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Stepping forward, beautifully

Dave Waddell
1:14:43 8 June 2023
37° 39' 49.3632'' S, 144° 50' 41.2368'' E


Melbourne Airport’s Head of Traveller Experience Wendi Pearce is full of real-life stories that are testament to the way the airport has – and continues to – transform the passenger experience, and which help explain why it was ranked last March as both Australia’s best airport and best airport staff in Australia and the Pacific.


Among my favourites is that of a security guard who, noting the obvious distress of a young woman stood alone at the entrance to departures, stepped forward to discover that she had been abandoned and had nowhere to go. Recently arrived, the circumstances in which she was ended up at the airport made returning home to her country of origin untenable: rejection and shame awaited. Able to converse with the woman in her own language, the security guard informed the airport support teams, and arranged for her to be flown to Brisbane, where she stayed with one of the guard’s relatives. ‘He purchased,’ says Pearce, ‘a telephone for her, with his number entered, that if things didn’t work out, she had a lifeline in Australia.’ Today, Pearce reports, she’s not only still in Australia, but appears to be happy and thriving.


Those of us who travelled through Melbourne Airport prior to circa 2017 would be hardpressed to find anything like as uplifting a story. Gone were the days when its reputation for high-quality service preceded it. Ranked in 2008 by the Airports International Council as the world’s fifth best airport for service, it had since fallen on hard times, and fared poorly when compared to the Australian competition. To go, therefore, from a world in which passenger chat forums were full of complaints about its toilets to be rated by no less than Skytrax as the 20th best airport in the world is no mean feat. To do so in six years and during Covid is little short of extraordinary.


Part of the key to the airport’s success has been to resist the temptation to put all of its eggs in the shiny-new-terminal basket, to take a more holistic approach to designing for and implementing change, and to properly look at itself in the mirror when it came to its own shortcomings. As a result, having identified no less than 288 pain points in the traveller journey, Pearce and the then CEO Lyell Strambi had commissioned FreeState to help design a traveller-led programme for change. Called Stepping Forward, it began by arguing for a set of values – ‘recognition’, ‘flow’, ‘choice’, and ‘inspiration’ – that would serve as the bedrock for change, includes 25 programmes of work for implementing that change, and is backed by a training programme for the airport’s 20,000 workers and 30-odd suppliers and clients. As Pearce says, this whole-team approach saw everyone, irrespective of job or position, ‘skilled up to deliver an experience based on calmness, care, humanness, warmth, helpfulness and understanding. It extended their PDs to include these human behaviours, and are joyfully celebrated by all’.



I mention our part in the Stepping Forward progammes of work only to sidestep accusations of false modesty. We were involved in its inception, some further terminal-specific design, in helping produce a set of training tools, and intermittently in an advisory capacity along the way. However, its ongoing success comes down to: first, the airport’s willingness to commit to a capital expenditure programme that isn’t infrastructure-led; second, it’s determination to follow through on – and evolve – that commitment despite Covid and being located in a state that endured some of the world’s most stringent lockdowns; and three, the skill with which Pearce and the various teams set about delivering the various programmes. For the most part, we have stood on the sidelines, delightedly cheering it all on.


As the airport itself would be first to say, there’s still got some way to go before it’s achieved everything it has set out to do, and even then, there’s always going to be room for improvement. However, clues as to Stepping Forward’s effectiveness and the relative alactricity with which it has been taken on can be found in every part of Pearce’s story about the security guard. No element – the fact of a shared language, the willingness to engage, the ability to address and find a solution to the problem, the responsibility taken – can be explained only by chance. It’s evidence of real and intentional change.


Dave Waddell’s remit at FreeState straddles strategy and communications. Along with Adam Scott, he is author of The Experience Book. If this post has piqued your interest, please get in touch. We love to chat.


Lead image courtesy Melbourne Airport. It features its Arts walk, designed to celebrate ‘People of the World’. 



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