AVB: Could you start by sharing some insights to the size and scope of your UAE catering operation?
Mark Whelan: At Sharjah International Airport we’ve grown from a small catering operation producing 7,000 meals per day 4 years ago to now catering 18,000 meals per day on average. We now cater to 26 airlines departing Sharjah. With that growth we’ve now got a team of 450 people and expanded to operate nine restaurants and cafes and Sharjah’s business class lounge.
AVB: Are there any stats or figures you can share highlighting the division’s performance over the last year?
MW: In the UAE, our catering business had a strong year through improved performance with our core airline customers, particularly in the inflight retail space, the opening of our refurbished airport lounge and expanding into new lines of business. We now cater Dubai’s leading desert safari provider seven nights a week – providing an authentic desert experience to visitors to the UAE.
AVB: How have you expanded your facilities to match increased market demand? Have you introduced any specialised stations for unique cuisines?
MW: We’ve invested in technology, unlocking new lines of business and in our people to successfully meet increased demand. We’re still very much a people business so delivering quality engagement initiatives, reward and recognition and investing in staff facilities is important. Those investments transfer directly to productivity gains and a happier workforce. That’s where we’ve seen most reward and value – ensuring Alpha is a great place to work.
AVB: What changes in demand are you seeing from airlines in terms of the inflight catering meals? Are there any discernible trends?
MW: In inflight retail, technology continues to be a key lever for success. Driving sales before passengers reach the airport and making it easy for them to purchase is key. Passengers benefit and so do airlines, by being able to predict product required and therefore reduce wastage and weight on board.
Pleasingly, quality and creativity is getting a lot of attention too and we like that. Our chefs add immense value when they can be creative and bring their experiences from around the world to the table.
AVB: Can you share any details on your professional development programmes?
MW: With a diverse business like ours we have development programmes that touch a lot of areas. Our F&B teams go through our ‘Selling made easy’ programme and customer service training every month and we reward them for strong performance. Our ‘Master Leadership’ programme for all supervisors and team leaders is bringing our future leaders up and opening opportunities for them across our business and the wider group.
We’ve also developed a full crew training, engagement and incentive programme which we deliver for our airline customers – driving improvement within their teams and ultimately improving the experience on board for passengers.
AVB: What is dnata’s approach towards sustainability? Is the company looking at recyclable containers and utensils?
MW: Across dnata we’re improving what we do in our facilities and, equally as important, how and what we provide to our customers.
Globally, we’re working with a number of international airlines to trial zero-waste flights, reduce waste sent to landfill and to move to more environmentally products and packaging. We’re investing heavily in equipment at our units, like bio-digesters, to reduce our waste output. In addition, our product design and development team is moving to biodegradable, compostable, or recycled/recyclable materials by 2020 for the bulk of its products which will be of great value to customers.
AVB: How do you expect your catering operations will change over the coming years?
MW: We’ll be investing heavily to support expected visitor growth in Sharjah and the expansion of Sharjah airport. We see opportunity to provide more great hospitality experiences in the airport, enhancing our lounge and restaurant offer in the airport. Our event and outdoor catering business continues to perform well and we feel we can grow further here.