Some stores at Heathrow Airport pay "passenger ambassadors" commissions to bring in customers, with big-spending Chinese travelers favorite targets. Photo: Neil Hall, Reuters
Some stores at Heathrow Airport pay "passenger ambassadors" commissions to bring in customers, with big-spending Chinese travelers favorite targets. Photo: Neil Hall, Reuters

An investigative report by the United Kingdom’s Channel 4 revealed that some of Heathrow Airport’s 250 passenger ambassadors – service staff supposedly hired to help travelers – were trying to entice tourists to spend money at airport stores. Passenger ambassadors who were revealed to be earning commissions from promoting the stores’ special offers were found to pursue Chinese travelers often, as they had been identified as the most likely to spend big inside the airport.

The Channel 4 report, titled “Dispatches: Inside Britain’s Airports”, reported that the behavior of these passenger ambassadors could be considered unethical. By using hidden cameras and undercover reporters, reporters found that rather than helping passengers, the ambassadors were eager to nudge tourists toward shopping at the airport’s many stores and restaurants.

The Daily Mail, which also investigated, 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 said 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 was then recorded in a computer terminal. According to the report, Heathrow ambassadors have the target of generating up to £4,000 (US$4,960) in sales every day, with one ambassador claiming to have generated sales of as much as £10,000 in a single day.

Some airport ambassadors interviewed for the report also admitted to targeting Chinese tourists, since they were perceived as more likely to spend substantial amounts of money in the airport’s retail outlets. The report by the Daily Mail corroborated this claim and described one of Heathrow’s passenger ambassadors being seen “pursuing a man of Chinese appearance for 100 feet, 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 a position as airport ambassador , “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 airfares 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 saw the British pound plunge in value against the Chinese yuan.

With countless media reports of Chinese tourists “flocking” to the country for luxury shopping after the value of the pound dropped, it should perhaps not come as a surprise that sales promoters working on a commission basis target this particular customer segment. For airport retail, just like other sectors in the tourism and retail industries, Chinese travelers are a customer segment to be reckoned with – with initiatives that encourage them to spend potentially extremely lucrative.

This article was originally posted on Jing Travel.

Daniel Meesak

Excited about the prospects of a more interconnected world, Daniel is passionate about global travel and the opportunities it brings to brands and destinations throughout the world. Prior to joining Jing Daily, Daniel spent significant time in China conducting field research and later joined a consultancy firm focused on global Chinese travel. Coming from a finance background, he puts great emphasis on data and the business of travel.