Heathrow - Back and booming. An interview with Fraser Brown, Retail Director at Heathrow Airport


Fraser Brown, retail director at Heathrow Airport, shares his thoughts on recovery, the importance of putting the customer first, the perfect concession partnership and the bright future ahead for Europe’s busiest airport.

What does recovery look like at London Heathrow?

Passenger recovery has definitely been something of a roller coaster, but we had a record breaking start to this year, welcoming 18.5 million passengers in the first three months of 2024. I’m proud to claim to be ‘the most recovered’ airport in the world, as well as back to being the world’s ‘best connected’ airport.

It’s great to see good engagement across our retail and F&B offer. The speed of recovery put real logistical and operational pressure on our concession partners, and we really appreciate how quickly they rehired and met demand in new levels of intensity.

From the retail perspective, the resistance from the government to reinstate VAT-free shopping has put a real drag on the performance of luxury and beauty. However, in F&B we’ve seen a full recovery in sales. Factors such as continued uncertainty about what airlines are serving on flights and the continuation of the trend to come early to the airport are among the reasons that passengers are heading to our bars and restaurants. Passengers’ objectives for travel have also changed, and with more people travelling for leisure with friends and family rather than on business, they are more likely to want to spend time enjoying themselves at the airport. They’re also less likely to have access to a lounge and therefore more inclined to eat elsewhere at the terminal.

Since the pandemic, the Heathrow team has put a lot of effort into refreshing the F&B mix. As we’ve been building back, we’ve taken some risks, and some things have worked well while others have been less successful and have been replaced. We’re now delivering a great passenger experience and our offer is strong.

You often talk about ‘putting the customer at the heart of what you do’. How do you achieve this?

It begins with looking closely at the demographics at each of our terminals and asking real passengers in real time what they think of the experience from beginning to end. Once we know who is in the terminal and the volume of passengers, we look at how we plan the space. With SSP, we’re currently working on the launch of a British wine bar concept for T2, and we’re also introducing what I’d describe as an ‘elevated’ Starbucks coffee shop with a view to stimulating footfall and complementing the luxury retail offer currently being fitted in the area.

What role do your concession partners play in helping you to achieve your ambitions?

Our concession partners are the face of our customer experience and so we as an airport can only deliver great service if they also deliver great service. They contribute considerably to our non-aeronautical revenues, and therefore it’s important for us to make commercial arrangements with our concessionaires that benefit all stakeholders as well as passengers.

What lies ahead for Heathrow?

Clearly the global geopolitical situation is a cause for concern, and inflationary pressures are definitely impacting our customers. We can’t take it for granted that passengers have unlimited money to spend, and we need to be careful with where we invest to get the right balance of offers to appeal to customers who want a high-quality experience but are mindful of their budget.

But there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic. There’s a great atmosphere across our terminals, and the airport has real energy. Footfall is high, so there’s no shortage of potential customers for us to engage. People want to spend on ‘experiences’ not ‘things’, and travel is an experience that is often prioritised. 

Looking beyond Heathrow, we’re fortunate to be based in a great city that is probably the largest aviation market in the world, and the long-term prospects for the global aviation market are also definitely good. There’s much to look forward to.