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Airports embrace local design, dining and retail
March 4, 2011
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  • By Roger Yu

    Ever get off a flight, walk into a terminal, look around and wonder where you are?

    Many airports have a sameness to them. Concourse designs, signs for chain restaurants and rows of familiar-looking plastic seats say: I could be anywhere in the USA.

    That’s changing. Airports in many parts of the country are incorporating local history, themes and images to reflect the region they’re in. They’re doing it architecturally as they construct or rebuild terminals.

    They’re adding local flavor by signing deals with local restaurants and retailers to take dining and shopping beyond the standard menus and wares of national chains.

    Their goal is not only to reflect a unique local feel, but to distinguish themselves amid intense competition for air service and a need for more revenue. And, some say, it’s paying off.

    “The airport needs to serve as the mouthpiece or showcase for tourism and business within the city and the region,” says Mark Gale, CEO of Philadelphia International Airport. “It’s the old clichŽ: It’s the first and last thing (a traveler sees). And sometimes, it’s the only thing. It’s important to make a statement.”

    Many airports, such as Raleigh-Durham International, are making such statements – in overarching ways.

    Raleigh-Durham’s new Terminal 2, which was completed in January, is a sloping stainless steel structure designed by North Carolina-born architect Curtis Fentress to evoke the low, rolling hills of the Piedmont mountains that wind through much of the state.

    The terminal’s wooden ceiling beams are a tribute to the area’s legacy of furniture manufacturing. Stainless steel and large windows are meant to reflect progress and the Research Triangle’s technology orientation.

    “Passengers tend to get a picture fairly quickly that there’s a story being told,” says John Brantley, the airport’s director. “Folks have associated us with The Andy Griffith (show) for so many years. We’re no longer Mayberry. This terminal reflects that the region has grown up.”

    Other airports, such as Los Angeles International, are going very local with food and retail stores that give travelers a taste of regional cuisine and indigenous or locally produced goods.

    When the airport approved new concession contracts for Terminals 4, 5, 7 and 8 in October, airport officials announced “almost all” of the stores and restaurants would be based on concepts and brands that have Southern California roots.

    “I thought it was very important to reflect flavors of L.A.,” says Gina Marie Lindsey, executive director of Los Angeles World Airports, a city agency that runs the airport. “There is a tremendous amount of diversity in L.A.”

    Examples: Lemonade, a Los Angeles-based restaurant created by chef Alan Jackson to serve simple American cuisine, will open there later this year. Engine Co. No. 28, an upscale restaurant created by local chef Kenneth McCaskill after restoring a firehouse in downtown Los Angeles, will also locate there.

    A bigger local role

    Efforts by airports in the past to reflect their locale have largely been easy, cosmetic ones, such as rotating public art exhibits and making the ads of local events and institutions prominent.

    Now, they’ve widened their creative scope as they wrest more control of terminals from financially struggling airlines that have always objected to large airport spending, which is passed on to them and their customers.

    Airports’ increasing reliance on non-aviation revenue – food and beverage, retail shops and parking – to make up for shrinking airline rent and landing fees has also stirred their creative urge, rooted in the belief that more diverse, local offerings will drive travelers to spend more.

    “There is more of an approach to make (airports) a visitor center,” says Bill Hooper of Gensler, an airport architecture firm. “If you can make terminals feel more comfortable and interesting, people do (account for that) in making decisions on what airport they want to fly to.”

    Know where you are

    Airports’ ambitions to stamp a location on themselves are reflected most conspicuously in their approach to design.

    Providing “geographical context” is a new, common goal in designing new terminals, architect Fentress says.

    “For a long period of time, airports were treated as big blank boxes,” he says. “Buildings are picture postcards and are important in marking a place.”

    An early Fentress project – the white fabric tops of Denver International that are suggestive of the snow-capped Rocky Mountains – broke new ground and won global acclaim.

    Fentress applied a similar approach at Seattle-Tacoma, where he designed terminals with an airy, open feel to let in the bright Northwest light. Its Pacific Marketplace, a food and retail center of the airport, was built to recall Seattle’s bustling Pike Place Market downtown.

    Other terminal projects are taking a similar approach. The exterior of San Jose International’s Terminal B in California, completed in 2009 at a cost of $1.5 billion, shows “the unraveling of a coaxial cable,” with the billowy steel structure “establishing the airport’s relationship with Silicon Valley,” says airport spokesman David Vossbrink.

    “The irony is coaxial is old technology, and we laugh about that,” he says. “But Silicon Valley is an attitude. You’ll see an airport that is high quality, efficient and uses technology.”

    The design of Los Angeles’ Bradley Terminal, currently under extensive renovation, features wavy roof panels that resemble waves coming in from the Pacific Ocean, Lindsey says.

    Their construction projects aren’t cheap and travelers usually pay for the bulk of the costs. For instance, Los Angeles, Raleigh-Durham and San Jose all charge $4.50 per each leg of the trip for travelers, collected to pay off their bonds for years after the projects are completed. Airports continue to lobby to increase the so-called “passenger facility charge” to up to $7.00.

    Not just for bigger airports

    Smaller airports are also using the strategy.

    The stonework-patterned exterior of Will Rogers World Airport in Oklahoma City is a tribute to the quarries of Oklahoma’s Sandstone Hills region. The wooden beams supporting the canopy and windows of Jackson Hole Airport’s main terminal give it a lodge-atmosphere that evokes the wild west of Wyoming.

    “To have (the features) show up there, it just feels right,” says Hooper of Gensler, which worked on the projects.

    When it was commissioned to redesign the boxy buildings of the Long Island MacArthur Airport in New York, Gensler installed terrazzo floors using local seashells to signify its proximity to beaches.

    “They were interested in ways to say, ‘We’re out in Long Island. It’s a gateway to beaches,’ ” Hooper says.

    Indoors, airports typically hire master developers every few years to run shops and restaurants. In their bid requests for contracts, more airports are giving preference to those that emphasize local flavors, says Terry Mahlum of Delaware North, a concessions developer.

    San Francisco International, which competes with Los Angeles for international service, has embraced the local approach for several years.

    Nearly all restaurants at the airport are concepts created by local chefs or spinoff locations from the more established restaurants in town, a conversion that has resulted in increased sales, says Cheryl Nashir, the airport’s associate deputy director who oversees concessions.

    “It’s also about showing pride in our region,” Nashir says. “We think we are special, and we want to showcase that. Travelers want (an) authentic, quality experience, and they’re willing to pay for it.”

    Minneapolis-St. Paul has pushed to woo more local businesses in the past five years, and about half its restaurants now have regional ties. Sales per passenger at the airport, where travelers can try local walleye fish, have risen about 15% during the period, says John Greer, assistant director of concession.

    Tapping its live music heritage, Austin Bergstrom International and concessions developer Delaware North began courting local musicians in recent years to perform in bars and restaurants. While enlivening the mood at the airport, the strategy also has helped boost sales by 3 cents per passenger when there is a live performance, Mahlum of Delaware North says.

    Highland Lakes Bar, a generically Austin-themed bar at the airport, was converted into Ray Benson’s Asleep at the Wheel, a roadhouse bar, last year. And with Benson occasionally performing there, it saw a “nice jump in revenue,” Mahlum says.

    In Philadelphia, about a quarter of the airport’s retail shops and restaurants have local ties. “I’d like to see the number increase slightly,” says Gale, airport CEO.

    When San Jose reissued concession bids in 2008, it sought to have about half of the shops with local business connections. It’s now one of the few airports in the U.S. with no national burger chain, having replaced Burger King with Mojo Burger. “We still hear from passengers who look for McDonald’s,” Vossbrink says.

    Also fueling the localization drive is a desire to spur alcohol sales. More airports are opening bars and wine shops that sell local products.

    At Raleigh-Durham, travelers can buy locally produced wine at Carolina Vintages. Santa Cruz Wine Bar at San Jose airport also sells regional products. Denver International’s New Belgium Hub offers Fat Tire, a locally brewed beer.

    Was it made here?

    Airports have been less successful in converting retail shops. But some are working hard to get local retailers to their premises.

    About half the shops at San Francisco have local roots, but it says it wants more jewelry designers, bath and body concepts and artisan chocolate-makers from the city.

    Denver International will launch a new initiative later this year for 38 small kiosk operators, aimed at small businesses.

    “It gives us a new venue to project the local culture,” says Leah Older, the airport’s manager of ancillary revenues.

    The localization strategy isn’t suitable for all airports, says Joe DiDomizio of Hudson Group, an airport retailer.

    Airports that cater mostly to transit traffic, such as Atlanta or Detroit, will have customers who want and seek the brands they recognize.

    Besides, DiDomizio says, having local concepts matters less than execution and quality.

    Otherwise, he says, “You can have Starbucks with 50 people in line. What good is that?”

    USA TODAY2011-03-03false