Stewart Steeves is COO of Vantage Airport Group, an international airport investment, development and management company with a network that currently includes Paphos and Larnaca in Cyprus, as well as La Guardia in the US.
It wasn’t too long ago that many people thought airports would need to be completely redesigned to accommodate social distancing and extra space. As travel resumes, we’re starting to see that’s not the case as pre-pandemic behavior begins to return.
However, one trend that is here to stay is a renewed focus on the passenger experience. It is important to involve all stakeholders in the traveler journey, from check-in and security, to the food, beverage and retail offers. After all, a relaxed passenger is a happy passenger—and a happy passenger eats, drinks and shops.
One of the main things we think about is how we affect the space through design. How can we destress the experience, by bringing in more natural light and controlling noise levels?
Another important factor is how we convey important information. Long queues can be very stressful, but they’re even more stressful when you have no information about how long it might actually be. Conveying that information requires lots of digital screens, information boards and real-time information on queues. Even subtle things like flight information displays that are organized by time to departure rather than alphabetically by destination are helpful. It’s all aiming to reinforce the notion of time and trying to destress people. At our airports, we really feel that the human component is essential as well. Large department stores have greeters; so too should airports. If we can cut some routine tasks like checking boarding passes and redeploy some of those employees to customer service, that will really help passengers as they navigate through the airport. When it comes to the retail environment, it’s important to create an attractive and interesting place to be—a place that’s pleasant to spend time in. We work with our retail and commercial partners to further enhance that.
Thinking about the retail experience, one of the shifts in traveler demographics we’ve seen during the pandemic is the move toward essential retail items and away from some specialty products that may have appealed more to business-orientated passengers. Although the dynamics are returning in terms of pre-pandemic shopping behavior, the deepening shift to online is here to stay—and that can create opportunities for airports to increase non-aeronautical revenues in different ways.
The heightened use of online shopping means that people are not being exposed as much to new products, new ideas and new brands. However, airports provide a wonderful opportunity to display some of those items to customers.
Airports can be an environment to showcase brands and products, as well as enable travelers to interact with them. We therefore need to revisit our economic model, where it’s less about transactions that happen in the airport and more about the exposure and experiential opportunity that airports can offer brands and products.
From a design standpoint, we’re also thinking less about individual branded storefronts, and more about a concept that’s more akin to a department store. That allows us to be flexible and move brands around, while it also offers a lower barrier to entry for vendors from the local community to showcase their products.
However, there’s no one size fits all. Every airport presents an entirely different opportunity, and an entirely different set of passengers. Our passengers represent all manner of demographics—and even the same passenger has different needs depending on the type of their journey. If you’re traveling for business, you have different needs than if you’re traveling with your family. Listening, understanding and reacting to passengers’ needs is therefore crucial as traffic returns.