Locally Inspired Design, Restaurant Offerings Enhance the Airport Retailing Experience

Airports by and large are jumping on the “shop local” bandwagon, offering more and more locally based dining options. Airports that infuse the local character into their design and restaurant and retail offerings will likely entice travelers to stop and spend their dollars.

Chicago Midway International Airport is set to undergo a major renovation of its concessions and food offerings. In February, the city council approved the ordinance authorizing a concession redevelopment and management lease agreement with Midway Partnership LLC to redevelop, manage and operate the airport’s concessions program. The partnership is comprised of Vantage Airport Group, SSP America and Hudson Group.

Meanwhile at Chicago O’Hare International Airport, passengers can enjoy three different terminal locations of Tortas Frontera, a Mexican restaurant under the leadership of local chef Rick Bayless. Both Condé Nast Traveler and Bon Appétit have named the eatery America’s best airport restaurant.

In March, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel proposed a plan that would allow food trucks, a staple for Chicago’s culinary scene, to set up on site at O’Hare and Midway airports. Current regulations regarding food truck locations would be modified under the proposal, according to local media reports.

“The implementation of local venues is pretty much expected now. If there’s a famous restaurant in town, people will want a branch in the airport,” says Leesa Coller, a design principal based in the St. Louis office of HOK, an architecture and design firm.

HOK has designed numerous airport terminals across the world. In the Midwest, HOK has designed terminals in St. Louis, Indianapolis and Grand Rapids, Mich.

At the Indianapolis International Airport, HOK designed a 200-foot-wide Civic Plaza space at the heart of the Colonel H. Weir Cook Terminal. All travelers must pass through this space, where food, retail, art and community events come together.

The success of the communal space and airport experience has been well documented. J.D. Power and Associates, Airports Council International and Condé Nast Traveler have all ranked the airport number one in recent North American reports based on customer satisfaction.

The Indianapolis airport earned the J.D. Power award because it embodies the traveler preference, which includes the design of wide open concourses so that passengers can move easily from shops and restaurants, including local eating establishments such as Café Patachou, Harry & Izzy’s and Shapiro’s Deli, according to Marsha Stone, senior director of commercial enterprise at the Indianapolis Airport Authority (IAA).

The IAA is currently in the process of launching a concession makeover at the airport. Thirty-six existing concessionaire and retailer leases will expire in 2018, according to Stone, which she says presents an opportunity for the IAA to take food, beverage and retail in a fresh direction, one that shouts “We are Indianapolis.”

The goal of the concession refresh plan is to showcase local foods, beverages and brands that represent the Indianapolis culture and community. IAA also aims to continue propel the local economy. The airport’s concessionaires and retailers currently generate more than $40 million in sales revenue each year.

The concession refresh plan is also part of IAA’s larger Terminal and Campus Optimization strategy, which was launched in 2015. This strategic effort was put in place to ensure the airport remains relevant and locally connected as it approaches its 10-year anniversary in 2018.

“The IAA is working to instill a ‘sense of place’ that represents the culture of the city via the use of textures, colors and iconic elements representative of Hoosier history and contemporary lifestyle,” says Stone. “Hoosier” is the colloquial term for people from the state of Indiana, as well as the name for Indiana University’s sports teams.

Kevin Kelly, president of Delaware North’s travel business, echoes this sentiment, citing the “sense of place” theme as a current trend in airport retailing. Delaware North manages food service and retail at more than 30 airports in the United States, Great Britain and Australia.

“While [the amount of] traditional souvenirs are declining, consumers are looking for travel and convenience stores to connect them to the area or airport. This can occur within the overall branding of the store, local food offerings and the remaining traditional apparel and souvenirs,” he says.

Airport retail sales can generate thousands of dollars per square foot given limited space and captured audiences, according to David Just, spokesman for Westfield Corp., an airport developer.

Outdoor lounges in demand

Paradies Lagardère, a travel retail company, operates more than 850 stores and restaurants in 98 airports across North America. The company works with major Midwest airports such as Chicago Midway, Detroit Metropolitan Airport, Des Moines International Airport, Indianapolis International Airport and Kansas City International Airport to deliver casual and quick-serve restaurants and bars, including local brands.

 “Airports determine the types of stores and dining options they want to offer passengers based on demographic studies and other research, and include this in request for proposals (RFPs) for new retail and dining,” says Nicole Linton, marketing manager. “We work with our airport partners to meet those needs with both national and international brands, as well as local concepts adapted to an airport setting.”

Paradies Lagardère manages the full dining program at Long Beach Airport in California, which is known for its uniqueness of implementing restaurant space with outdoor lounges. HOK recently completed a modernization project at the airport, and now says that passengers will deboard, collect their bags and opt to stay for a drink or dinner because of the upscale offerings.

A move toward outdoor lounges is a trend that other airports, such as Tampa International Airport, are implementing.

“An outdoor terrace can greatly enhance space utilization at minimal cost, and it provides that variety of service that customers are looking for,” says Coller.

Future flights

HOK’s work on the East Terminal at St. Louis Lambert International Airport occurred before the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 that led to the collapse of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City. The attack, which used planes as weapons, has greatly affected airport design, according to Coller.

Now that passengers linger in airports longer due to security wait times, concession spaces need to be larger and more convenient for passengers. In short, more concession space means more potential revenue for the airport.

Coller also suggests airports consider shortening lease agreements to get rid of underperforming concessions. She points out that the airport authority at the Denver airport requires every concession to redo its space every five years.

“Airports in general need to look seriously at how every square foot is being used. If only a few passengers are using the space, then perhaps it needs to be reconsidered,” she says.

Looking ahead, a significant trend for the future of airport retailing is what HOK refers to as “passenger flow intelligence.” Readers installed in light fixtures can track passengers via their smart phones. This technological advancement has the potential to weigh significantly on revenue generation, improve operations and response time to emergency situations, says Coller.

Analyzing passenger movement can help determine when and where retail spending is most likely to take place. According to Coller, 10 extra minutes spent in security reduces an average passenger’s retail spending by 30 percent.

Some airports already offer travelers the option of ordering food by phone and having it delivered to their gate lounge.

“Look for airports to make quantum leaps in retailing and the overall customer experience over the next 10 years,” says Just of Westfield. “Stores outside of airports are seeing rapid change with new technology, and that will dynamically change the airport experience too.”

 Kristin Hiller

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