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RETAIL/F&B Last modified on November 13, 2018

The big picture

A holistic, sense of place driven approach to airport development can have a hugely positive impact on retail and F&B revenues, writes John Matheson.

At this year’s ACI World annual Assembly, Conference and Exhibition in Brussels, an airport leaders’ symposium shared a broad consensus that airport branding is a key weapon in the battle to differentiate the airport.

“Each airport is a destination in its own right and each one is different,” commented Fred Lam, CEO of Hong Kong International Airport and second vice president of ACI Asia-Pacific’s Regional Board.

Today’s travellers are increasingly demanding of the airport experience and are seeking not only a higher level of customer service but also a stronger experiential aspect across the whole airport journey – and they expect each airport to offer something uniquely different.

Many airports are addressing this challenge by developing a stronger ‘sense of place’, using not only the design of the airport spaces but a broad portfolio of factors that help the airport to share its own unique personality with the traveller.

Although to be fully effective the strategy needs to be holistic across the airport, an airport’s retail space offers the most powerful opportunity to not only deliver customer needs but also to help differentiate the airport and enhance its unique sense of place.

In doing this there is also huge potential to boost retail and F&B’s contribution to an airport’s non-aeronautical revenues.

Rio de Janiero’s Tom Jobim International Airport is among the best examples of this in Latin America-Caribbean, having adopted a range of elements that express the vibrant personality of Rio across the airport.

“A genuine sense of place is integral to our terminal development programme and the quality of the passenger journey,” says Gabriel França, Riogaleão’s commercial and corporate director.

“The revamped Terminal 2 and the new South Pier have a lot of the city’s ‘carioca’ way of life and references to Rio’s landscape.

“For the interior design, the materials and colours selected represent the spirit of Rio de Janeiro. The use of green tones is inspired by the city’s mountain backdrop, the wood represents the forests, and the use of exposed concrete brings us back to the roots of Brazil’s strong history in Brutalism architecture, which is core to the airport’s original design.

“The Carioca Street recreates the streetscape in Rio de Janeiro and many of the favourite places in the city and showcases some of the top brands from Brazil and Rio.

“We want the traveller to experience a sense of place across the whole airport, so it needs to incorporate a mix of elements such as architecture and interior design to a stronger presentation of local brands so that we share a genuine flavour of Rio and Brazil. For example, our latest initiative has transformed the arrivals area into a corridor of Brazilian culture with works from artists from across Brazil. Right across the airport our passengers know exactly which city they are travelling through, it’s unmistakably Rio.”

Designers of terminal interior space are using themes that reflect the location through aspects such as local culture, history, heritage and natural beauty to create unique locations. This is all done with a clear focus on the commercial return.

In fact, the design is often combined with smarter terminal space planning, such as the repositioning of facilities like security and check-in to enhance passenger flows, and the adoption of walkthrough stores to draw more passengers to shop.

Robbie Gill, managing director of airport retail design specialists The Design Solution, comments: “The key to successful design is to combine great looking spaces that share engaging local stories with highly effective planning of how the space works, especially regarding passenger flow.

“It’s essential that the traveller encounters authentically expressed local themes and stories – which can be shared through factors such as the design of the space and the local products on display – but a stunningly beautiful store is pointless if footfall isn’t guided to it.

“Whether it’s major hub or a small regional airport the design must draw passengers to the key retail spaces, driving non-aeronautical revenues for the airport and maximising its return on investment on terminal developments.”

A key advantage of this strategy is that it can be adopted by airports of any size; which means that regional airports can aim to create a unique retail experience that not only expresses a persuasive sense of place but is also commercially effective.


Major hubs such as Singapore Changi and Hong Kong International Airport have led the way in developing a holistic sense of place that reaches every aspect of the airport journey, but smaller airports are now able to adopt similar strategies with great effect.

The trend is perhaps strongest across Europe, including recent new developments at Toulouse, Nice and Wroclaw airport. Nice Côte d’Azur Airport, for example, undertook a radical expansion of retail space that included a major emphasis on sense of place and the airport now expects to double its commercial turnover in the period from 2015 to 2019.

The new walkthrough duty free store launched earlier this year at Tallinn International Airport provides another powerful example of the effectiveness of this approach for a relatively small airport (less than five million passengers).

The Tallinn store design blends traditional elements of Estonian culture with leading edge technology and has an emphasis on local natural materials.

Piret Mürk-Dubout, CEO of Tallinn Airport, emphasises the airport’s all ecompassing approach to the customer experience and its role in brand building, which she sees as increasingly vital for all airports:

“Our whole airport is a concept, we really want to develop not only our brand building but also Tallinn as a destination. The design of the retail space is integral to the airport’s pledge to be ‘the world’s cosiest airport’; it’s cosy – with a commercial edge.

“In a way we are even branding nature into the passenger journey by making Estonia’s natural heritage, especially the forests, as the central focus of our new store’s design. This resonates with our passengers; it catches their attention, drives footfall and conversion and brings them back to us.”

In Mexico, Cancún International Airport has radically updated its retail and F&B spaces, integrating a powerful expression of the city, including design themes that reflect the city’s beachfront and its famous colourful beach sign and give visitors an engaging link between the city and the duty free store.

Grupo Aeroportuario Del Pacífico (GAP) – operators of 12 airports across Mexico – are planning to inject strong sense of place elements in their development plans, including developments for Los Cabos International Airport and Miguel Hidalgo y Costilla Guadalajara International Airport.

In the Caribbean, the next phase of development at Sangster International Airport will see a radical new expression of the airport’s sense of place, not only in the retail spaces, but across the whole airport, incorporating a series of local themes into its redevelopment plans for much of the terminal. This will include the natural beauty of the islands and cultural elements such as music and heritage.

Elsewhere, the development plans at Bermuda LF Wade International Airport, currently handling around 860,000 passengers per annum, demonstrate that sense of place is an opportunity for airports of absolutely any size.

The initial planning for the airport’s new terminal (dues to open in 2020) blends intensive commercial strategies with design elements that reference classical Bermudian architecture, walls styled to represent the island’s coral reefs and displays of local art.

By sharing the unique personality of its location and expressing a true sense of place, every airport has the opportunity to create a stronger customer experience that not only delights the traveller but also strengthens an airport’s non-aeronautical revenue performance.

Every airport is a destination in its own right, but the airports that share their stories are the ones that travellers will want to return to and spend more time and money at enjoying themselves.

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