Catchy Concessions

Consumer confidence is the benchmark of an economy’s growth, and the same is used when measuring airport concessions’ success. From branding with famous chefs and local appeal, to services like walking paths and upscale pet boarding, airport concessions are making a statement in consumer confidence, and it’s a big one. It’s a way to build revenue, but also consumer loyalty and following in today’s competitive market.

John Reeb, a senior principal property manager at San Francisco International Airport (SFO), says airports are not quite at the stage where they are selling the destination, but that is coming. Frequent fliers know which airports have certain amenities, and with more people booking their own flights, “if they know their favorite steakhouse is at Hartsfield-Jackson International in Atlanta, they will book through Atlanta,” he says matter-of-factly.

John Greer from Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport (MSP) agrees. This assistant director of Concessions and Business Development reports the industry is definitely heading in that direction, and on some levels, is already there.

To become the airport of choice, branding is playing a large role in developing an attractable and sustainable concessions program. But it needs to be balanced with maintaining the regional flair travelers expect when passing through their favorite cities.


Local Branding Pays

Branding is hot in today’s airport concessions, says Reeb. From famous chefs like Cat Cora to high-end designers, such as Michael Kors, names sell. In 2004, his San Francisco airport moved from 30 years of a master concessionaire model to direct leasing with local restaurateurs. “We went to a quality program rather than the cookie-cutter, snack bar, traditional one,” he explains.

And in the first true year-to-year comparison (2003 versus 2006), concessions’ revenue jumped nearly 112 percent, he adds.

Airports in areas known for their local cuisine can capitalize on that, Reeb notes. SFO’s home run came with its Napa Farms Market, the centerpiece of Terminal 2’s food program. This spin-off from the city’s Ferry Building Marketplace offers passengers a place to grab a last-minute bottle of wine, fresh produce or quick bite as they head out of town. Local Food Network Chef Tyler Florence has a stand in the market, as does a local wood-fired pizza place. Gourmet cupcakes and organic coffee put the frosting on the cake for this first-of-its-kind airport concession. “It has been a huge success,” says Reeb. “The first month it was open they had no idea how successful it would be. The market was running out of stock by Noon, which was a good problem to have.”

Local branding runs even stronger at SFO. Perry’s, a long-standing bar and grill in the city, and the city’s famous Buena Vista Café, serve passengers a local experience as well as good food. Brewer Gordon Biersch brings its renowned beer and garlic fries to the facility.

“If you’re able to bring in recognizable concepts that people will gravitate toward, it generates more revenue, but also a perceived quality and value,” Reeb explains.


Know Thy Customer

An Irish pub is being built at Miami International Airport (MIA). Adrian Songer, MIA chief of Aviation Business and Revenue Development, says he didn’t come up with the idea; the owner of its Cuban restaurant did.

While MIA is well-known for its Latin flair through dining, shopping and décor, Songer says diversity remains an important element in airport concessions development. For example, Gate D8 will once again host British travelers this summer, and Songer explains there’s a profit to be made if Johnnie Walker and scones are available near the gate. “It’s worth the effort to tailor the concessions assortment to the destination people are traveling,” he says.

Songer adds it’s important to offer both quick-serve and sit-down restaurant choices. And there needs to be some variety in both. Some people want the known quality of a Wendy’s, while others prefer the regional flavor of its Cuban restaurant, Kuva. “Success comes with a blend and balance,” he says.

The blend and balance is met by relying on the concessions experts. When the Cuban restaurateur developed the idea for an Irish pub, Songer says he never would have thought to put that in Miami, “but that’s their business.”

Knowing what the customer wants is key to a profitable and recognized concessions’ program. Whether working with a developer, master concessionaire or direct lease program, communicating and developing a positive relationship with tenants is a must to maintaining consistency and quality in the program.

Walking the airport daily and hosting regular meetings keeps executives and decision-makers in tune with what the market demands. “We need to keep up with what’s current, but also anticipate what will be hot in the future,” Reeb says.

MSP has found great benefit in teaming with St. Paul’s Hamline University’s MBA students to keep tabs on what’s hot and what’s not. The students do passenger survey work for the airport as part of their final projects. “They talk to passengers at different times of the day, days of the week, and interview them,” Greer says. Each quarter, a new group surveys on a different topic. A recent one was on local brands versus national.

He says that in all the RFPs, MSP also incorporates some localness. The airport wants to tell visitors through décor, customer service and concessions that they are in Minnesota and the friendly Midwest. Greer says he and his staff are very involved with their vendors, and talk about menus and product offerings on a regular basis. A Customer Service Action Council also meets monthly to discuss what “we can do to raise the bar,” he says.

While Miami has grown its program through mere space (more than 2 million square feet in Songer’s time), it also has grown in notoriety. Songer feels he and his team are doing something right, since sales have increased significantly every year. He gives much credit to the “excellent” vendors who listen when their customers ask if they do, or why they don’t, offer certain options. They know the client better than anyone, and it shows in the awards the airport has won for its concessions program.


Consumer Comforts

MSP has three spas (two with hair salons), and all are successful. The availability of consumer comforts is becoming increasingly common in airport terminals around the globe. In the United States, walking paths, USB charging stations, kids’ high-tech interactive play areas and even animal services are the new expected amenities for air travel.

MSP’s 1.4-mile walking path was developed through collaboration with the American Heart Association, while yoga is a popular relaxation option in SFO’s Terminal 2.

The other big program at MSP has been at the airport’s G Concourse, where Greer has worked with OTG Management to develop new direct-to-gate conveniences. Instead of the normal gate waiting chairs, restaurant-style tables are in their place, with iPads placed at each one. Guests can order food, gifts, etc. from nearby concessionaires directly off the iPad and wait until the order arrives at their table.

The Now Boarding pet facility on airport property is another service that’s receiving much acclaim from both the airport and traveling community. It’s open 24 hours a day so that if individuals want to pick up their pets after their 10 p.m. flight lands, they can. It’s also a place for travelers to park their vehicle, and be shuttled to the airport terminal and back.

Greer says that whether a business, leisure or in-between traveler, everyone wants something different during their time at an airport. With a well thought-out mix of famous brands, local and national favorites, and customer services, a facility can be one sought out the next time a passenger is booking flights.


About the Author

Jen Bradley,

Owner, Bradley Bylines

Bradley is a freelance writer based in East Troy, Wis. She specializes in writing about aviation issues and can be reached via her website,