Khun Linus A.E. Knobel, Managing Director of Bangkok Air Catering, discusses the importance of an agile approach following COVID-19 travel disruptions
Writer: Sean Galea-Pace | Project Manager: Donovan Smith
Regarded as one of the world’s most popular travel destinations, Thailand is renowned for its unique culture, offering exotic food, beautiful landscapes and rich culture to those that visit. Approximately 25 million people a year visit Thailand and it experiences one of the highest tourism rates from US citizens when visiting Asia.
Bangkok Air Catering (BAC) is considered one of the highest quality airline caterers in Thailand. Its guiding principle is to offer exclusive products and services through the values of reliability, dedication, compliance, never-ending care, and with pride. BAC is committed to sustaining its position as the leading food provider in Thailand.
Over the years, the organisation has successfully established Gourmet House Culinary Care, a provider of premium catering services for private hospitals, Gourmet Primo, a production plant of customised meal solutions that enjoys strong representation in the airport lounge, HORECA and event sectors, and Gourmet House Group of Restaurants, authentic cuisines with a modern flair.
And overseeing operations is Khun Linus A.E. Knobel, Managing Director at Bangkok Air Catering Group. Having been with the company since its inception in 2004, his passion for the food and beverage industry is evident. “I see it as much, much more than a profession or a trade,” he explains. “And it could never be a mere hobby for me. Whatever the occasion, it is nothing less than an art form. I have pursued this commitment to culinary art for over 45 years since setting out on my career in my native Switzerland.”
Having first arrived in Asia in 1985 for the Peninsula Group in Hong Kong, Knobel moved to Taiwan for the pre-opening and opening of The Sherwood Hotel in Taipei.
Subsequently, he returned to Hong Kong and joined Gastro Primo, a prime supplier of quality customised food products and meal solutions for hotels, restaurants and other catering businesses before becoming General Manager of Bangkok Air Catering in 2004, then moving into the role of Managing Director a year later.
“These days, all of my passion is focused in Thailand,” he explains. “I have presided over the company’s expansion from a base at Suvarnabhumi to additional units on Samui, Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Don Mueang.”
COVID-19 has disrupted most industries in one way or another but perhaps none more so than the air travel industry. With passenger flights around the globe cancelled as travel restrictions were imposed, Knobel admits it was a challenging time for firms such as his that rely on air travel.
“We could easily have wallowed in gloom,” he affirms. “Instead, we are seeking opportunity in the crisis. In this sense, we are shifting the emphasis of our strategy from international to domestic markets, “The Thailand food and beverage sector keeps on growing despite the escalation of COVID-19. We also see a great potential in food exports, which is currently in the works.”
Upon discovering how severe the global situation was, BAC immediately set up a Business Continuity Management Committee to ensure effective business operations during the pandemic. Knobel stresses that his priority was the health and well-being of its people, families and communities and introduced comprehensive health and safety measures in the workplace.
“We continue to work closely with our customers and suppliers and listen to their concerns about the immediate impact of COVID-19 on their businesses and to support where possible.”
In order to be better prepared, BAC thoroughly reviews its working processes and further develops its programme of training for the workforce.
“Our aim has been clear and simple – we will be a better-skilled and stronger team than before,” he affirms. “Furthermore, we are also gearing up for ISO 9001 certification to enhance business performance and overall efficiency. Many of our people have been working temporarily in other businesses within the BAC group. This has proved a great learning experience, and good for broader team building.
“As a management team, we have reminded ourselves to keep thinking outside the box and exploring new ways to generate revenue during this crisis.”
This crisis has proven our business diversification strategy to be on a right path. Gourmet Primo, for example, is already established as a producer of customised food for businesses, with notable success in VIP lounges, HORECA and event catering. Now the company is intent on exploring further potential in the domestic market, targeting B2C in particular. The company plans to launch ‘eatfit’ (a healthy food delivery service) and ‘Sky Deli’ (on-the-go airline meal box) in December. What’s more, Gourmet Primo opened its first outlet at Foodland Supermarket under the concept of “Gourmet Food to Go,” and is planning to open no fewer than 14 outlets this year.
Inaddition, Bangkok Air Catering currently operates four restaurants under the Gourmet House group of restaurants: Brasserie 9, an authentic French eatery, the multiple award-winning AI Saray restaurants at Soonvijai and Silom, which serves pure classic Lebanese and Indian cuisine, and Ruen Noppagao which restores charming classic recipes to Thai cuisine. Gourmet House serves several cuisines including Asian, European, and Arabic through additional expertise in outside catering service.
“For our newest restaurant venture, Ruen Noppagao, we are intent on reviving Thai traditional cuisine as it has declined in the past years due to its gaining popularity around the globe,” says Knobel.
“Only Thai ingredients are used, including much from organic farm from Sukhothai, royal projects, all served on porcelain from Chiang Mai.”
Supply chain operations are an essential component of improving the overall business performance and customer satisfaction. At BAC, all the processes which take place in its sites are based in the procurement of the raw materials and MRO products. Knobel believes that in a volatile landscape like today’s environment, agility is vital.
“We focus on our ability to remain agile and react to unforeseen changes across the supply chain – from sourcing issues to demand inclines and declines – which we believe are more beneficial than scenario planning and forecasting,” he explains. “Likewise, we emphasise efficient stock management whilst increasing the availability for the customer in all channels of fulfilment.
“Our suppliers and partner relationships are important to us. We choose vendors based on quality and reliability – its ability to meet fluctuation demands - over price, so that we can always deliver a great end-product.”
Alongside his team, Knobel also manages another four airline catering units on Samui Phuket, Chiang Mai, and Don Mueang. Samui primarily supplies Bangkok Airways and a busy assortment of charter flights while Phuket caters to international and regional carriers. Having brought the most advanced equipment to all of its units and introduced systems that are fully compliant with GMP and HACCP, as well as with Halal and Kosher, it has helped BAC to establish a reputation for food services that is always safe and high-quality.
“We intend to make the most of these attributes with a new venture in value-added products for export,” Knobel explains. “We’ll continue to attract business from overseas – but according to a new model. Our initial focus will be Middle Eastern Countries, China, and eventually Hong Kong, starting with the Halal-accredited production of Thai meals and snacks for export.”
BAC is optimistic about the future and harbour aims of serving 30,000 meals every day at its Suvarnabhumi unit alone post-COVID-19. However, Knobel is realistic and admits that the air travel industry might be unable to fully recover within the next couple of years.
“Sadly, due to the ongoing crisis, we aren’t running at full capacity and we plan to prolong our concession at Suvarnabhumi Airport from 2026 to 2031,” he says. “However, we expect the airlines will gradually increase its international and domestic operations by 30-40 percent during this year. Currently, Bangkok Air Catering Suvarnabhumi has 27 airlines in its customer portfolio, but we hope to expand our airline customer portfolio over the course of the year and our initial focus will be Chinese and Middle Eastern carriers.”