Managing JFK Lounge: An Interview with Audrey Balaba
During my stay in New York for the takeover of the Lufthansa lounge service at JFK airport, I was working closely together with my colleague Audrey Balaba, who is our new team leader there. We were talking about her tasks and what makes a great lounge experience. I thought it would be interesting for you to post some of our dialogue.
What is so fascinating about the “lounge” business?
From the passenger’s perspective, having lounge access is about crossing an invisible line un-crossable by others, on the other side of which lies many complimentary items and services exclusively set aside for them. From the viewpoint of a Lounge Team’s Leader, I love when my team cohesively provides service so outstanding that every guest leaves with the pleasant feeling akin to having been just been hosted in a warm home.
Can you explain a bit more about the lounge in JFK? For example, how many people visit on average per day (or week/month/year)? What airlines are served from the lounge? What services are provided?
I would say the JFK lounge is one of the important lounges for Lufthansa outside of Germany because of the political and cultural importance of New York City to the world. This role places a spotlight on JFK Airport and, in turn, the Lufthansa Lounge. At JFK, our lounge has 3 levels that separate the 3 travel classes; the Business Class area can hold up to 300 guests, 150 in Senator Class and First Class can host 40 guests. As a member of the Star Alliance, we not only host Lufthansa passengers, but also those for Turkish, Air China, Brussels, Austrian and Polish Airlines.
For us, the day starts with Business serving a Turkish Breakfast from 10am. Senator Class opens from noon with a transition to lunch offerings in both Business and Senator Classes. Then, at 2pm, First Class opens serving an à la carte menu long into the evening. The standard for each meal closely mirrors the long established quality of Frankfurt’s Lounge.
What is the biggest challenge that LSG typically faces with a lounge “take over” like the one at JFK?
Staffing has been the biggest challenge. Finding the right people is not easy when you have such high expectations. Once you have found ‘the right people’ a lot of work goes into transforming them into ‘the right team’, and this involves changing not just their knowledge of food and service, but how they approach their jobs. Once they can anticipate their guests expectations walking into the lounge and move fluidly with their colleagues to support all areas of the lounge simultaneously, they have become ‘the best team’. To lead a team of that caliber is an honor for any Manager.
What’s your personal favorite dish that will be served at the JFK lounge?
My favorite is the 72-Hour Braised Short Rib on Creamy Potato Mash. The extended cooking period of the meat ensures a wonderful tenderness and juiciness that pairs perfectly with the potato mash. Just viewing this dish is such a sight as to make a full person hungry again!
How does the lounge supply chain work? Are the raw materials delivered to the airport and cooked on site?
Most of our lounges are supplied by a main LSG Sky Chefs facility. It’s there that most of the food is prepared, precooked and delivered daily to the lounge alongside all other lounge supplies. However, how you incorporate basic raw materials alongside the prepared items can allow the chefs to take presentation and quality to a higher level. This is a treat which we bring to a forte in our First Class lounge with a dedicated First Class chef devoting all his attentions to preparing the freshest meals possible.
Thinking back to all of the lounges you have visited in your travels, in your opinion, what is one thing that separates a good lounge experience from a less-than-desirable lounge experience?
Quality. It applies to every aspect of the lounge from amenities offered, such as shower rooms, to the food selection; it even goes as far as the knowledge and personality of the lounge staff. If even one of these aspects is of a quality below the passengers’ expectations when walking into the lounge, then wherever they travel or with whomever they speak with that quality failure will be our legacy. That’s a legacy I refuse.
What are you looking for when entering a lounge? What’s important for you?