Aviation Media Logo

RETAIL/F&B Last modified on April 25, 2012

Meeting the locals

Robbie Gill considers the advantages of creating a ‘sense of place’ at airports and the impact it can have on retail/F&B sales.

For a number of years the three words 'sense of place' have been banded around the airport industry, but few people seem to have the same understanding of what it actually means and what, if any, benefit it brings to an airport commercial area.

From my view, 'sense of place' could be substituted by a single word 'personality' WHERE `id` = which I am well aware is not the same as many other people's understanding.

Based on my experience of working around the world, North America is definitely the capital of 'sense of place' WHERE `id` = however, to the majority of North Americans, it means 'local flavour'.

Whether it is a terminal building or even a major duty free outlet, it is rare that any North American airport does not include a 'sense of place' as part of its brief.

The holy grail of travel retailing is to convert passengers into shoppers. Time and time again we hear a consistent message from airports of how the vast majority of passengers buy little more than a cup of coffee and a newspaper. Indeed, between 70% and 80% of passengers usually fall in this category.

However, in a way this is not surprising, as passengers are not at the airport to shop. And, if every airport looks the same and has a similar range of international brands, there is little incentive to shop, apart from sometimes getting a good discount on downtown prices or the opportunity to replenish the drinks' cabinet with a favourite tipple at duty free prices.

'Sense of place' WHERE `id` = I believe, has a role to play in converting the travel-weary passenger into someone who might just change the habits of a lifetime and enjoy the travel retail experience.

For the sheer scale of what can be achieved, look no further than football stadiums. Anybody entering the Manchester United ground, Old Trafford, will be subjected to intense 'sense of place'. The stadium is specifically designed for it! There are red seats, large graphics, supporters in red and white. It is a veritable bombardment of 'sense of place' experiences.

It does not stop there, the restaurants, shops, bars and even restrooms have a 'sense of place'. Red and white rules! How then can this 'flavour' be transferred to airports?

By the American definition, 'sense of place' needs to have a local flavour, with Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) striving to inject a piece of California into its character and Minneapolis–St Paul defining its position in the Midwest.

Often the flavour is injected through Disney-esque fit-outs such as at Barbados' Grantley Adams International Airport, where the shops all have corrugated roofs reminiscent of chattel homes, and Minneapolis with sculptures of Snoopy (Shultz was born there) and Canada geese in the terrazzo floors.

There are also excellent instances of creating a unique character through designing with the local environment in mind.


Vancouver International Airport, with the heavy use of rough cut stone reminiscent of the Rockies, timber and a wonderful range of ethnic art, has a truly unique personality that is totally different from any other airport.

This is, however, not the only way to achieve a 'sense of place' WHERE `id` = as a strategic view of a city or landscape can often work to link a terminal with its environment.

Perth and Sydney airports in Australia both have stunning views of their respective city skylines, the Rockies loom over Denver (with the airport roof symbolic of the snow capped peaks) and although it is not renown for it, even Glasgow Airport in the UK has views of the surrounding mountains.

'Sense of place' does not, however, have to be limited to these two directions; it can be achieved through a variety of different features.

Changi Airport in Singapore has its own very unique 'sense of place' WHERE `id` = for instance, not for its views or indeed the finishes within, but through the remarkable range of gardens such as the Sunflower Garden, Orchid Garden, Cactus Garden and Butterfly Garden.

More than any other airport, it treats passengers as individuals with entertainment and leisure fully integrated into the terminals – rooftop swimming pool, cinema, wood cut rubbings for the kids and giant TVs for the sports fan. It truly has a 'sense of place'.

The sheer scale of both Hong Kong International Airport and Beijing's Terminal 3; the beautiful mosaic dome of Terminal 1 in Abu Dhabi that is reminiscent of a glittering mosque; the timber roofs of Siam Reap in Cambodia; and the soaring structure of Calatrava's terminal in Bilbao, all create a 'sense of place' and a unique passenger experience.

But do they contribute to the commercial success of the airport? This is definitely questionable. I believe that it is through a dynamic retail mix that performance can be enhanced.

All airport terminals need an ideal commercial plan for them to perform to their maximum. However, if all is equal, can the commercial mix create a 'sense of place' that will inspire the non-shopper to do what they have never expected to do – shop?

Over the past decade we have seen the growing dominance of international luxury brands in major worldwide airports. There is no doubt that they have a place in appropriate terminals, and we are likely to see their position getting even stronger, especially in Asia. However, I believe that there is room for developing a mix of local brands and retailers as a point of difference between airports.

There are a number of important factors that need to be taken into consideration by airport operators. Are there any local brands that are strong enough commercially to be able to make a significant financial impact? In short, will they be popular with a passenger profile that is increasingly internationally aware?

All things considered, there are plenty of homegrown brands that have successfully made the transition from downtown to airport, and do commercially very well. The product offer is far ranging too: from fish, to clothes, to drink, and even a museum outpost.

The Design Solution recently worked on The Irish Whiskey Collection Duty Free retail store at Dublin Airport's new Terminal 2. This is retail with a true 'sense of place' WHERE `id` = as it only promotes Irish Whiskeys to local and international travellers.

The new concept and store design was created solely to boost Irish Whiskey sales within the airport's duty free store, and it has been a tremendous success, boosting Irish Whiskey sales by 30%.

The shop within a shop stocks over 125 different products in a 80sqm outlet and takes its design cue from the luxury cosmetics and perfumery sector rather than the traditional airport liquor shop.

As a result of this 'local' success at Dublin's Terminal 2, there are now plans to open a store in Terminal 1 and in Cork and Shannon airports.

Elsewhere, the newly expanded Terminal 1 at Sydney International Airport has achieved an interesting and unique commercial mix, due in part to the local Australian brands.

The terminal is not shy of being 'Aussie' in style and appeal. It has all the popular global brands such as Bally, Swarovski, and Emporio Armani, but with a swathe of Australian retail too. There is Billabong, Rodd & Gunn, Adventure Australia, Australia Made and Beach Culture.

For a passenger leaving Sydney, it would be hard to forget that Sydney is in Australia, a true 'sense of place' if ever there was one in an airport retail environment! Even the duty free's overall brand is called 'SYD' WHERE `id` = a touch in your face, but a 'sense of place' WHERE `id` = nevertheless.

The food & beverage mix is equally important. When AirMall (previously BAA USA) wins a new contract, they scour the local city for great local bars and restaurants to give the terminal a local flavour.

In Boston, it was Legal Sea Foods, a local seafood concept that has now grown nationally; in Baltimore/Washington (BWI) it was Obrycki's and Green Turtle; and in Cleveland it was Great Lakes Brewery and Panninis. These contribute considerably to differentiating the gateways from other US airports.

We see 'sense of place' as a lot more than bricks and mortar; it is of the locale, the commerce and the culture. It also makes for a more interesting passenger experience, and in today's tough operating climate where travellers have more choice of where to fly from than ever before, that cannot be underestimated.

Share on social media

Article Options

Related items

Get the Airport World Newsletter!

Follow us on Twitter

8683 peoples are following airportworldmag