Mark Hardy (CEO TouchStar Technologies) discusses the recent history and future direction of the Group’s OnBoard Retail division      

1.       What has changed at TouchStar Onboard Retail and how has your approach evolved over your 30 year history?   2016 saw Novo IVC start the year with a new website and a new brand. Since the unveiling of our new brand identity “TouchStar OnBoard Retail” in January 2016, we have continued to develop our product suite to deliver pioneering and innovative on-board systems to our clients within the Airline and Rail industries.   We continue to align ourselves with the needs of our end users. In today’s price driven market, our end users face increasing challenges to drive down costs, increase ancillary revenues and increase customer satisfaction and loyalty. Delivering an efficient onboard service and exceptional customer satisfaction is key, however it is the ability to deliver a personalised service that now drives the all-important revenue opportunities. As such, our goal is not only to provide an onboard retail system, but a portfolio of optimised system components for our users to manage the on-board retail experience and management of passengers and flights.  

2.       Why have you decided to build your own back office?   At TouchStar, our goal is to provide our customers with the tools to access and manage data more efficiently. In doing so, crew are able to optimise their inflight operations, proactively responding to passenger queries as well as providing the all-important personalised service.   We developed the NovoStar back office to provide the all-important ground support to help Airlines to manage the logistics behind the operation and control and support the functionality of the POS. Whether an airline is looking to provide an onboard food and beverage service or simply add new products onto their duty free POS, the objective was to provide a familiar interface that can be deployed in a desktop or tablet environment.   By providing a single point of contact between the back office and POS, and the ability to customise the functionality of the POS using the back office, our NovoStar adaptors allow airlines to  integrate with core systems to optimise the data collation and reporting process for both pre and post flight operations without redevelopment of the POS.  

3.       Why have you decided to use the cloud and what benefits can these deliver to your end users?   As mentioned, our development is based around delivering optimised system components. When we first started looking at the use of Microsoft Azure, it was clear that the cloud offered a lot of potential to revolutionise on-board retail in the airline industry.   Despite the fact that for the most part, the system is offline – Azure provides an inherently flexible platform, incorporating system attributes that are of tangible benefit to the airline industry whether the system is offline, online or anywhere in between.   By use of the cloud, infrastructure can now be delivered at the click of a switch within single or multiple geographies. Cloud based systems offer the flexibility to match varying bandwidth requirements, automatically aligning itself to take account of seasonal fluctuations or organic growth.   One of the most significant advantages the cloud offers is reliability and cost. Compared to traditional systems, which are continuously consuming resource even when they are not in use, the optimised running of a cloud-based system only transfers updated files. Reliable transmission of data can be achieved even in instances where connectivity is intermittent or unreliable.   With most onboard retail systems requiring integration into other systems such as an airlines HR, ERP or Warehouse systems, cloud connectivity also means that all the traditional point to point connectivity problems disappear by use of secure VPN tunnels over the internet. These systems also provide a lot more resilience, by leveraging the Azure cloud automatic backups to multiple geographies can take place even with intermittent connectivity between the POS device and the internet.  

4.       What importance do you place on delivering a positive crew experience?   Crew team members are key in driving the strategy to increase on board revenue. It is essential that they have the tools and knowledge in place to optimise the service they deliver. Integrating optimised system components including electronic form applications and automated feedback mechanisms, NovoStar reduces paperwork significantly enhancing the crew experience. By reducing the amount of paperwork and administration, our goals is to make it as easy as possible for the crew to perform their jobs.  Most importantly, by delivering key sales target information (gameification) and key passenger information, crew are both motivated and able to allow time for more personalised face to face selling.  

5.       How are your systems helping airlines exceed the expectations of the modern day airline passenger?   Enhancing the passenger experience is at the heart of today’s airline operation. The modern passenger demands fast and reliable service. At TouchStar Onboard Retail, we recognise that by providing an optimised service, the crew can exceed these expectations by delivering a personalised experience. The ability to respond to queries quickly, react pro-actively to travel issues and provide personalised product offerings result in both a greater propensity to spend and passenger loyalty.       

6.       What impact has big data had on the airline industry and how can they capitalise on it?   The emergence of big data, low cost storage and advanced analytical tools means that our users can capture even greater value from such information, provided they know how to analyse and interpret it.  Although some leading airlines have gained a reputation for clever data handling, most airlines have not yet built the operational capabilities and internal processes necessary to take advantage of the information that is available to them.   Facing the challenges of personalisation means that learning how to master big data is important today and will become increasingly important over time. The best way for an airline to get started is to look at very specific areas that will fuel growth rather than trying to build a fully comprehensive solution. Each segment of data should be considered, but only in respect to the areas that will drive real value into the business.    Ultimately, big data needs to help people make practical decisions faster and more accurately: Should we promote a product for an extra week? Should we offer a two-for-one deal? Which promotions should we continue and which should we stop? Information needs to be made available to those that make the daily decisions in retail, if people in those roles can’t get the information quickly enough to act on it, they will ignore it.  

7.       Do you believe inflight Wi-Fi will bring more competitors to the market? The advent of inflight Wi-Fi is certainly attracting other players to the market, however, that will be short lived. There are some fundamental problems with airlines moving to an online retail model that re only just starting to be realised. With the functionality of Wi-Fi varying dramatically across the industry, reliable and consistent connectivity is key to moving to a fully online retail model and without this in place, Airlines are at risk of losing the all-important ancillary revenue opportunities. That said, Wi-Fi will open up opportunities for new retail channels such as IFE integration and BYOD.  

8.       What predictions do you have for the future use of OnBoard Retail Systems? I believe passenger, crew and airlines will be experiencing a lot of changes to their journeys in Passengers will benefit from a smoother transition between various legs of their trips. Airline employees will have new tools, equipment and technologies to learn and use on the job and airlines will be able to stake a claim in the fully mobile, internet-connected, customer-focused marketplace. Not only that, retailing will become finally become multi-channel will delivery available on outward or inward flight, or at destination. Underlying many of the changes will be airlines' greater adoption of Wi-Fi connectivity, together with the passengers' heavy reliance on mobile devices. Airlines will embrace new ways of identifying, selling to, serving, communicating with and transacting with their passengers. With flight attendants and crew members increasingly relying on mobile technologies, devices and new payment methods, onboard systems will be fundamental in supporting these changes to make sure retail is seamless, fast, efficient and more personal than ever before.