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Pro Tips on Running a Business in the Ups and Downs

COVID-19 and travel at SEA Airport More Information

March 18, 2021

By Vikky Ramos Leung and Kate Hudson

When 2020 began, no one anticipated what would happen in the months to follow. The world had to reset and adapt as a global pandemic brought forth new challenges and changed the lives of families and businesses.

And so did Donata Russell Ross, whose 2020 experience reads like a master class in keeping a business operating in one of the most challenging years in history.

As the Chief Executive Officer of Concessions International, one of the nation’s largest minority-owned airport concessionaires, Ross had big and exciting expectations for her company in 2020. The pandemic prompted a different reality. Following the old adage “necessity is the mother of invention,” Ross took the opportunity to retool and reshape the business, including difficult but necessary decisions:

  • Temporarily shutter businesses
  • Rightsized the number of employees to meet a changing business climate
  • Simplify processes to be more efficient and solution-oriented

Stable leadership and a dedicated team kept the business operating in a challenging and unprecedented year. Donata shares sage business advice from her career experiences, especially in the last year.

1. Make it personal

Ross loves leading a family business. As a child, her family’s core business was real estate development and property management, and she began her career in an operations role. At one point, Ross pivoted her work to focus on philanthropic components of the family business. When her own children were grown, she returned as the CEO of Concessions International.

From the early years of her career in the field in a bustling airport environment, Ross understands that frontline workers are critical to everyday operations and have the power to create positive experiences for customers.

Ross advises to take care of your people so they will prioritize a customer-first experience.

2. Know your market

Concessions International is no stranger to Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SEA). They started with two dining concepts at SEA Airport in 1986. Then expanded to 11 restaurants by the year 2000, with a brief pause when their contract ended in 2018.

Concessions International successfully got back to business at SEA with Trail Head BBQ in 2019. “I love the people in Seattle and the culture of the Pacific Northwest. We understand this market, and you see that at Trail Head with a menu, beer list, and atmosphere that celebrates the outdoors,” said Ross.

Concessions International operates at eight airports across the country, but SEA is its only West Coast airport.

3. Find partners with shared visions and values

Salty’s at the SEA and BrewTop Social were expected to open in 2020, but the pandemic slowed construction progress. Ross remains thrilled to open this iconic, local favorite at the airport in 2022 as part of phase two of the Central Terminal Renovation. This forthcoming dining experience is a joint venture with Well-Buttered Bread, a Seattle-based, woman-owned business and Nicholas & Associates, a minority-owned Airport Concessions Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (ACDBE).

Salty's at SEA and the BrewTop Social renderings

“We are three family businesses coming together on this project. It’s really special because we’re aligned on our values like a strong and equitable community, incredible quality, and notable passenger experiences.”

Donata pictured with her business partners
The Salty's at SEA and BrewTop Social joint venture partners from left to right: Nick Crews, Donata Russell Ross, and Kate Kingen

Concessions International will also open P.F. Chang’s at SEA in 2022, the flagship restaurant in the dramatic new mezzanine level of North Satellite’s Central Marketplace. P.F. Chang’s is also a joint venture also with Nicolas and Associates.

“Concessions International started as an ACBDE and graduated from that program in the 1990s due to our entrepreneurial hustle to grow. That heritage makes us keen to partner with Nicolas and Associates as a current ACBDE.”

4. Make the customer part of the experience

The future of Concessions International is promising, and Ross predicts its offerings will evolve towards more to-go and convenient options for travelers.

Ross is excited to create a memorable experience for travelers because the airport is a springboard to launch a new experience or a journey.

“Salty’s and P.F. Chang’s are two marquee brands that will enrich the customer experience at SEA Airport. We want to remind you about the delights of the travel journey and wanderlust. I suspect we will all be more appreciative of the ability to travel after COVID-19. The airport ecosystem is critical to that, whether it’s the jumping off point or a homecoming.”

PF Chang's renderings

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