An investigative report by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 revealed that Heathrow Airport’s 250 passenger ambassadors—service staff helping travelers at the airport—are actively trying to entice tourists to spend money at airport stores. Passenger ambassadors, who were revealed to earn commission from promoting airport stores’ special offers, were found to often actively pursue Chinese travelers as they are identified as the most likely customer segment to spend big inside the airport.
The Channel 4 report, titled Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Airports, unveils that Heathrow Airport’s passenger ambassadors are responsible for what can be considered unethical behavior. By using hidden cameras and undercover reporters, reporters found that, rather than helping passengers, Heathrow’s passenger ambassadors were eager to nudge tourists toward shopping at the airport’s many stores and restaurants. The Daily Mail, which also sent reporters to the airport to investigate, had one if its reporters ask a passenger ambassador for help to find her gate, only to find the ambassador ignoring the question and instead recommending where to find the “best shops and restaurants.”
In a segment of the Channel 4 report, one of Heathrow’s passenger ambassadors described that after successfully encouraging a traveler to spend money at one of the stores, store clerks would provide information on the amount spent by the traveler, which is then recorded in a terminal. According to the report, Heathrow ambassadors have the target of generating up to 4,000 GBP (US$4,960) in sales every day, with one ambassador claiming to have generated sales for as much as 10,000 GBP (US$12,403) in a single day.
Some airport ambassadors interviewed for the report also admitted to actively targeting Chinese tourists, since they’re perceived as more likely to spend substantial amounts of money in the airport’s retail outlets. The report by the Daily Mail further corroborates this claim and describes one of Heathrow’s passenger ambassadors seen “pursuing a man of Chinese appearance for 100ft, while a couple was forced to ignore another ambassador as she skipped beside them gesticulating outside the Cartier store.”
According to the job description that an undercover reporter received when applying for the job, “the majority of the role will involve interacting with passengers, persuading them to shop if they had not planned to, or encouraging them to spend more by talking to them about offers and promotions.” In contrast, a spokesperson for Heathrow airport described the practice as follows: “We provide fantastic restaurants and stores in order to offset the cost of running the airport, which keeps the cost of air fares down. Passenger ambassadors are an important part of our business, and we expect the team to put the needs of passengers first.”
While some experts interviewed for the investigative piece questioned how ethical it is to use employees who are described as there to help travelers for promotional services, none questioned the legality of the practice.
In the United Kingdom, the growing number of Chinese travelers that the country receives is perceived as a crucial engine for growth in the retail sector, particularly after the Brexit referendum which saw the British pound plunge in value against the Chinese yuan. With countless media reports describing Chinese tourists as “flocking” the country for luxury shopping as the value of the pound dropped, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that sales promoters working on a commission basis actively target this particular customer segment. For airport retail, just like other sectors in the tourism and retail industries, Chinese travelers is a customer segment to be reckoned with—with initiatives that encourage further spending among Chinese travelers potentially extremely lucrative.