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[Herald Interview] Air France-KLM combines European touch with comfort of home

Dynamic Korean market is perfect for effective feedback, says general manager of leading global air transport player

Stefan Vanovermeir returned to South Korea this June as the new general manager for Air France-KLM in Korea, Japan and New Caledonia, 10 years after working in the country as Air France Korea’s commercial director.

Many things have changed over the past decade, Vanovermeir said, but one thing has stayed the same -- Korea is intensely competitive and is the perfect place to try out new strategies through customers who are vocal about what they want.

“Korean consumers are responsive, more demanding, more expressive with what they want,” Vanovermeir said in an interview with The Korea Herald. “It’s a good market to help companies improve and further develop services to customers, (and) meet customers’ demands.”

For example, Vanovermeir said, Air France-KLM is more adventurous in its marketing in Korea because it is easy to acquire feedback about what customers like. This month, Air France held an event called “Bonjour Paris,” in which 700 couples were invited to attend a lucky draw with their passports and luggage in hand. Two couples were chosen on-site to be whisked off to an expenses-paid three-night trip to Paris to experience French-style travel.

“We do not do these types of events everywhere, but we like to try them in Korea to see what works,” Vanovermeir said.

Stefan Vanovermeir, Air France-KLM's General Manager for Korea, Japan & New Caledonia (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)
Stefan Vanovermeir, Air France-KLM's General Manager for Korea, Japan & New Caledonia (Yoon Byung-chan/The Korea Herald)

Being attuned to what customers are looking for in an airline has become increasingly important in the face of increased competition. According to Vanovermeir, the annual number of Korean travelers traveling to Europe has doubled over the past decade from 1 million in 2006 to 2 million this year. At that same time, “capacity has multiplied by three, with new carriers coming in particularly from the Middle East.”

As a result, airlines have been striving to find their brand personality and specific characteristics that appeal to customers. Air France-KLM is known to provide a “European touch” on all of its flights. 

“We have found that on the outbound flight, customers want to feel like they are in Europe. So they appreciate our services like providing champagne to all of our passengers, regardless of their cabin class. But when they’re coming back to Korea, they want to feel like they are home the moment they board the flight,” Vanovermeir said. 

To create this atmosphere, all Air France-KLM flights have at least one crew member who speaks Korean along with Korean cuisine prepared by chef Kim Youn-young of Woonsan restaurant and the fine dining restaurant Samcheonggak.

Air France-KLM has taken steps to position itself in close proximity to its customers to pick up on these emerging demands. The first change was internal; in June, the company reshaped its organization here to have a Korean managing the Korean team. 

“I am convinced that the best people to have on the sales team are people who are living in this country, speaking the language, and having networks,” Vanovermeir said.

“We cannot just throw a global brand at the customers,” he added. “We have to have a specific way to speak to the customers. We are a global brand, but we need to be close to the local customers.”

Air France-KLM also began offering sales and customer support services via KakaoTalk, Korea’s largest instant messaging service.

“It’s good to be on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, but it’s also good to be on the local social networks. Digital is a huge opportunity for us to have more proximity to the customer.” Vanovermeir said, adding that Air France-KLM was looking at investments in these types of digital services as one of the airline’s priorities for 2017 and beyond. 

Vanovermeir is returning to Asia after working in revenue management at Air France-KLM’s headquarters, where his responsibilities included deciding pricing structures. He is acutely aware of the importance of finding the right price for travelers, but also sees the need for qualitative upgrades in in-flight service, particularly in business class.

“Since November, on Air France flights we have what is called the Triple-F: full flat, full aisle access, and full intimacy,” said Vanovermeir. 

Styled like a cocoon, the new business cabins include seats that fold down to fully flat beds with curved walls creating complete privacy for each passenger.

KLM also launched new seats for its World Business class, with flat beds. Vanovermeir said the flat seats were particularly useful for KLM because of its daily night flights, on which businessmen try to get some rest before heading to meetings in the morning in destinations like London and Amsterdam.

“Getting good rest is important to the customer, but also to the company because we sign deals with big companies in Korea, and we have a commitment to ensure that our customers deliver the best performance to their companies when they travel with us,” Vanovermeir said.

Vanovermeir emphasized Air France-KLM’s focus on customizing its products for individual passengers, for both corporate customers and individual travelers through a wide spectrum of ancillary products and specialized corporate contracts.

“If you can be good in Korea, you can be good in a lot of different countries. The level of expectations and the level of quality you have to deliver is very high,” he said. “I like to work here because we can take some things which do well in Korea and take them to other countries.” 

By Won Ho-jung (