As the UK's biggest single-site employer, Heathrow Airport is a huge organization, more like a city than a business premises. Its 76,000-strong team, including its own employees along with contractors, airline clients and retail store staff, serve up to 250,000 passengers each day.
With so many passengers and staff, a huge amount of work goes into delivering Heathrow’s operational capability, making sure bags arrive on time, aircraft take off in the correct slots, and the security line is moving swiftly.
Around four years ago, the airport took at look at where it was in terms of the technology implementation supporting all these elements, and compared that to where passengers were in terms of their digital expectations. Peter Burns, Director Marketing & Digital at Heathrow, recalls:
There was a big gap. The experience from a passenger's point of view certainly wasn't as connected and seamless as it is today.
The airport knew it couldn’t give its 80 million annual passengers an individual service physically, so that service has to be technology-enabled. Burns notes:
We realized we need this connected experience. But as a result of lots of legacy technology development over a number of years, we had the equivalent of 45 back-end systems and 14 different front-end websites. From a consumer's point of view, from a back-end and front-end point of view, it was like spaghetti. We really needed a single platform approach.
With that as the driving point, Heathrow looked at potential technology providers and decided on Salesforce, mainly for its innovation and its shared values.
Heathrow invested in various elements from Salesforce: Data, Service, Commerce and Marketing Clouds, and Salesforce Customer 360, bringing retail, parking, support services and customer communications all onto the same platform. The implementation work has been carried out over the last three to four years, working with partners like Capgemini, to connect everything together and create the base platform. Burns says:
We refer to it as our Ferrari. We've got the Ferrari now and our big challenge at the moment is how we make the most of it and how we drive it faster.
When Heathrow began the Salesforce project, the raft of legacy technology and different data silos was causing a disjointed experience. Heathrow has got a lot of very high quality, high volume data, and putting that into a central data lake rather than having it in separate systems, has given the business opportunities to better serve customers.
But there’s an ongoing data challenge for Heathrow and its integration partners around keeping up with technology updates and changing its operating model accordingly. Burns explains:
There's always an issue about prioritization. We don't have all the data we want in the data lake. We have to prioritize whether some data is worth putting in or not, because there's a cost. It's the same for the customer data platform. I won't say it was easy, but the harder part of it is the process and people.
The Salesforce platform has enabled Heathrow to act as a marketplace, bringing together retailers, passengers and airlines. A good example of this is around its retail offering. Across Heathrow’s four terminals, the number of retail stores is roughly the equivalent of both the UK’s Westfield shopping centers, with everything from chemist Boots to luxury retailers like Chanel and Burberry.
The organization has used Salesforce Commerce Cloud to create a marketplace similar in operation to an eBay or Uber, with retailers running the stores themselves but Heathrow curating the online storefront. Heathrow’s Retail Reserve & Collect service lets passengers put items from multiple stores in an online basket, collect and pay for them at the airport, and pick up just before boarding. Burns says:
It's been really exciting because traditionally, an airport wouldn't be a digital marketplace. Salesforce has enabled us to do that. That's a great opportunity where we've taken that connected capability in the physical space, migrated over to the digital space, and the technology has enabled us to do that.
Heathrow began the project with an ambition to dramatically reduce the 14 websites and 45 back-end systems it was running. It now has a centralized platform for heathrow.com, a parking platform, and the Heathrow Express rail service, along with various sub products that sit underneath those three core products. Burns says:
We are always going to have more than just one website, because we have multiple services. What we've done on the front end to a consumer, you would think of it as one website and one platform. The reality is, there are different elements of Salesforce technology and different elements of Heathrow technology sitting underneath.
Even with these different sites and sub-products, Heathrow now has a single 360-degree source of truth, thanks to the migration to Salesforce Data Cloud, which was a big project:
The big opportunity here is how we can then potentially work with our partners, like our airlines, to use each of our data sources to provide a better experience. We have our Heathrow data, our airline data, and we think there's an opportunity in how we could bring those together to provide an even better experience for customers.
Heathrow is making use of Salesforce Einstein chatbots, which deal with 4,000 queries each month, a number that is still growing. Burns sees potential for generative AI to offer further gains as it evolves. He adds:
The opportunity is how we keep up with the innovation, and focus on what the killer use cases are going to be for consumers. Thinking business and consumer use case first, not technology first, because we've got a reliable technology platform that sits in the background.
A recent addition to Heathrow’s tech platform is Salesforce Chat, letting customers speak to a live agent online. This is proving popular with customers, who can access live chat early morning through to the end of the night. Burns says:
We're taking the physical service and putting it into the digital service. There's more we could be doing. We're aiming for an end point where, with a combination of a centralized data platform and integrating other elements of our operational data, you would have an extremely personalized journey.
Burns shared his vision for how this personalization might work: a passenger would ask their Google or Alexa device what time to leave for the airport, and it knows where they live, what the traffic is like at a particular time of day, that they are a family and the best place to park. It could give real-time alerts of how the queues are looking, and when they have got through security it might book them a restaurant, offer a voucher for the Harry Potter shop because they have kids, and provide the gate number and a live walking map.
We’re doing elements of that, but there's some more work to do to connect that end-to-end experience. We've got the technical platform, we've got the data. There are just a few more bits of knitting we need to stick together to try and deliver the experience I’ve described, so you can focus on enjoying the journey rather than worrying about whether you’re going to get on the plane or not.