Changes Are Coming To Airport Starbucks Locations

Filed Under: Travel

While Starbucks most definitely doesn’t have my favorite coffee, I do appreciate them when traveling. They’re consistent, and a cold brew or iced americano does the trick for me just about anywhere in the world.

Starbucks’ airport locations are always a mixed bag, though it looks like we’re about to see some changes when it comes to the experience they offer.

Starbucks & HMSHost end exclusive agreement

US airport Starbucks locations aren’t run directly by Starbucks, but rather are in partnership with HMSHost, which is essentially an airport dining and retail company. This is because of the added complexity of operating out of airports, including being able to find space to rent. It’s just easier to work with the expert in the field.

Since 1991, Starbucks and HMSHost have had an exclusive agreement:

  • All US airport Starbucks locations have been run by HMSHost
  • HMSHost hasn’t been allowed to work with any other coffee brands

Going forward, Starbucks and HMSHost will no longer have an exclusive agreement. Some Starbucks airport locations will still be run by HMSHost, but Starbucks can also work with other brands.

As HMSHost describes this move:

“On Monday, HMSHost informed Starbucks of the plan to move away from exclusivity in an effort to broaden our portfolio of coffee brands based on what consumers and airport partners are demanding. HMSHost will continue to be a Starbucks partner and look forward to our new relationship as we serve our travellers.”

On the surface this is a positive development, as I’m happy to hear that HMSHost plans to work with more local coffee brands at airport locations.

Starbucks & OTG promise innovation with new partnership

Just shortly after it was announced that Starbucks & HMSHost are ending their exclusive agreement, it has been announced that Starbucks & OTG are launching a new partnership, though it won’t be exclusive.

OTG is probably the most premium company when it comes to airport dining concepts. They’re only at a limited number of airports, including the three NYC-area airports, Houston, Toronto, etc.

You may recognize their locations based on them having tablets at many of the tables in gate areas so that you can sit and order directly through them, which is pretty cool.

OTG gate area in Toronto

Now Starbucks & OTG are promising to introduce both traditional and experiential airport locations, while adding new technology to serve customers anywhere in the airport.

Per a joint statement from the two companies:

“Locations will be thoughtfully placed and move throughout the airport depending on time of day, providing travellers a Starbucks experience at their gate upon departure or arrival.

With a shared emphasis on providing a quality customer experience, this new partnership with OTG looks to usher in a new dynamic approach to how travellers get their Starbucks in the airport environment.

This collaboration will allow us to introduce a fully re-imagined Starbucks customer experience, ensuring guests access to their preferred cup anywhere in the airport.”

One example they give is the possibility of pop-up stores in airports that could move depending on the day and where gate arrivals and departures are taking place.

How about we just get mobile ordering?

The description of what Starbucks and OTG want to do of course sounds great, though in my opinion this is the same problem so many companies have — they’re promising the moon rather than making obvious improvements that create a consistent experience.

Starbucks lines at airports are consistently outrageously long, so you’d think these would be prime locations for mobile ordering. Yet many (most?) airport locations don’t allow mobile ordering.

There literally aren’t locations more in need of mobile ordering than airports.

Starbucks’ long term plan is to somehow give you access to their coffee anywhere in an airport, yet in 2020 they can’t even consistently offer mobile ordering, so that you don’t have to wait 20 minutes for your coffee? I’m skeptical…

Let me just note that I of course get the challenges associated with these locations, the licensing, etc. But as consumers that seems like a reasonable expectation for us to have, and they should find a way to deliver on that, no?

Bottom line

Starbucks and HMSHost will no longer have an exclusive agreement for US airport locations, and by all accounts that’s good news. HMSHost can introduce more local coffee options at airports (yay), and Starbucks seems to be exploring some innovations for airport locations.

In the meantime, could we please just consistently see mobile ordering at airport locations already?

What would you like to see change at Starbucks airport locations?

  1. OTG is the worst! Their restaurants are meh and overpriced. The worst part is the tablets which make ordering food so much more cumbersome. Their tablets are also not cleaned regularly, and I always wash my hands after using one.

  2. They were getting railed on by Jim Cramer recently to break up the HMS monopoly that has poorly trained and staffed Starbucks inside airports. Looks like the attention to detail was noticed and they broke that monopoly.

  3. “I do appreciate them when traveling. They’re consistent”

    Also good for manufactured spending 😀

  4. Starbucks could be better served by locations in airports that do not take in-person orders; rather they only accept and provide at a window/counter mobile orders. This minimizes costly airport sqf/sqm for queueing while simultaneously lowering branding/advertising costs associated with having an actual storefront. For the customer experience, simply make that location named “Gate 42” or something equally recognizable in an airport and available via the Starbucks app. No queues, minimal waiting, ultimate cost savings across the board. Maintain one or two storefronts for those folks that don’t already know what they want and prefer to have face-to-face interaction, and also for brand recognition.

  5. I’m a huge fan of mobile order in general, but I find in crowded locations it’s awful. People are constantly bothering the staff to check on their beverages or “fix them”, strangers constantly handling other people’s items (airports present a unique challenge health wise). These airport stores often have awful staff in terms of customer service. I’d stick to the slower traditional ordering system.

  6. @Ken I agree that OTG is just terrible and over-priced. Everything comes from a central kitchen and is just bland.

  7. Marriott used to own HMS. If I’m not mistaken HMS has its roots in the original Marriott, which started as a root beer stand in Washington, DC.

  8. Presumably this also applies to the Starbucks at highway service centers and rest areas operated by HMS.

  9. Mobile ordering would only exacerbate the problem of long queues unless locations use a separate prep line for mobile orders. Prep lines have a maximum throughput/hour and mobile orders only increase the number of orders per hour.

  10. Lack of mobile ordering is annoying at airport locations. I assume it’s primarily to stop people who aren’t flying mistakenly selecting that location without realizing it’s post-security. But seems worth the risk!

  11. It’s always amazed me that Starbucks is willing to concede its brand experience to the customer service provided by HMS. Their employees are nothing like Starbucks corporate. I don’t know whether they even attempt to train them to Starbucks service standards, but I doubt it.

    The HMS contract and the addition of drive-thrus were the two “tells” to me years ago, even as Howard Schultz was ostensibly trying to recapture the company’s original mission, that whatever values Starbucks originally espoused really are utterly subordinate to bottom-line revenue. (Okay, well, also the shift to sugary cold drinks.) The money is just too good for them to care that their core value proposition is being undermined.

    Nothing about OTG’s operations have ever seemed appealing to me in the slightest, certainly not the compulsory iPads. Ugh.

  12. After my experience at a Starbucks at PHL, I swore off them permanently. I was scolded for ordering black coffee. I was told that I shouldn’t refer to it as “black”. I was told that I should request “plain” coffee. PHL, end of C concourse. I decided I didn’t want coffee after all.

  13. Mobile ordering will only make longer lines. Only so many poorly trained baristas can fit behind the counters, only so many drinks can be made per hour no matter how you order.

  14. OTG sucks. They have overpriced food outlets that take up too much damn physical space away from airport departure gates. I avoid OTG. I know many of my fellow road warriors do too. We all wish that OTG would go away – go very far away. I just do not see anything promising with a Starbucks and OTG mashup. Ugh. Just more wasted departure gate space. No thanks.

  15. I wonder if this change could eventually make it easier to find a Starbucks at JFK. I know it depends on the terminal but when last in Terminal 2, I walked the very long walk from end to end and did not find a Starbucks. Plenty of Dunkin Donuts though, if you’re into that.

  16. All I want from the airport Starbucks is a “brewed coffee only” line. This would let those of us who just want a cup of coffee get through quickly while everyone who wants food or custom beverages (which naturally take longer) go at the pace of the baristas.

  17. Maybe that’s the concept – have a mobile shop which can avoid the customers and therefore no more queuing!

  18. Good god! The Starbucks at MIA are atrocious…the lines are consistently 30 minutes. Who the hell has that much time to wait for a cup of tea??!!! I’ve always thought that airports should have mobile orders.

  19. “the most premium company”? You gotta be kidding me!!!
    No company can be more horrible than OTG.
    Especially New York airports (LGA/JFK/EWR) are full of rats running from one restaurant to another restaurant.
    Never ever dine in airports in New York!!!
    You have no idea how many rats licked your food before you eat!!!

  20. Seriously Starbucks??? There’s a reason they’ve failed in many parts of the world – their coffee is shite

  21. mobile orders would increase the chaos, not decrease it, for all the reasons mentioned above.
    but you are right about companies promising the moon, instead of focussing on fundamentals.
    the biggest fundamental as mentioned above is the training of airport coffee makers (i hesitate to call them baristas). every airport starbucks, and many starbucks in hotels and other offbeat places, have the worst, slowest service relative to a regular starbucks.

  22. Airport management is often so conservative working with mediocre quality brands. At least Dublin airport is starting with 3fe specialty coffee

  23. Since it’s an air / hotel etc travel Blog… Most Starbucks espresso machines are broken at Delta Skyclubs. I just went through DTW, CVG, EWR, ATL in a week travel and I couldn’t find a working Starbucks espresso machine that functioned 100%. Sign either “this machine is being serviced Now” or instead of milk or milk froth, just water comes out.
    I know , I know, it’s a first world problem, but that is the only reason I visit a Skyclubs to grab a quick cappuccino and not stand in Starbucks line… but usually I end up at Starbucks. I wrote to delta that it is absurd that of DTW’s 3 Skyclubs out of 4 None had working espresso machines. Response : “here are xxxx sky miles, sorry”. I don’t want sky miles. I want an espresso.

  24. You seem annoyed that Starbucks doesn’t allow mobile ordering at its airport locations:

    Did you know that Starbucks doesn’t actually operate their US airport locations. US airport Starbucks locations aren’t run directly by Starbucks, but rather are in partnership with HMSHost.
    (source: above article)

    So shouldn’t you be annoyed at HMSHost?

  25. I visited Starbucks landside in Concourse E at MIA on Friday before I caught an Aeroflot flight to Moscow, and it was just an awful experience. The wait was 27 minutes (Yes, I timed it). I feel bad for the ONE girl who was working up front by herself. How does that happen? Where was the manager?! It wasn’t her fault that things were slow, but I cannot understand how there were not any other employees to be seen, especially since Miami airport was very busy on Friday. This girl was running as fast as she could, and kudos to her for doing her best. Plus, there were no napkins, most of the extras were empty and the place was really dirty. It was a reminder that Starbucks is nowhere near worth what you pay for it. The coffee is sub-par and many times the shops are slow and overcrowded.

  26. I’m always astounded that people will wait in long lines for Starbucks or, worse, Dunkin’ Donuts. Especially when there are typically other restaurants nearby in the concourse with serviceable coffee.

    I drink coffee every day at my office, mostly as an excuse to stretch my legs. If I never had another cup, I probably wouldn’t miss it for long. It’s somewhat amusing, really, that caffeine addiction is socially acceptable.

  27. Some Starbucks airport locations will still be run by HMSHost, but Starbucks can also work with other brands.

    Doesn’t the second Starbucks need to be hmshost? They where prevented from using other then Starbucks whole Starbucks would t want to use another brand.

  28. Starbucks stores run by hmshost are licensed stores, not Starbucks corporate. that’s why they don’t do mobile order. Licensed (franchise) stores don’t have mobile ordering. Do you know if new Starbucks locations will be run by Starbucks corporate?

  29. On one level – this is quite surprising – doesn’t OTG generally just do bad knockoffs because they don’t want to pay for franchises? On the other hand, maybe EWR terminal C will get somewhat drinkable coffee now?

    Also will be interesting to see just how badly OTG can screw up the typical airport Starbucks experience.

  30. We’ll see how mobile ordering really works, then. Starbucks own mobile order system is pretty good. OTGs, on the other hand, is awful, especially if you want/need to make any modifications to what’s on the menu (not so much for coffee, but almost a requirement for us when ordering food, since our family has vegetarians and vegans (latter due to egg allergy, for which an iPad order is useless unless we are experienced with specific dishes due to egg being in a variety of things you might not expect). Doesn’t help that the actual humans working at the OTG restaurants mostly seem completely uninterested in interacting with customers face-to-face (at least at EWR).

    EWR is awful since OTG is pretty much the only option at Terminal C – at least YYZ and IAH, and hopefully others, there are plenty of non-OTG options to go to.

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