Rather than shutting up shop, airports and their retail tenants need to embrace the sort of experimentation we’ve seen from high-street counterparts.

If you thought the high street was suffering a COVID-induced (or rather accelerated) crisis, spare a moment to consider their partners in an altogether more barren land: airport retailers. Recent data released by airport trade association Airports Council International shows that traffic is down by more than 90% this year, with end-of-year estimates being that 4.6 billion fewer passengers will pass through airports in 2020, resulting in a $97 billion reduction in revenue. Projections by the International Air Transport Association show that 25 million jobs are at currently at risk in airlines and associated travel businesses.

However those running concourse concessions will be heartened to hear that, rather than becoming another victim of the current crisis, some believe they may well be central to many airports’ continued survival. Writing in a recent op-ed for International Airport Review, Cristobal Correa, associate principal at engineering firm Buro Happol, says that he sees the current downturn as a chance for airports to reinvent themselves as destinations rather than mere gateways. ‘Airports provide vast spaces which accommodate abundant amenities; dozens of restaurants and retail outlets which provide a comfortable setting for travellers in and out of the country,’ explains Correa. ‘Currently, the bulk of this is located airside. However, to maximize benefits, there is a strong case to also target those who are landside. What operators should be looking at more and more isn’t just how to impress tourists, but how to draw in local people for the same experience.’

Correa points to a recent project Buro Happol was involved in – the Jewel at Singapore's Changi Airport – as an example. Despite being voted the world’s best airport for the eighth year in a row, Changi is far from immune to the travel industry’s current coma. Indeed its owners have been forced to implement salary cuts of as much as 30% for management and staff. The silver lining? Last year they opened a 1.5-million-sq-ft shopping and entertainment complex called Jewel. The new addition has since added 2.6% in revenue, helping offset losses elsewhere. ‘Jewel is a new icon for Singapore and has redefined what it means to be an airport,’ said Changi Airport Group.

But if airports are going to become a more fundamental part of the retail mix, they also need to look more closely at best practice across channels. This was fundamental to points made by many of the participants in Portland Design’s recent Future Airports: From Here to Where symposium, especially as advanced biometric and sensor technologies start to soften the security border. ‘One of the problems in global travel retail is that it hasn’t been that burning platform that the high street has had to be,’ said Kim Gray, director of Business Developments Airports & Travel Retail Europe for Unibail-Rodamco-Westfield. ‘Consumers know what to expect every time. . .airport owners need make it not too expensive to run temporary retail and aggregate brands that create personality. The challenge for airports is to have that level of flexibility.’

Miya Knights, head of industry insight at Eagle Eye Solutions, agreed that travel retail has to up its tempo: ‘There needs to be less reliance on physical formats and more experimentation with pop-ups. Using those digital tools to stand up an idea without going full roll out. Direct-to-consumer brands would be in a good position to test out new locations at airports. They would welcome the opportunity to market to such demographically diverse audiences with relatively low risk and low expenditure for infrastructure should the spaces become available.’

Ultimately, airport owners and tenants have to look at this as ‘another opportunity to learn from domestic retail’ according to Lewis Allen, Portland Design’s strategy director. ‘It’s about that curation of tenants, brands and concessions that mean we can look to a broader portfolio; including new start-ups, new behaviours, new mindsets.’

Hero image: In Changi Airport’s Terminal 4, experiential design studio Moment Factory translated trompe l'oeil into multimedia architecture, responding to the shifting landscape of retail and travel with engaging and surprising digital storytelling. Photo: Courtesy of Moment Factory