SPARK creates new Brand Partner Program designed to help lead North American airport retail sales revival

One on One with Heidi Van Roon

Heidi Van Roon (center) with members of her SPARK team at Vancouver International Airport.

SPARK Group of Companies has introduced an innovative new concept in staffing for travel retail. Called the Brand Partner Program, the multi-faceted sales and promotions program has been designed to substantially support global brands and travel retailers to achieve the best possible sales outcomes and replace a broken model as the industry emerges from the COVID-19 pandemic.

There are many issues currently facing travel retail brands and retailers in the face of COVID-19, and the Brand Partner Program has been designed to tackle them head on, SPARK Group of Companies President, Heidi Van Roon tells TMI.

Heidi Van Roon

Reduced shop floor accessibility and travel budgets, obsolete activation models and insufficient ROI are impacting brands management, says Van Roon. For retailers, the program addresses reduced labor budgets, the high turnover costs of brand ambassador programs, and the need to adapt activations to the post-COVID era.

SPARK addresses these issues by recruiting, and intensively training Brand Partners, and then employing them for a full year.

“This program creates good employment,” explains Van Roon. “We are hiring our ‘partners’ for a year, because these have been our best hires, and the long-term employment allows for the best possible promotion for brands.”

Since most brands have a budget for at least four months of promotions a year- either part time or full time — the SPARK program offers an option for the brand to subscribe for four months, six months or a full year (35%, 50% or 100%).

It is SPARK who is committing to the year-long hire, and investing about six weeks to two months of training in each hire at the beginning.

“We have six very relevant courses— including setting sales goals, sales literacy to understand the sales narrative, sales reporting, and emotional intelligence, etc. Each one of these topics includes a 12-month case study for our client partner. Our trainees have to understand a year-long sales cycle. This will create brand experts with very valuable sales skills who can take their technical knowledge – goal setting for example – and apply it and test it for twelve months. These skills are so important on the shop floor and by providing twelve months of case reporting, we hold the partner accountable,” she says.

SPARK promotion for Godiva Chocolates and Wayne Gretzky Ice Wine.

The program has been devised to enhance the role of the traditional airport retail sales assistant or brand ambassador, turning the role into that of a dedicated airport store brand manager. Van Roon argues that it will create value for brands by giving them the same promoter for each of their promotions, one who is able to offer a highly-engaging, personalized and more sophisticated airport retail experience.

“The brands need support like this,” insists Van Roon. “They need that dedicated sales person on the shop floor. They also need that management, because they don’t have a travel budget, they don’t have software access, and they have reduced staff drastically.

“We have so much staff contraction on every level that we really have to place this management responsibility on the shop floor. This is what we are introducing. We are saying: These are our capabilities. This is what we can offer in the program. How does his work for your needs? And it will really require collaboration,” she explains.

Van Roon continues: “Collaboration is right at the heart of what we are trying to achieve. The success of the program depends on a team of 5-10 Brand Partners per airport location and full retailer support. We have used our experience of delivering some of the most profitable brand ambassador programs and brand activations seen in Americas travel retail in pre-COVID years to create this new, all-encompassing airport retail sales employment service.”

La Prairie Wine Caviar promotion, supported by SPARK.

The program is taking the strength of the brand ambassador program that we know and ramping it up by about 10 notches, she says.

“The Brand Ambassador program the way it was is no longer working; it is broken,” she contends. “It was expensive and did not deliver consistent results for brands. It was time consuming, had high attrition and a general lack of understanding of ROI. Now we have a much better program.

“We are preparing for a new generation in retail. This COVID pause forced a lot of rethinking and re-profiling and re-engineering of everything we do. We have to become incredibly efficient and effective. The Brands Partner program really checks off some 10 major gaps that I have identified; plus it is very adaptable to brand and retailer input. It will have to be collaborative or it is not going to work.”

Inside a SPARK training session.

Van Roon explains that SPARK’s core expertise is recruiting and staffing for sales and that the company has a strong reputation for recruiting talent. The new Brand Partner Program will make it an even more powerful proposition for candidates and for brands.

“I think that we have taken the strength of our industry, and are holding it up to the present reality, and asking how do we now align a powerful sales and promotional model?

SPARK has been operating for ten years in Canada working primarily in Vancouver International Airport, and incorporated in the U.S. for a big pilot program in Seattle-Tacoma in 2019. Van Roon is one of the featured speakers at the Summit of the Americas Conference, and will participate on a panel on blending humanization and digitalization in the Knowledge Hub on Tuesday, April 6 at 12 noon EDT.

She will also be holding a session at the Engagement Lounge on April 6 at 2 pm. where she will talk about Optimizing Sales & Promotion. This session is free to attend using this link: SPARK