town via Munich; last week it was Frankfurt. Heinz finds booking online too complicated; Swiss’s staff do everything for him here. This way, he says with a smile, “I don’t have to ask my secretary to help me.”
Flying was once the ultimate luxury: the journey was more comfortable and there was a personal touch to buying a ticket. Booking online may be speedier but it’s as lacklustre as the weekly shop. Swiss maintains some of the last ticket offices of any major airline. Its sleek branch in Zürich Airport harks back to the golden age of travel. In Terminal One, impeccably dressed staff assist those jetting off on a whim or changing their flights last-minute. Back in town, customers can discuss travel plans with an espresso or a glass of champagne in hand.
“We put an emphasis on offering truly personal service and genuine Swiss hospitality,” says Markus Binkert, the airline’s chief commercial officer. This involves finding tailor-made solutions for requests that simply can’t be met online, from co-ordinating a complex journey to paying for tickets in cash.
Binkert recalls one customer who was emigrating to the US and wanted his old dog to travel with him in the cabin rather than in cargo. Swiss’s answer? Allowing him to book the whole of First Class.
Ticket offices offer something that you can’t buy: a sense of occasion. Booking tickets for a flight in person and from a person, rather than a computer, injects warmth and excitement to what can otherwise be an utterly bland process.
And while Swiss may be one of the only airlines embracing the ticket office, other industries recognise the charm of the tangible experience. Just ask Apple. By paying attention to how its shops make visitors feel – pushy sales staff out, beautiful products to play with in – Apple made its retail spaces among the most profitable in the world. Even Amazon, the archetype of online retail, recognises the value of the personal touch and is in the process of experimenting with physical shops.
Though ticket offices might seem like a relic in the rapidly changing world of air travel, there’s something savvy about Swiss’s set-up. Nothing says glamour, once the hallmark of the industry, more than a First Class service that starts well before you reach your boarding gate – or even know your destination.
Once a week students from several Calgary universities gather in a downtown skyscraper. Theirs is an unusual classroom: a vacant office on the 24th floor. This once-booming heart of Canada’s oil industry has a glut of such spaces thanks to an exceptionally tough economic slump that has left nearly 30 per cent of office space empty.
The students – of business, sociology and other disciplines – are troubleshooting. How do you breathe life into a downtown built primarily for one industry and convert empty offices into newly useful spaces?
The “civic innovation” course is part of Vivacity, a collaboration between universities and Calgary’s economic agency that aims to reanimate downtown and keep talent from leaving altogether. “Young people find it hard to see themselves downtown,” says class instructor Lena Soots from Mount Royal University. “They don’t necessarily identify with the area’s culture.”
Calgary’s core has long had a reputation for being all corporate glass and no warmth. In boom times that wasn’t a concern and politicians’ talk of economic diversification remained mostly that: talk. Vivacity is undertaking what local leaders should have done years ago.
It’s a predicament that might give pause to cities such as San Francisco, where developers are feverishly building new offices even as job creation slows. “We cannot keep going the way we have been,” says University of Calgary sociologist Jyoti Gondek. “We work differently than we used to so our spaces need to be designed for that.”
But there is an upside: a variety of voices are now shaping the future. At a recent Vivacity public forum, social scientists, students and an indigenous elder led the conversation, envisaging a downtown with more culture and connection. The vitality in the room was exactly what Calgary needs.