Over the past 15 years, marketing has evolved into a key strategic tool for many airports around the world. However, contrary to other industries, such as fast-moving goods, telecommunications, automotive and even airlines, airports have been slow in defining and understanding the role and importance of marketing in their overall strategies.
Airport marketing can be described as the function by which airports interact with their target groups and identify and address each group's needs in order to stimulate and accelerate their growth, resulting in more aviation and non-aviation revenues.
By adopting this role, airport marketing becomes a key source for providing vital information to airports, supporting the decision-making process across an airport company, while at the same time contributing to revenue generation.
Little wonder then that identifying and analysing an airport's five key target groups – the airlines, airport businesses, consumers, the destination and employees – has become the backbone of many marketing strategies.
In the early days of airport marketing, understanding and directing all efforts towards airlines was the priority, but with more than five billion passengers handled across the globe in 2011, it is natural to see a shift in attention towards the airports' consumers, namely passengers, who are becoming the largest contributor to airport revenues.
And since satisfied passengers tend to shop and eat more at airport retail stores and F&B outlets, understanding them becomes precedence for every airport.
Passenger profiling is a strategic tool, which supports not only the information requirements for marketing, but for the whole airport. Moreover, it has the capacity to collect a wide range of characteristics and attributes, enabling in-depth analysis and correlation of data.
Besides demographics, profiling can shed light into how passengers book their travel; what are their preferred travel flows between destinations; how they arrive and leave airports; what airport services they use; how they journey through the terminal; where they shop and why; what they would like to find in the airport's retail offering; and finally how satisfied they are with the 'airport experience'.
In other words, passenger profiling can deliver a comprehensive data set covering operational, commercial and marketing aspects of an airport.
However, mining this set of information is a costly and complex process. The main reason is that there are multiple sources that someone can tap into, which unfortunately, provide mostly fragmented information.
Traffic statistics, passenger surveys, retail data, GDSs, complaint management, marketing companies, aviation and tourism organisations are the major sources, but data from new sources continue to appear, such as social media data, that can further enrich the profiles.
Validating and cross-referencing these sources is time-consuming, expensive and often difficult to perform. It is therefore important to prioritise and choose the most appropriate ones.
In any case, information collection is a very costly activity, and airports should consider it as a strategic investment that will support their development plans and their decision-making.
The value of passenger profiling lies in its width, versatility, accuracy and applicability. It is logical that marketing is the first to exploit this information; as it starts to collect and analyse the data and gradually present it, a large number of internal and external clients appear eager to receive it and request for even more.
The benefits for marketing are mostly on the provision of valuable information for the design and implementation of marketing strategies.
Route development is the first to use this information to present to airlines a complete picture of the local market and its dynamics. It also assists airline-marketing departments to develop ongoing dialogue with the airlines, by periodically feeding them with new or updated data.
Consumer marketing equally benefits from the information by considering the airport's passengers profiles, when drafting tactical marketing campaigns or co-promotional activities especially in the areas of retail and F&B.
But even in corporate aspects such as branding, signage, or awareness initiatives, passenger profiling can contribute in customising messages and defining tonality.
As the information spreads outside the marketing borders, it becomes the point of interest of many parts of the airport company, the wider airport community and other stakeholders.
And while these customers are also keen for the information, they are usually more sceptical, especially at the beginning or when there is an unfavourable output.
But an ever-increasing number of airports understand the value of the information and use it to support decision-making in Commercial (retail planning, advertising, tenders, etc; Operations (service and product development, flows, etc; and Airport Planning (transportation requirements, flows, etc).
Quality Assurance and Control also benefit, complementing their own surveys and studies of passenger satisfaction levels.
Sharing this information with the wider airport business community, such as groundhandlers and concessionaires, can improve both service and revenues, with a direct impact on the airport's operational and financial results.
Similarly, sharing tourism data with transport and other state authorities can help them in their planning at the same time as building the airport's image as the source of 'air travel expertise and know-how'.
Abu Dhabi Airports Company (ADAC) has embraced the notion of passenger profiling and has invested in multiple sources, with the passenger survey delivering the largest part of information.
With a sample of 30,000 passengers interviewed annually, year round on a 24-hour basis, the passenger survey delivers a wide range of data for ADAC, which is used throughout the company.
As a result, ADAC has been able to provide airlines with comprehensive market profiles for a destination and a stream of continuous information to support its airline marketing blog. It has also allowed it to better validate the assumptions of Commercial with regards to the buying behaviour of airport passengers.
The survey, for example, showed that Indian Subcontinent passengers – which represent the largest homogenised group at Abu Dhabi International Airport (30%) – have an above average dwell time at the gateway, while they also have a stronger propensity to shop at the retail outlets.
Another interesting discovery is that around 80% of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi and Sri Lankans book through local travel agents.
The first two findings endorsed the importance of further improving the retail offer for this specific group, while the booking profile revealed an excellent communication means to approach them with retail offers – travel agents!
Elsewhere, Athens International Airport used passenger surveys to identify the profile of a new passenger type – the self-connecting passenger.
Capturing this information from other sources had always proven difficult and, as a result of the initiative, Athens was not only able to estimate the number of different passenger types at Athens airport, but also record the dwell time and buying and booking behaviour.
Such intimate knowledge of its passengers, utlimately provided the airport with the opportunity to evaluate the potential of self-connecting passengers and develop a customised service for them.
To sum up, passenger profiling is more than a marketing tool. It can assist in optimising service performance and ensure passenger satisfaction, it can maximise revenues from business opportunities and it can boost route development.
In addition, it can give input to planning and development and identify synergies and potential co-operation prospects with partners and stakeholders.
In a nutshell, it is a comprehensive intelligence mechanism, which can support the business and operational objectives of an airport.