In today's fast-paced business world, innovation is the key to success. Companies must constantly adapt and evolve to stay relevant and meet the changing needs of their customers. One remarkable example of innovation is the journey of developing online sales at Aéroports de Paris. Aéroports de Paris (ADP) operates airports in France, including Orly and Roissy. With millions of passengers passing through its airports. This project, led by entrepreneur Benaïssa Embarech, showcases the power of innovation in transforming traditional business models. This interview explore the challenges faced and the lessons learned during the development of online sales at ADP, and how Benaïssa Embarech embraced change, simplifyed complexity, and gained buy-in from stakeholders.
Please introduce yourself, Benaïssa Embarech, and briefly describe the company.
The AP group is a company that operates airports in France, including Orly, Roissy, and Le Bourget. They also have operations in many other airports worldwide. Their main focus is managing air traffic. In addition, they provide services to airlines and airport visitors, such as selling parking spaces and products in stores. This business generated almost five billion in turnover 2019. I work as the head of e-commerce and have been here for over ten years. My role is to develop online sales activities for various products. Initially, we focused on online parking sales, which is still our main online product. Over time, we expanded our services to include online bookings for flights, hotels, car rentals, luggage protection, and luggage storage. In the future, we plan to offer an even wider range of services for online booking.
In 2010, were you recruited to develop an online parking space sales activity?
In 2010, I was recruited to review a subsidiary that wanted to sell products online. However, online sales were not natural and lacked digital tools such as CRM and email campaigns. Initially, there was no online sales activity, but there was an informative website to help passengers with airport-related information. Our mission was to provide passengers with information and reduce their stress levels. We then started developing products for online sales due to increasing competition in the airport parking market. We needed to improve our features and the way we welcome passengers.
Are people now seeking alternatives instead of leaving their car during their trip?
Initially, we noticed a pricing issue with our airport parking spots. As competition increased, this issue became more noticeable. Our rates were relatively high compared to competitors, charging over 160 euros for a week of parking. However, we have since adjusted our offer to start from 75 euros when booking online. Despite competition, we still had a significant number of users utilizing our parking lots. Our visionary approach involved being cautious and countering the competition's moves with a unique offer.
Wasn't it not only about developing online sales, but also about creating a more personalized offer?
It's not just about developing, but evolving multiple aspects. The over 100 million passengers in 2019 are primarily airline customers. We usually don't have their contact information. When Franck comes to the airport, the airline that booked his flight has his contact details and communicates with him. He might visit our website to check his flight information. Despite the airline's emails, there's still a tendency to check the flight status at the airport. Developing CRM and customer accounts expands our client base. Online sales help us know our clients, anticipate their arrival, and provide useful information to reduce their stress. It's a comprehensive digital approach. We will focus on CRM and how we manage client contacts.
What did you start implementing upon arrival? What were your thoughts and did you set a clear goal?
First, we rationalize the customer database and start laying out a contact plan to speak to our customers. By gauging their reactions, we determine their interest in opening emails. We focus on targeting customers who are interested and avoid wasting efforts on those who aren't. Another aspect is setting up a system to qualify and track customer engagement. This includes determining when customers are likely to make purchases. As we initiate contact with customers, we also explore the idea of selling parking online, which is a new line of business for us. Despite the initial challenges, such as limited budgets and resources, we believe in the potential of this new activity. With the growth in air traffic, our turnover, and the number of passengers, it becomes essential to embark on this venture. We need to prove that it can work and ensure its success as it is vital for the group.
You start by checking the CRM and communicating with customers. This is where the idea of online sales originates.
The concept of online sales already existed, but there were objections. Selling parking online is complex due to technical challenges and the need for a significant investment. A technical framework with a reservation website, web services, and FTP deposits was established. The principle is that customers make a booking, payment, and receive a code to access the parking.
Initially, some parking lots lacked access codes, and certain barriers were not equipped for it. There are various tasks to be set up, including establishing customer service. Previously, there was no customer service; it was referred to as a complaint service, which is self-explanatory. Customers contacted us regarding their airport experiences for multiple reasons, not just limited to traffic jams or other issues. It involved handling customers who had made bookings and payments, requiring a completely different approach to customer relations. Therefore, it is more than just implementing a reservation process on a webpage, especially when dealing with two airports, one in the north and one in the south.
Do you need a system to manage availability?
Yes, we developed an internal reservation system. Our IT department played a crucial role in assisting us. However, nowadays, reservation systems are readily available in the market. It is important to note that this was more than ten years ago when we needed a parking reservation system specifically designed for an airport. We had to create one from scratch, considering all the operational aspects. These were complex issues, considering our limited resources.
To onboard the IT department, it was easy. They were interested in developing new activities, particularly in airport infrastructures and online reservations. However, introducing a new activity into an existing one presented challenges. Questions arose about the purpose and investment of this new endeavor. Additionally, competition from nearby parking lots offering cheaper rates and shuttle services posed a threat. Despite these challenges, we have advantages such as on-site parking, various parking options, and a premium parking area. Revising the rates was the main challenge, as we needed to significantly reduce them, potentially by fifty percent or more.
There was an entity managing the parking at Roissy and Orly airports at that time. However, their oversight of the parking activity was basic - customers would get a ticket and pay when they leave. This process had nothing to do with online sales. Then, we introduced our online sales model and offered to provide a new channel for the internal team. Back then, the business was still growing and people were still using our parking lots. However, we believed that fewer and fewer people would use them, especially for longer stays of five to eight days, which are typically for business trips.
Parking sales kept growing due to an increasing number of passengers. However, competition was emerging, making it less obvious that the business was declining.
It was predictable and presents a challenge to develop this type of business within companies. We often have a condescending perception of large corporations. We need to simplify things and make them accessible to everyone. In a company, people see us as a potential threat to their territory and way of working. We need to explain things more simply and with humility. Online sales are significant nowadays, but we still need to evangelize and explain why they are important. Introducing online sales requires setting up new systems, servers, and dealing with new types of customers. It's a lot of work and requires hands-on experience. We need to visit and understand the challenges faced by employees who assist passengers in parking lots. There's a lot of groundwork and constant challenges.
The parking lots, operational staff, stock managers, and others were worried about the changes. It wasn't so much the challenge itself, but the fact that it was a change. The main goal of the ADP group is operational excellence. It is important for everything to run smoothly, so any elements that could disrupt this are naturally a concern for our colleagues. We spent a lot of time promoting and advocating for the development of a new product, including accepting and creating new processes.
Were there key people who supported you in this, or did you have to convince each person individually?
In big companies, we often discuss the challenges of finding a sponsor. Having a sponsor is crucial and not something that happens naturally. I was fortunate to have the Director of Communication and Marketing as a sponsor, who supported the idea of a paid online booking service. Thanks to our sponsors over the years, we have expanded our offerings to include hotels, car rentals, and luggage protection. We have become a one-stop shop and will continue to develop new products in the future. It is clear to me that having a sponsor is essential.
It's fascinating to see how the offer, initially focused on parking sales, has expanded to include other things. Once you introduced the ability to digitize and sell the offer, you also expanded it to encompass other services.
The first years are tough. In the beginning, we only had a few parking spaces available for online sale. Despite having over two thousand spaces in some parking lots, we were only given forty to sell online. These limited spaces sometimes sold out in just two hours, leading us to request an additional forty spaces. However, this request sparked discussions about cannibalization and how selling parking spaces online at a lower price would impact our overall business. The subject of rates and prices became crucial as we worked with skilled financial managers from the ADP group. We needed to impress them and validate our plans. However, with only forty spaces, it was challenging to make projections or impress our financiers, especially when our annual revenue remained below three hundred thousand for the first few years. Parking spaces are limited in a lot with fifteen hundred spaces. Some people come to drop off Grandma Louisette for an hour and leave after having a coffee. Others stay for a day or two due to a business trip, or even three days. Additionally, some people go on vacation for a week. When the parking lot is full, it means that all fifteen hundred spaces are occupied. This can happen, and some of you may have already experienced a full parking lot. In such cases, the lot is filled with a mix of people who have booked in advance, those who stay for a week, and those who drop off for an hour.
Wasn't the parking occupancy rate already at its maximum or was there room for improvement?
This is a complex topic: car park occupancy rate. In a parking lot, if four people park for one hour in a 24-hour day, we can agree on that. Some parking lots are always full because they are used for drop-offs or pick-ups, while others are used by people going on trips. The occupancy rate is a nuanced concept due to different types of uses in the same parking lot. To address your point, online sales allowed us to implement dynamic pricing. We adjust the price based on factors such as parking lot occupancy, time period, and previous years' data. Last year was unique, but this approach allowed us to offer cheaper rates when demand was low and charge slightly more online during high demand. This reassured those concerned about undercutting the value by a large margin. It sometimes felt like I was always asking for discounts.
Did online sales increase parking revenue?
The subsequent years showed an increasing demand for online parking. We expanded the number of spaces available until we reached a point where we no longer limit online sales and provide stock according to demand. However, we still need to ensure parking spots for those who come to drop off, like your "grandma Louisette." We offer free short-term drop-off spots for ten minutes, but if someone needs assistance or has mobility issues, they require a parking spot. We are now open to selling spots online, but it took time to reach this point. We have lowered prices to become more competitive, especially for those who need to get to Roissy from the Parisian suburbs and want to avoid public transport or have an early flight. We are one of the most affordable and efficient options compared to private car services (VTCs).
TTo be clear, we don't have a monopoly. There are multiple options available for airport access today, such as taking the RER, using a private car service (VTC), or short-distance carpooling. Some people have even developed parking offers for those who want to park at the airport. Our position hasn't prevented others from offering services related to airport access. Taxis and other means of transportation have always been available to get to the airport. Competition is essential, especially when there are emerging businesses in the market. I believe in the benefits of increased competition. The competition has prompted us to initiate transformations with our teams.
Regarding these changes, how extensive will they be considering the transformations within the company? How does the current transformation compare to the initial state?
Changes are ongoing, not only in companies like airports or the AP group, but in all companies. Companies are complex and ever-changing entities. We won't brag about implementing new systems, as many companies would tell you that they weren't selling online five years ago. Some even neglected online sales just two years ago, and we all witnessed the surge in e-commerce last year. We're changing HR practices and profiles, dealing with different types of professionals that need to be integrated into a company that's not accustomed to such profiles. Thus, HR is evolving.
With new recruits, are any profiles becoming obsolete? Are there any layoffs?
From my perspective, no profile becomes obsolete, especially in activities within Paris airport. We are closely linked to airport operations, so there's always a need for someone who understands it. In our digital field, it's important to listen to the people inside the airport. They explain the daily processes and challenges faced by customers. One primary feeling at the airport is stress. Our services aim to reduce that stress, making things smoother and helping passengers feel less tense or lost. It's a complex discipline, so no profile is obsolete. New profiles should communicate with existing ones, recognizing their expertise. By combining the two, we can achieve something. Understanding parking availability is crucial. With our digital tools, we can anticipate arrivals, send confirmation emails, and provide GPS points. There's interaction between the operational side and the digital aspect. Operational feedback has influenced the development of the reservation system. For instance, adjustments have been made to our confirmation emails based on feedback like "people don't understand this part of your email." Even including instructions to "enter your code and press validate" can make a significant difference. Operational input is vital in addressing barriers and improving user experience.
It's important to acknowledge the relational challenges with internal services when developing a new digital activity. These challenges can stem from a lack of listening to frontline workers, who offer a different perspective.
You mentioned spending a lot of time in the field, which was beneficial.
Spending time on the field is important, especially when introducing a new activity to colleagues facing challenges. Approach them, discuss the new initiative, and understand how to refine it. Changes cannot happen all at once. Avoid a sudden digital revolution. Instead, proceed gently. While offering advice, approach with education and evangelization. Sometimes, assert that certain things are mandatory.
As a former entrepreneur, what have you experienced? What differences do you see? Do you have any frustrations?
There are frustrations when joining a big company. Initially, I expected rigidity, challenges, and numerous processes. However, I now appreciate these processes. Through the tendering procedures and bids for Paris Airport, I had to consult everyone, which led me to discover new service providers. This experience broadened my knowledge of the digital field beyond my existing network. Trade shows and professional gatherings for digital professionals have emerged in the past decade, creating opportunities to connect with individuals involved in CRM and other areas. Making changes in such an environment was indeed challenging due to the presence of many stakeholders. It wasn't solely due to our lack of teaching skills, but also because some individuals were resistant to change.
The resources have always been limited compared to the revenue generated. You might think, "They earn billions, so they can spare a couple of million for me." But that's not the reality. It's widely known that when starting a new activity in a successful company, you begin with a small budget and a limited team. In our case, when we started online sales, we had to handle almost everything internally. Some comments from within the company compared us to larger platforms like Amazon, but our resources and budgets were not comparable. We had to gradually develop and prove ourselves with a small budget and team. It took years for me to have someone working with me, and it was a solitary journey, similar to the loneliness entrepreneurs often experience. Your bosses are like your bankers, and you have nothing proven. Even if you have the best idea in the world, obtaining a bank loan is not easy. The same applies within a company. While they invest wisely, we may question their willingness to invest in the future. As Stéphane Seguin once said, "At some point, you can't stay in the harbor; you have to go out to sea." I fully agree with him on this. One of the greatest challenges is dealing with companies that want to test and prototype.
The problem with MVPs or similar concepts is that they require additional investment for deployment. We are dealing with two airports located far apart with different terrains, which makes deployment a costly endeavor. This poses a challenge in terms of allocating resources. Often, it becomes a chicken and egg situation: without a budget for deployment, there is no financial evidence to support the investment. So, why should we invest? However, when we consider the figures, a cycle emerges. The sponsor gets involved, presentations are given (sometimes reusing old ones with updated dates), and sometimes the project is approved or rejected due to changes in circumstances or the market. Perseverance is necessary. While some companies can develop things in six months and others in a year, it is not impossible. However, it can be complicated to evangelize and push too hard. It is always possible to engage in a different, less forceful manner. Based on my experience, I can say that being too forceful can backfire.
We started with less than a million euros, then reached higher milestones of one, two, five, ten, and twenty million. This demonstrates clear demand. Over time, we have also developed strong arguments due to our long presence in such companies.
So, the challenging part is not validating the figures at first, but implementing it company-wide?
I believe both are difficult. When you attempt to decrease prices initially, and again, without delving too deep into this, by making changes, you are encroaching on someone's domain. Throughout history, it has been ingrained in us to defend our territory. Rest assured, regardless of what we say, we are here to serve you and not focused on making a profit. The better we perform, the better you will do. However, we are entering another person's industry, and that is not easy. It requires extensive education, I believe.
Have your views changed since the beginning of this journey? What advice would you give yourself at the start?
After ten years, our perspectives on the project phases have evolved. Initially, we faced numerous challenges, but as the business grew, things changed. Looking back, the lack of teaching methods was always a challenge, and opinions varied on what some consider dynamism. If given the opportunity, I would approach things differently today. However, this experience has been invaluable in debunking my previous notions about this type of company. Despite the negative images and rumors surrounding big companies, I proved them wrong by lasting longer than expected. I learned that these perceptions were completely inaccurate. While we may face challenges beyond our control, simply bringing digital vibes or relying on a casual appearance may not be the right approach to revolutionize everything. This is just my viewpoint.
Are you referring to a balance between teaching and promoting?
To drive organizational change, it's necessary to be proactive. Politely waiting for opportunities won't suffice. Taking initiatives and occasionally bending the rules can be effective without causing problems for the company. Pushing the envelope is essential for making changes. So, if…
What advice would you give to an entrepreneur launching a new activity or digitizing?
I suggest starting by immersing yourself in the company to understand its processes. This will help you grasp the resistant nature of some processes and gain a deeper understanding of the business. Immersion is an important first step in truly understanding the company. When I started, I was fortunate to have a boss who knew the company well and taught me everything I needed to know. However, I didn't listen to everything he said, which I now regret. But overall, he provided me with a good understanding of the company. So, my first advice is to immerse yourself in the company. Additionally, although it may not be natural for me, I have learned that it is important to take your time and make changes to the company gradually. Moving slowly can be psychologically challenging, especially when colleagues and people in the market ask about progress. However, it is important to take your time and not rush, particularly in online sales.
So, be patient and manage your frustration. There is a lot of frustration. Of course, we could move faster. It is always tied to the size of the company. "What am I doing with this budget when I could be developing this?" or "I don't have the team; I could have the teams, I could have this, I could have that. I would change providers. I want, I want, I want, I want..." and we want a lot of things. You have to organize them... that's the second point.
What about perseverance?
In the real world, perseverance alone is not enough to complete a project. To finish a project, it is crucial to get the teams on board and ensure they understand what you're doing. You also need to be convinced of the project's importance to the company and demonstrate it clearly. For example, you can provide evidence like, "We sold forty parking spaces within an hour," or "Our promotional emails have a high open and click-through rate." This approach is effective because people want tangible proof, not just concepts. So, my third piece of advice is to present facts. While we may desire innovation and "wow" moments in the digital realm, focusing on tangible results will resonate better with those who deal with concrete matters every day.
Yes, you need an entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to convince others, like bankers and partners. Starting small is important, but it doesn't mean you should give up easily. Facing resistance is normal, and if you abandon every project due to disagreement, nothing will progress. Having an entrepreneurial mindset means taking ownership and doing what's necessary for the company you work for. It's about convincing them and overcoming challenges. Frustration can arise from not being able to do what seems obvious.
We rely on the rest of the organization. Our strength lies in leveraging a well-known brand and a highly visited website to achieve tens of millions of euros in parking sales. However, if we had launched a standalone parking service near Roissy airport, we would have faced challenges. Our powerful platform helps us promote, especially through digital means. It's important to understand that these big companies operate differently and offer unique opportunities. Within them, there are innovation services, such as the one at Paris airport, which explore and invest in the market. Working with digital and innovations, we see ourselves as a company that values and embraces innovation. It is worth noting that transformation is not an easy process.
In conclusion, did this project naturally extend to other services?
To summarize, we began with a customer database and expanded it as parking sales increased, providing us with more data. Our product has a high satisfaction rate, scoring over 4.6 out of 5. As a result, we expanded our offerings, including various services like luggage protection. By selling and promoting these services online, we can explain the additional features and insurance included. We also offer services to reduce stress related to luggage and partner with airlines, hotels, and car rentals. We have transformed into an online service store, with offerings such as flights, hotels, car rentals, luggage services, and tourism products. We are currently working on selling our products in other online stores, but that is a topic for another discussion.
I'm looking forward to it. Great, thank you!
This interview is an extract from the podcast OserDoser.com.
Watch the full interview here: