“The number one thing we offer our customers is the feeling of not being in an airport.” PS operates a VIP luxury terminal at LAX, with more airports coming soon. Their travelers enjoy high security, luxurious lounges and private suites, great food, and a ride across the tarmac directly to their first-class seats on their commercial flight. But in order to do that, PS needs to coordinate with 70 different airlines, TSA, customs, and all their service staff to make the experience completely seamless. And that takes the kind of precision that only custom software could manage. As CEO Amina Belouizdad Porter puts it: “We are a just-in-time business, and it takes a really complex orchestra to make it happen.”
Here’s Amina and Leigh on Crafted, Artium’s new podcast.
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Amina Belouizdad Porter: That was one of the biggest decisions we’ve ever made in our business. And at the time we agonized over it. But looking back, it was so obviously the right decision. And now to be able to have our own in-house development team, I can’t think of another business that we could have cobbled together software from.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Amina Belouizdad Porter, she’s the CEO of PS, a company that’s re-imagining the airport experience. In Los Angeles and at other cities coming soon, PS’s VIP customers go to a completely separate terminal that looks and feels more like a luxury hotel than an airport. Travelers are whisked through security, enjoy fine dining, entertainment, massages, maybe a nap, and then are chauffeured across tarmac to go up the stairs to their first class seats on their commercial flight. The company was born out of security concerns. Some of PS’s guests are very high profile and need protection, but it’s evolved to be more than just a safe way for VIPs to fly. It’s a just in time orchestra of logistics that requires incredible precision and that as Leigh Rodwick, PS’s VP of Technology and Analytics will tell us required building custom software and iterating on it.
Leigh Rodwick: But that’s the point. It’s never finished. We’re constantly iterating, we’re constantly moving, shifting priorities.
Dan Blumberg: On this episode of Crafted, Amina and Leigh tell us about PS’s evolution and why the decision to build custom software was so tough but so right. Also, how agile software development and a luxury product can be a tricky combination.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: Because as a luxury brand, you don’t get too many chances. You can’t be like we’re in beta, like that doesn’t fly.
Dan Blumberg: Welcome to Crafted, a show about great products and the people who make them. I’m your host, Dan Blumberg. I’m a product and engagement leader at Artium where my colleagues and I help companies build incredible products, recruit high performing teams, and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone.
I would love if you could walk us through what is the experience, what is the feeling that you want travelers to experience through PS?
Amina Belouizdad Porter: Sure. And I’m actually really glad you said the word feeling because the number one thing we offer is the feeling of not going to an airport. Yes, there’s amazing food. Yes, there’s amazing drinks. Yes, there’s beautifully designed spaces. Yes, we take care of you. But really the feeling of getting to your seat on that plane without feeling like you’ve macheted through a jungle, that’s what we offer. So from an experienced point of view, let’s say you’re flying from LA to London and you’re flying on British Airways or American Airlines. And you’re probably flying in seat 1A, that’s our customer. And you elect to come to PS as an add-on instead of going to the airport. So again, it’s a separate building. Think of it as like terminal X. It’s actually on the other side of the tarmac from the public terminals. And all of our future projects will be designed in the same way, but also we like bypassing the airport traffic altogether. We like being as far removed from that, the traffic, the mess, the jam that even comes with pulling up to an airport and going back to that feeling.
So you would pull up to our building, it’s a secure gate, there’s valet, we take your bags out of your car. If you have checked bags, we get them on the plane. Don’t worry about how. It’s very complicated. We just whisk them away. And we escort you to one of two experiences, either a private suite, which is exactly what it sounds like, which feels like a very luxurious suite, a hotel. There’s a private bathroom, there’s a day bed, there’s a TV, there’s a fully stocked pantry. You can hang out, you can watch a movie, you can read a book.
Experience number two is the salon, which is a lounge like experience. I hesitate to use lounge because that makes us think of airport lounges. It’s everything airport lounge is not. It’s not crowded, it’s beautiful, it’s centered around a bar. It feels more like a member’s club kind of vibe. And so whichever space you’ve elected to experience, you kind of hang out. You spend your time as you like it. So really we’re giving you that feeling and we’re giving you your time back. And then when it’s time to board, we escort you through our own TSA in our building. So this is a massive innovation, of course, to have TSA in a private terminal. Takes two seconds because it’s just you and we stagger it so there’s no bottlenecks. So it’s smooth, it’s just you.
And then once you’ve cleared through TSA, we escort you in a BMW across a tarmac and pull up to your plane because your plane being commercial flight is still at gate A32 or whatever. So we have to get you on it somehow. So we’ll do that. And that’s part of the magic, the driving across the airfield, that doesn’t get old. It’s pretty special. So we pull up to your plane and then you have sort of that private jet experience essentially. We walk you up the exterior jet bridge stairs and we drop you into 1A and there you go. You bypass the jungle. That’s a departure experience. We serve departures, we serve arrivals on every airline, every route, every destination, domestic, international, in and out of LAX.
Dan Blumberg: Yeah, I flew for the first time since before the pandemic. It had been a couple of years. And just the experience of being yelled at and stand here and stand there, and it brought back all sorts of not pleasant memories. So what you’ve just described sounds really lovely.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: I mean, we all know how we got here. 9/11 was an event that had to cause this, but in the US, we’ve over-indexed for security at airports, which I’m not saying that’s the wrong thing, it’s the right thing, but at the expense of hospitality, maybe dignity, maybe humanity. And to your point, you go through an American airport and yes, it’s safe and it should be, but it’s a stressful experience. And I contrast that to Changi Airport in Singapore, Heathrow in London, where I think their security is really high, but they still have that hospitality sensibility. I think we’ve lost a little bit of that in the US and so we’re trying to bring that back.
Dan Blumberg: PS was established by Gavin de Becker & Associates, a high-end security company that provides protection for some of the world’s most influential people. And in the early days, PS was more focused on security than the full customer experience. Leigh Rodwick explains.
Leigh Rodwick: That MVP was a suite, which was a white room with a couple of couches and essentially a green room, which many of our initial customers were used to, but was not optimized for the luxury experience. They were willing to say, okay, great, I’m safe. I’m in this room, I’m alone. But Amina really came in and leveled everything up about the experience. Her contribution and her insight on that luxury customer has revolutionized the original business. And this is a new business model. So that MVP was about nailing the operations. The rooms were there, the building was there, but how do you coordinate with 70 airlines? How do you coordinate with customs and TSA? And we’ve been open for 5 years, but it took 10 years before that to actually pass federal legislation to be able to have a private partnership with Homeland Security, Customs and Border Patrol, TSA, because we actually schedule their agents to come to our facility and service our customers. So the operations really was the foundation, and this is an experiential company. We are really selling those logistics so you don’t have to worry about it.
As regards to the technology, how do you book with us? How do you make a reservation? And you have to have already purchased your commercial airline ticket. And so when you’re coming in to make a reservation, you’re having to tell us, I’m flying on this airline this date, this time, here’s my record locator number, because we are doing all of that coordination with the airline to get you onto your flight.
Dan Blumberg: Turning the experience from secure and private to deeply luxurious was also about making it completely seamless. So PS needed the software to match.
Leigh Rodwick: The original technology was very much pieced together. The foundational piece of that was sort of a CRM platform. It was a Microsoft Dynamics that they had really customized essentially to create these “reservations.” So in order to elevate the luxury aspect of the digital experience, we really had to take a look at how do we replicate what they have, which is allowing the operations to continue, but elevate that digital experience as well.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: We knew that we couldn’t come into it with too many assumptions and that we had to, again, like any startup business, start with an MVP and keep layering on as we learned. It presents a new challenge because as a luxury brand, you don’t get too many chances because the bar is high for excellence and performance and perfection. And by definition the price point is quite high. You can’t be like we’re in beta, that doesn’t fly. So that was always the delicate dance for us.
Dan Blumberg: Why was it important for PS to become a tech company, to create custom software?
Amina Belouizdad Porter: And it’s funny because we’re a tech company, but we’re also other companies. We’re a service company, we’re a tech company, we’re an experience company, we’re a luxury company, we’re a hospitality company, we’re a logistics company. But certainly before Artium, we had zero tech. That wasn’t a word that we had in house, and Leigh really took that charge and that’s why she came on board. But the reason we needed to do that is because, first of all, because frankly, every company today should be a tech company. Let’s start there.
But the second thing is because there is so little room for error in what we do, we also have so many logistical stakeholders. It’s the customer, it’s how they feel, it’s their mood, it’s the food they want, it’s the flight. What time is it leaving? Is it delayed? Every movement, as we call it, is very logistically complex, and we knew that doing it on a whiteboard and Excel spreadsheet was just not going to cut it. Now I’m exaggerating, that’s not how we did it, but we needed to leverage technology. We needed to be able to leverage systems that were way smarter than just people working on their own. So that was a really clear vision. The decision of how we do that was a hard decision and that’s when Leigh came in and there was a lot of work behind that to decide how to do it. There was a lot of shades of how committed we wanted to be to developing [inaudible 00:11:34] and we decided to go all in.
Dan Blumberg: I’d love to learn more about where’d even begin. Which piece of the software did you start with that you had to take from the existing solution to something new and custom?
Leigh Rodwick: I really was brought in at a key moment in time, they’d been open about 18 months to say, all right, we’ve kind of got the operations going. We have some systems that are flowing information and we’re at this key decision point of evaluating other softwares that are going to be more scalable. They were actually very specifically speaking with a company based out of Austria that was a VIP airport service software that was helping to power an operation out of the Frankfurt Airport. The founders had been talking to them and it was like, we really need to make sure this is the right decision. I had about three months to learn the business operationally really, and look at the systems that they had currently and then go out and look for alternatives.
What I started with was, well, we’re kind of like a hotel, you’re making a reservation, you’re telling us I’m coming on this day. So I went and spoke to the Oracles and the big players behind most of the two or three big hotel reservation softwares, and a core functionality of their system is these are 24 hour blocks. They could not do hourly reservations. So then it’s like, wow, okay, do we go to, maybe we could white label something like Mindbody or some of these softwares that were coming out to help small businesses schedule massages or beauty appointments and that kind of thing. And that kind of avenue was sort of a dead end.
Dan Blumberg: Eventually Leigh spoke to another startup, a car service company called Savoy. They had an app to track their cars, made reservations and was easy to use. When Leigh met with their head of tech, he told her they’d build it themselves.
Leigh Rodwick: I basically went back to Amina and said, “I really feel that we should go this direction. I do not feel that we should hire a company based out of Vienna to handle this crucial, crucial part of the business that’s running the operations.” For me, it became very clear, very quickly that yes, the customer experience needs to be great, but that’s kind of just that UX UI layer on the website. It’s really about how do we get these people to the plane and make sure that we know everything that’s going on with these flights. So I started calling around the California, LA, San Francisco areas to look for developers, and I got a cold intro to Ross Hale and Henry Mueller,
Dan Blumberg: That’s Ross Hale and Henry Meller, two of the three co-founders of Artium.
Leigh Rodwick: Who had just put out their shingle at what they were calling Fractal at the time, which is now Artium. And we ended up being one of their first clients.
Dan Blumberg: As work began, Leigh and the team at PS learned more about agile software development.
Leigh Rodwick: I had a 30 page scope document of here’s all the things the system has to do. We’ve got to send reports to the airlines, we have to do this, do that, and they said, “Okay, great. Here’s the cost for 12 weeks of work. We’ll get something stood up by then.” 12 weeks, everyone else was quoting me 6 months to even get started. And there was some bumps in the road as we kind of neared the end of that 12 weeks and we realized, oh crap, this is not doing everything we needed it to do. But that’s the point, it’s never finished. We’re constantly iterating, we’re constantly moving, shifting priorities. Oh, we need to add this tweak. So we’ve learned so much and they helped me hire some incredible developers. And one of the things about their talent acquisition strategy is they know how to hire well-rounded tech people that can really contribute to the organization. They’re looking for personality fit too, and they certainly delivered on that.
Dan Blumberg: That’s awesome to hear. Did you want to add something Amina?
Amina Belouizdad Porter: Yeah, it’s funny. Looking back Leigh, I think that was one of the biggest decisions we’ve ever made in our business. And at the time we agonized over it because there was too big of a menu of options. But looking back, it was so obviously the right decision. And now to be able to have our own in-house development team that culturally is a fit not just for us, but for this agile company that we didn’t know we were, and for us to be kind of the masters of our own destiny and to control our own architecture because as she said, it’s still changes and it’s still evolving.
For example, to add complexity, we are adding a second location. And so now our whole system has to think about what happens if your flight from LA to Atlanta’s delayed. It’s just like 1 plus 1 equals 10 in our business in terms of value, but also in terms of complexity as we add more locations. And there’s no benchmark, there’s no comp. I can’t think of another business that we could have cobbled together software from really. We would’ve been now more deeply entrenched with tech debt in the wrong direction had we not made this decision.
Dan Blumberg: And it is a very important decision to choose what is the thing that is crucial and that we have to own from end to end.
Leigh Rodwick: And the stakes are just so high. Thinking about calling Oracle and saying, “Hey, we need this change to your platform.”
Dan Blumberg: Good luck.
Leigh Rodwick: Yeah. It immediately became clear that that was not really an option.
Dan Blumberg: How do you know that you’re getting it right? What are the kind of things that you measure, that you listen for to know that the experience is as top notch as you intended to be?
Leigh Rodwick: I want to be clear that when I think about the user experience, to me half of that is the employees or more than half. Okay, let’s even go 60, 70%. First of all, our customer often doesn’t make their own reservation. So they have a third party or assistant or someone else that’s doing that. As long as it’s relatively easy to enter the information, that UX is good. That’s a two minute experience. Then you receive a confirmation email. Done. All you do is show up. The PS experience is a physical experience. You’re coming here, you’re enjoying the luxury, you’re stress free, you’re getting on your plane.
So where I am always listening is to the employees, I think conceptually because the more confident they feel about the information that they’re getting from the system and how they interact with the system, the more they’re reflecting that to the customer. Where I get excited is about optimizing for the operations experience for the different departments. How can food and beverage more easily get orders, people’s food orders and have those teed up to exactly when they’re coming on site so we can fire the oven? How do we better integrate with car services so you can order a car service and have that done seamlessly? So I think it’s really about giving more visibility to some of those different departments of how they can better use the tech to optimize their silo.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: And what I’ll add is we are a just in time business, which is really, really hard. It takes a really complex orchestra to make it happen. As Leigh said, we have to serve you your food at the right time, not too late, not too early. We have to get your bags onto the plane. We have to make sure your car service is here, not here. We have to make sure your luggage is on the plane. We have to make sure TSA is available and clear for you, that there are other people in there. How do you know it’s working? We know it’s working when we don’t hear anything. It’s when things go wrong, that’s when you hear people and we don’t hear things that often. So I guess it’s going right.
Dan Blumberg: I think you’re being a little modest because you are hearing people recommend it to their friends.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: Totally. Absolutely. So if we’re getting to metrics, the frequency of use has skyrocketed. Word of mouth and new daily uniques has skyrocketed. But from a crediting in a software perspective, one of the biggest burdens on our business before pre having our own proprietary software was to sound simple, but was reservations by phone. It was just a heavy burden because number one, obviously it’s hard to scale that. You just have to hire more and more people on more and more phones as you grow. That’s not great. But really number two is prone to error. If you call and you spell your name with an M, and we heard N and we write that down, and it doesn’t match your passport, you’re not getting on the plane.
So one of our goals was to educate this extremely high touch customer who prefers to call, and whether it’s them or the person booking for them, who just by habit, that kind of traveler prefers the phone. They just do. To educate them to use the website was a massive hurdle. But our website bookings have at least doubled, I think almost tripled since before. And that makes the operation way more smooth, less prone to error, all that good stuff. And that that’s a huge win because then we get the information just in time, exactly how and when we need it, and creates more efficiencies all around.
Dan Blumberg: PS has a terminal in LA, they’re launching another in Atlanta this year, and more are in the works. But growing this business has unique challenges.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: It’s difficult for a few reasons. Dealing with the many stakeholders, Department of Homeland Security, and hence TSA and CBP is very complex and slow. But also educating port authorities, educating them as to the existence of our service. That’s number one. And then number two, the need for our service is just a long process. The more of these we open, the easier it’ll be to open more of these, because there’s more awareness and education. But also I think customers will start to demand it. Or if you’re flying from LA to New York, you’ll be like, why aren’t you in New York? And we have that. Our customers are amazing and they’re saying, how can I help you get to New York? So I think eventually people will vote with their feet and help us open those locations. So it’s really an education game.
Dan Blumberg: Well, congrats. Congrats on the upcoming launches, and thank you both so much for sharing the story with us.
Amina Belouizdad Porter: Thank you. Thanks so much, Dan.
Leigh Rodwick: Thanks, Dan.
Dan Blumberg: That’s Amina Belouizdad Porter and Leigh Rodwick, and this is Crafted from Artium. At Artium, we build incredible products, recruit high performing teams and help you achieve the culture of craft you need to build great software long after we’re gone. We artisans love partnering with creative people to build their visions of the future. If you’ve got a project you’d like to discuss, let’s talk. You can learn more about us at thisisartium.com and start a conversation at email@example.com. If you liked today’s episode and hey, you’ve made it this far, please subscribe and spread the word because listening to Crafted is also a uniquely sumptuous experience.
Leigh Rodwick: You’re coming here, you’re enjoying the luxury, you’re stress free.