Executive Chat with Carlos Bernal, CEO at Areas USA
By Rebecca Patt, Partner at Wray Executive Search
Carlos Bernal is CEO at Areas, a global leader in travel food and beverage and retail services, serving thirty-five million customers annually at 136 outlets in airports and travel plazas in the US. Carlos has extensive experience as a senior leader in the food service industry, having previously served as President of Sportservice at Delaware North and CEO of Wagamama. We chat about the latest developments at Areas.
Areas recently won a contract to operate eleven new restaurants in both the East and West Concourses at William P. Hobby Airport in Houston. What was it like to get the contract?
It was very gratifying because the selection process took three-and-a-half years and a lot of blood, sweat, and tears from our team to win the bid. We are looking forward to starting operations around the middle of May, and we’ll be there for the next 10 years or so.
Can you describe what the operations in Houston will be?
We’ll be introducing a mix of some national brands but also local and regional brands as well. Part of the uniqueness what we do is we work with local restauranteurs to introduce their brand into the airport, to give them a presence in the airport, and then we work with some of the national companies where we become a licensee or franchisee to their specific brand. We make the investment in the capital, and our team is responsible for the day-to-day operations through a licensing or franchising relationship with the brand. It is a complex process because construction is very challenging within an airport that generally operates 24 hours a day, and you have the whole security component, with getting through TSA and getting everybody badged and approved.
Any other exciting projects you have going at Areas?
During Covid, we took the opportunity to put in a whole new point-of-sale system and a whole new back-office system. We had the opportunity to reengineer and streamline how we ran the business really fixed all the back of house things that we needed to work on. Now we’re just focusing on growth mode. The traveling public is back. Planes are full, people are flying, people are going away on vacation. It’s a business that is very cyclical and RFP driven. It just so happens over the next two or three years, there’s close to a billion dollars of new business out there for companies like ours to be pursuing and competing for. That’s going to keep us busy.
What trends are you seeing that impact the travel business?
I don’t know if it’s necessarily all that different from a streetside restaurant. The guests want to be able to decide how they want to use us, if they want it to be a mobile transaction, a kiosk transaction, or if they want to sit down and have a more traditional full-service experience. The consumer really wants to have the options. It’s not one size fits all necessarily. It’s really giving the consumer all the options to choose how they want to order and how they want to interface with our team. It’s eliminating the veto vote from the guests in terms of a food experience and in terms of a time experience.
Are you seeing that your sales are back at 2019 or greater levels?
It’s interesting in that some airports are exceeding 2019 levels and others are not. In total, as a company, we’re single digits close to 2019 but not 100% there. There are some airports and usually it’s the airports that we operate in the Sunbelt, if you will, Miami for example, which is above 2019 levels. Orlando is above 2019 levels. There are others that are not necessarily tourist destinations, and the business traveler is not 100% back yet. The leisure traveler is most certainly back and back with vengeance. They want to travel. They want to get away. They want to have an experience. They’re overcompensating for the business traveler. Selfishly, we want to see more people back in the office. We want to see more people traveling to conferences. We want to see more of that kind of activity not only with the leisure traveler but also with the with the business traveler.
On a different note, what is something fun you like to do when you are not working?
I just like to chill out and enjoy spending time with my family and being home. We have a lot going on in our company, constantly traveling and being on the road, and the best thing is just to spend time with family and friends and enjoy some good food, a nice bottle of wine, and that is perfect for me.
Need to recruit top executive talent for your restaurant team? Contact Rebecca Patt at email@example.com