I had a chance to review the Skift Trend Report issued earlier this week: Airports as Destinations: The Rise of User Experience.
While the airport industry isn’t my area of expertise, the report does bring together some trends that most of us who travel often have probably noticed in recent years. And, after all, who among us aren’t interested in learning that airports, at least some of them, are becoming more functional, user-friendly and “experiential” in a good way?
“Once regarded as purely utilitarian infrastructure, airports are now becoming more integrated with their surroundings and hosting new experiences for passengers and non-passengers alike,” the report’s preface notes.
There are also a few good lessons to be garnered here by other segments of the travel industry. Some, such as the large, mass-market cruise lines, grasped these principles quite a while ago. Since I focus on small-ship and specialty tour marketing and PR, I’ll conclude with how these ideas can enhance the travel experience for passengers and guests of these operators, too.
Airports as Destinations points to the deregulation of the airline industry back in 1978 as a starting point for renewed airport planning, despite the many bumps in the road we’ve experienced since then – beefed-up security checkpoints and frustrating accessibility, to name a few. Airlines have more latitude in selecting airports as part of their own business plan (rather than the government’s), and industry consolidation now has airports competing for fewer airlines. So, supply and demand is alive if not completely well, even in the airport business.
With that said, recent polls indicating the world's best 25 airports still don’t include any in the US, so there is plenty of room for improvement. Part of the challenge is the mature infrastructure of US airports compared with that of emerging nations, where a lot of attention and money can be applied toward new international gateway airports with ample space to grow. The public-private partnerships that manage most US airports also create hurdles for their limited budgets to overcome.
Looking for revenue
beyond the runway
The increase in low-cost carriers in the past two decades plus dwindling landing and rental fees from the airlines themselves have pushed airports to look for new ways to generate income. Travelers in search of food and other amenities that used to be provided as part of the onboard experience are now turning to better quality retailers and concessioners to supply these needs. These new sources now account for a surprisingly large percentage of overall airport revenue in North America.
The report covers the reasons why travelers are not only spending more time in airports, but also why they are choosing airports not solely based on proximity to their homes. The takeaway is that airport management increasingly sees an opportunity to build their brand, through an “investment in experiences” for travelers, their families, staff and even the broader local community.
without giving up the local flavor
Other trends noted in the report point to the significant amount of business activity conducted these days close to or even at airports, which can be much more accessible for a company’s far-flung employees or customers than a city’s central business district. Nevertheless, business travelers still want a flavor and “sense of place” of the destination. Airports are capitalizing on this, opening new locations of highly rated or unique local restaurants on site, in order to further differentiate themselves. It sure makes sense: why not aim for something beyond the stereotypic airport with its ubiquitous national food chains?
Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport, for example, has become a destination for suburban residents because of its satellite locations of in-demand downtown restaurants…and without the waiting lines. Denver International Airport boasts a new 15-mile rail line from town, new conference center and hotel, and a public plaza large enough for festivals and cultural events, all designed to bring in and engage the community.
In addition to the draw of fine cuisine, some airports – San Francisco, Amsterdam, and Charles DeGaulle in Paris – have invested heavily in high-end shopping, entertainment and fine arts. Concerts are offered in the airports of music hubs Nashville TN and Austin TX. Emerging artists in Chicago, too, are getting more foot traffic and eyeballs at O’Hare than they do at local galleries.
that are available for everyone
Airport planners are increasingly savvy to the idea that more than just airline club members are looking for comfort, and this includes non-passengers as well as those traveling in coach. Quiet lounges, showers, “minute suites,” spas and massages, free WiFi and other amenities are all becoming increasingly available to regular folks and to airport employees. The reports cites an interesting survey that points to the most-wanted airport features, and it simply makes sense to monetize the time that people are spending on premise. Munich Airport sports an adjacent “Air-brau” brewery, winter market and skating rink, not to mention a surfing pool.
Such airport amenities catch the eye of the press, whose coverage catches the eye of travelers, whose increased numbers to that airport catch the eye of potential new airlines and retailers…and away we go.
even more time
“Going mobile” isn’t just about getting on a plane anymore. It’s also about helping travelers use their mobile devices to streamline the check-in, baggage-drop and gate-locating processes. We’ve seen this underway in many locations, and can expect more and even better applications ahead.
This translates into less stress and more time to seek out amenities (i.e. spend money). Airline staffs, too, are increasingly using iPads and other mobile devices to get out from behind the counters and to engage travelers on their turf. Airports and airlines are realizing that free Wifi creates a win-win situation, helping to reduce choke points and direct people where they want or need to be.
What does this mean
for small ship operators?
The full report is worth a read, not only for the information and examples cited, but also for the ideas that can be overlaid on other travel industry segments. For example, big ship operators launched similar income-generating features aboard their ever-larger cruise vessels more than two decades ago.
Included in this strategy were top-flight chefs opening restaurants on board, more diverse and youth-focused activities – rock climbing walls, ice-skating rinks and surf pools – and giant atrium malls chock-a-block with high-end luxury boutiques. The ship becomes the destination, and that’s fine considering the huge percentage of the public of all ages that these operators must attract week in and week out, and the need to keep basic cruise tariffs very low to initially attract customers.
Small ship and riverboat operators, on the other hand, can’t pursue this revenue strategy for the most part, due to lack of space on board and a customer demographic that is generally more culturally curious and not as caught up in such trendy activities. These operators pretty much all sing from the same songbook when it comes to extolling the benefits of small ship and small group travel. They all know the advantages, and are pretty adept at conveying them to prospective travelers.
Nevertheless, some sing better than others, and many smaller operators can do more to engage their passengers and give a truer “sense of place” of the regions and local communities through which they pass. And that, in turn, helps to set them apart from their competitors and attracts new prospects. Here are a few ideas – some not original and already incorporated into a few operators’ programs, to be sure.
Better shore excursions. I’m always amazed when I see a small ship operator offering the same shore excursions as their competitors or even mass-market vessels. Sometimes this can’t be helped, but it can also be the result of not enough digging and searching for fresh options by the advance planning team that can further differentiate the product and offer the passenger a really memorable experience.
Local lecturers and entertainers. Like the pursuit of unique shore excursions, a small ship’s enrichment program should take advantage of local experts, historians or musicians who not only know their stuff, but who are good at conveying it in a captivating, authentic manner. This is easier said than done, of course, and finding such resources requires ongoing, diligent effort. And while the ship is underway between ports, small ships should enlist knowledgeable locals who can comment on passing landmarks, architecture and historic sites. It can be frustrating for passengers to cruise by a medieval ruin and not have the opportunity to know what it is.
Local produce and regionally inspired cuisine. It means a lot when passengers see the ship’s chef shopping at the local farmers market. Yes, it’s surely easier to repeat a set menu cruise after cruise, but small ships should try to be as nimble in this department as in the waters they ply.
Better, more mobile destination information. Ships, even small ones, have a strong tradition of onboard libraries, guidebooks and handouts about the destinations visited. This can now be augmented with files and apps that can be downloaded onto tablets and smart phones. This allows the passenger to manage all of their information in one handy device, including emergency information, ship’s locations and departure times, and links to relevant cultural websites. Cruise directors can even text passengers who lose track of time wandering around a beautiful village. Great uses for these devices aboard small ships have just begun!
The media and social media. Getting attention from the press is never easy for either a new or an established small ship operator. But marketing and PR folks often focus too much on physical aspects of a ship or riverboat and not enough on what really sets apart from the competition the experience their passenger will have. Small ships are really about immersion in a destination and engagement with the community and culture in a way that’s just not possible aboard a large ship.
This immersion carries over to Facebook, Instagram and Pinterest, as guests enthusiastically report their activities to friends and family back home. (Hint: make sure the WiFi is up and running with plenty of bandwidth.) Hopefully, passengers are made aware of the operator’s social media sites and encouraged to post there as well. It generates a buzz that keeps customers engaged and loyal, and virtually brings their friends and acquaintances on board as future cruise prospects.
destination? Big ship as destination?
Great goals, indeed. But small ships and riverboats shouldn’t feel the need to aim for this, because they’re all about the real destination – a region’s people, culture, beauty and history – and always have been. Small vessels can capitalize on what I’ve touched on in a previous blog – The 4Es – to enhance user experience. By focusing on education, enrichment, entertainment and engagement, small vessel operators can create a “sense of place” in ways that big ships and airports simply can’t. The five ideas mentioned above are ways to build on the 4Es, and this in turn builds brand loyalty, repeat customers and great prospects.