Plaza Premium Group’s Bora Isbulan talks Middle East expansion and post-Covid rebound

An immersive local experience that caters to passengers across categories makes the group’s lounges a preferred destination across airports
Plaza Premium Group’s Bora Isbulan talks Middle East expansion and post-Covid rebound
Bora Isbulan, Deputy CEO of Plaza Premium Group

Bora Isbulan, Deputy CEO of Plaza Premium Group, speaks to Economy Middle East about the idea that sparked the establishment of the company, reasons for choosing Saudi Arabia as a regional base, and the company’s response to a post-Covid recovery in passenger travel.

How did the idea of having a business model nestled completely inside an airport, meant specifically for travelers, come about?

Under the visionary leadership of our founder and CEO, Mr. Song Hoi-See, Plaza Premium Group was established 25 years ago to address a significant gap in the aviation industry. As a former banking executive who frequently traveled, Mr. Song understood the stark divide in airport services, where only about 15 percent of passengers — those flying first or business class — had access to exclusive lounge comforts. This insight led him to launch the world’s first independent lounge brand, Plaza Premium Lounge. What began in Hong Kong and Kuala Lumpur has now flourished into the globe’s most extensive independent lounge network, with over 250 locations across 80 airports in 30 countries. Our pioneering model has not only democratized airport lounge access but also set a new standard in universal travel comfort, aligning with our commitment to enhancing the airport experience for every traveler, regardless of their ticket class.

Tell us more about your expansion into the Middle East with a new strategic regional office. Why did you choose Saudi Arabia to set up a regional base?

Our $300 million investment earmarks a significant commitment to global expansion over the next three years, with $100 million specifically allocated for enhancing our footprint in the Middle East, including establishing a strategic regional office in Saudi Arabia.

  • Strong commitment to the Middle East market: Since entering the region in 2014, Plaza Premium Group has developed a robust network, currently operating 15 locations across eight international airports in the region, reflecting our sustained commitment.
  • Supporting Saudi Vision 2030: Aligning with Saudi Arabia’s Vision 2030, our strategic office supports the Kingdom’s ambitious goals. Saudi Arabia, having achieved its tourism target of 100 million visitors seven years ago, now aims to attract 150 million visitors annually by 2030. The country is set to invest over $100 billion to establish itself as a global aviation hub, with plans to triple passenger traffic and increase connectivity to over 250 destinations worldwide. This includes a substantial $50 billion investment in airport development, showcasing the massive potential for growth and our role in it.
  • Promising future with exciting developments: The region is poised for remarkable developments, such as NEOM, and the launch of new entities such as Riyadh Air and King Salman International Airport. These advancements present significant opportunities for PPG to enhance airport hospitality.
  • Facilitating connectivity: Our strategic positioning in Saudi Arabia not only enhances connectivity within the Middle East but also bridges the region with the global market. Our expertise in delivering exceptional airport experiences positions us ideally to support and benefit from the Middle East’s transformation into a premier aviation hub.
A lounge operated by the Plaza Premium Group
A lounge operated by the Plaza Premium Group

Air passenger traffic has rebounded after Covid and airlines are on an expansion spree, adding aircraft to their fleet and expanding routes. What kind of expansion has your company done as the skies opened up once again?

As air passenger traffic surged post-COVID, Plaza Premium Group proactively prepared for the recovery phase, strategically transitioning into a comprehensive 360-degree airport hospitality services company. Rather than retreating, we capitalised on the opportunity to expand our offerings and footprint significantly. From 2019 to the present, our portfolio — including airport lounges, dining outlets, transit hotels, and other passenger services — has seen a notable organic growth of 35.3 percent, expanding from 180 locations in 45 airports across 22 countries in 2019 to over 250 locations in more than 80 airports across 30+ countries today.

  • Entered new markets such as Jordan and Japan, planning further entries with specifics to be announced.
  • Strengthened presence in strategic EMEA markets, collaborating with Abu Dhabi Airports for new services and launching Plaza Premium Lounges in Amman, Jordan, and Nairobi, Kenya.
  • Investment in technology: Over $10 million invested in innovations like Smart Traveller, a global digital travel membership program that enhances the travel experience through personalised services and rewards, and OneTECO, which enhances digital integration and customer experience into a single platform, streamlining processes and enhancing efficiency across all PPG locations.

Which markets look most lucrative to you in the near future?

In the near future, several markets appear particularly promising for Plaza Premium Group, each offering unique growth opportunities. Firstly, as previously mentioned in our discussion about our expansion into Saudi Arabia, the Middle East continues to be a focal point. This region is underpinned by dynamic developments and governmental initiatives like Saudi Vision 2030 that dramatically boost travel and tourism infrastructure.

Additionally, China and Southeast Asia are regions where we see significant potential. In China, the rapid expansion of both domestic and international air travel, coupled with substantial investments in airport infrastructure, positions it as a key market for our growth. In Southeast Asia, the resurgence of tourism and increasing air connectivity between its countries provide fertile ground for expanding our services. These markets are characterised by their robust economic growth and increasing demand for enhanced travel experiences, aligning perfectly with our expertise in airport hospitality.

Another view of a Plaza Premium Group lounge
Another view of a Plaza Premium Group lounge

How can businesses such as yours enhance offerings for passengers, knowing fully well that you only have a few hours to woo them before they hop onto a plane?

At Plaza Premium Group, our goal is to maximise the limited time we have to engage passengers before their flights by offering enhanced, memorable experiences. We’ve introduced several initiatives aimed at creating authentic, personalised experiences that resonate with today’s travelers.

  • Proudly local experience: We recently launched this program at Plaza Premium Lounges in locations such as Dubai, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Rome, Nagoya, and Adelaide. It immerses travelers in the local culture through art, food, and curated award-winning hospitality experiences, transforming waiting time into a cultural exploration. This will be expanded globally.
  • Art and lounge program: Our lounges double as galleries showcasing local art. In cities like Dubai, London, and Kuala Lumpur, travelers can enjoy unique art pieces from local artists, enriching their lounge experience.
  • Tailored offerings for varied traveler needs: Recognising that travelers have diverse preferences and travel triggers for their journeys, we cater to them with specific amenities. Business travelers can find well-equipped workstations, families can use dedicated kids’ play zones, and leisure travelers can relax at in-lounge bars, all designed to provide a personalized experience.
  • Value creation through comprehensive services: We are committed to enhancing every aspect of the travel experience. Our 360-degree airport hospitality services include comfortable airport hotels in major transit hubs like Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Singapore, efficient meet-and-greet services to streamline departures and arrivals, and a variety of dining options to ensure a delightful culinary experience.

Are you also working closely with airlines and travel agencies to enhance their airport hospitality portfolios?

Yes, Plaza Premium Group collaborates closely with both airlines and travel agencies to enhance their airport hospitality offerings. We manage lounge services for major airlines such as Cathay Pacific and Air France, and financial institutions like AMEX, Visa and Capital One. Our services encompass the design, development, and operation of lounges tailored to our customers’ needs. Additionally, travel agencies rely on us to manage the complete airport experience for their clients, including access to our lounges and meet-and-greet services. This collaboration ensures a seamless and enriched travel experience, elevating the offerings of our partners in the travel industry.

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