MRM Talking With: Kevin Kelly, President of Delaware North’s Travel Division

Founded in 1915, Delaware North  is a privately-held hospitality and food service company with global operations at sports and entertainment venues, national and state parks, destination resorts and restaurants, airports, and regional casinos. The company has annual revenue of $3 billion and 60,000 associates serving half a billion customers in North America, Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Asia. 

Kevin Kelly, President of Delaware North’s Travel division, oversees all business development and operations for the company’s 300 restaurant and retail outlets in 30 airports worldwide. This includes Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta Airport (Food Network Kitchen, 40/40 Club, Grindhouse), Los Angeles International Airport (Skewers by Morimoto, Wolfgang Puck Pizza Express, Farmer’s Market, Earth Bar), Austin-Bergstrom International Airport (Salt Lick BBQ, Ray Benson’s Roadhouse feat live music) and Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport (Food Network Kitchen, Jack Nicklaus Golden Bear Grill). Delaware North-Hell’s Kitchen Partners, the Minnesota Twins and Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport recently celebrated the opening of Twins Grill, a new sports bar and restaurant themed after the Major League Baseball team located in Concourse C of Terminal 1.

In this edition of MRM Talking With, Kelly discusses “airport hospitality,” challenges of designing airport restaurants and what he looks for in travel-time dining. 

How do you define “airport hospitality” and does it differ from other hospitality offerings?

“Airport Hospitality” is the same as most hospitality, the biggest difference is our time frame is shorter, our stress levels are higher and our need to execute effectively within a small window of time is more important than ever.

Kevin Kelly

How has airport dining evolved and what factors are influencing the evolution?

Airport dining has evolved from being concession based, where it was basically convenience food, low-to-no technology and minimal interaction into a restaurant business with fresh, high quality products expertly prepared, served in an exciting and entertaining environment.  Airport dining has evolved into a street level restaurant experience.

In what ways have guest expectations changed?  

Guests/travelers are more demanding and have higher expectations.  I believe people are eating out much more than in the past and as a result they are more experienced diners who know good food.  The result is, if you miss the mark on quality experience – great food, excellent service, desired atmosphere – and don’t provide the value, they let you know it.

The lines are starting to blur with the whole notion of a marketplace.

What are airport dining trends you are seeing? / What do you envision for the future of restaurant dining?  

The most relevant airport trend is about being local: providing a local food experience to the traveler, offering the tastes and flavors of the destination city. That means offering a spectrum of choices from an iconic historic restaurant, an edgy new eatery or a marketplace that introduces rising local chefs.

How important is it for Delaware North to build relationships with top chefs and restaurant industry leaders?

 It is extremely important. Our travel team will once again be attending the James Beard Foundation Awards Gala in Chicago. We believe it’s important to support and thank all chefs including our own who have been past recipients of this prestigious award and those who may be honored this year. We are fully committed to creating and maintaining relationships with top chefs and up-and-coming chefs.  

What do you look for when dining in airports?

I’m a business traveler so I look for convenience, speed of service, fresh ingredients and quality products. I also appreciate convenient entertainment such as big screen televisions that help keep me current while I’m on a layover.

How important is creating something that is family friendly?  

We know that 39 percent of travelers are on business, which means 61 percent are families and friends.  We recognize that you don’t have to have children to be a family.  Our focus is providing family-friendly locations – approachable and comfortable – that offer value and variety on our menus.  Of course, our focus is to offer consistently fresh, high quality products at all of our locations.

How do retail and restaurant concepts dovetail in an airport setting?  

The lines are starting to blur with the whole notion of a marketplace.  So you can sell prepackaged items that reflect a community, prepared with fresh local food items in a retail marketplace.  Let’s talk about the beverage boom. Travelers can now choose from up to a dozen different waters in addition to the traditional sodas and juices.  Like food, the whole wet category has grown, like food, so you can get beverages in retail as well.

What are challenges unique to restaurants in airports?

We are a logistics company inside the airport, which is a challenging place to operate.  We need to get an extraordinary volume of a variety of products through security; we have to get our employees badged to work in an environment with tight security; we are faced with the challenge of ever evolving technology; and the continuously rising cost of construction inside a secure location. 

What are challenges to designing restaurants in an airport environment? 

One major challenge is capturing the look and feel of a local street level concept in a much smaller space.  For example, we could be taking a street concept that is 4500sf and trying to build it out in a 2000sf space.  I believe we have an extraordinary team that can visualize a space and then convey their visions to our architectural design partners.  We are also pleased that there is less use of storefront façades.  In the past, architects had to create a façade of the street-level location.  Now, with the new marketplace designs, there is an openness that is more inviting to guests, leading them directly into the location from the main concourse.