As more and more passengers continue to crowd airports everywhere, airports are looking for new ways to increase passenger satisfaction and spending. One way to accomplish that is through terminal modernization projects. But modernization alone isn’t enough. Wilson Rayfield, executive vice president of aviation at Gresham Smith, discusses how airports can increase passenger spending and satisfaction for the long-term.

Lewis: How will airport investments in terminal modernization pay off with increased passenger satisfaction and spend?

Wilson: It’s a common question, something that’s been going on a lot. A lot of our clients are modernizing, updating facilities and doing that to achieve what you’ve asked about—satisfaction and spend. Part of that is updating concessions, and a lot of airports have a five to seven-year renewal on concessions, so they’re constantly kind of in a state of remaking. The big trends right now are offering concessions that are a combination of local and national brands.

I was recently in Madison, Wisconsin, and they have a really great local-based concessions program airside that provides not only restaurants that are local restaurants that have an airport location now, but they also have a gourmet food store that features a lot of Wisconsin cheeses and local craft beers and some other regional items there. For the airport to not just go to the concessions rebuild and rebrand if you will, but to also let that extend a little bit to the interior of the facility— there’s not a hard line between the airport space and the concessions space. They’re really trying to give a cohesive feel to it.

We always talk [with] our clients about how their facility should represent their location and where they are and where their passengers are coming from. Not only does that kind of tie into the local community to give that home airport feel, but it’s also for the visitor, so within their experience when they visit a place, the airport is a part of the experience.

It’s always been said and it’s a little bit overused, but it’s a very true statement that the airport is the first and last impression that a traveler has of a place. So when you go to Madison or to Richmond, Virginia, or Nashville, Tennessee, whether you have a great trip or not, the very first thing you’re going to see and the very last thing you’re going to see is the airport. It bookends that experience and very often will be part of that journey for a traveler.

Lewis: What elements are most conducive to creating an environment where people spend more?

Wilson: The answer to that varies drastically. It varies based on the airport, on the region, on the type of airport, whether it’s a connecting hub or an O&D location. Then you also have to think about different traveler profiles. For a business traveler versus a leisure traveler, the answer to that question is very different.

I travel frequently for business, and I don’t spend a lot of time in airports as a traveler. I get there just in time and leave there just in time. Where I do end up spending time is in connecting hubs and waiting for connecting flights. The elements that appeal to me are a place that I can get a lunch that’s not a hamburger and French fries— something that’s relatively light or a little bit healthier, and something that’s quick usually because sometimes I have a 30-minute connection, sometimes I have longer.

But for a leisure traveler, and for someone who is on vacation, there are [airports] that have that regional branded gift shop. The occasional time when I do travel and want to bring something back for my kids or my wife, I am often looking for something that is not a cheesy “Welcome to Madison” magnet, but something that is a little bit more authentic. Something that represents the place that I just traveled to. So I think that providing those brands that represent a local environment is of real value.

But I think the other part –  and maybe not [catering] to the spend as much but to the passenger satisfaction is – is a quiet space where I can sit and potentially do some work or make a phone call or stream some entertainment on my iPad. Sitting in a crowded hold room is the last place that I want to be. If I have two hours to kill at an airport, I’m trying to find some kind of a lounge area that’s not crowded, that’s not noisy and maybe has some different kind of seating options or potentially a business center where I can sit at a desk or carrel and get a little bit away from the hustle and bustle of the folks that have got 10 minutes to make a connection versus two hours.

When we work with our clients, we’re often looking to provide a variety of spaces for passengers that have a different set of requirements and expectations for how they want to use the airport. How that translates to spending is, if I can easily find a place that I can camp out for a couple hours, I’m more likely to go buy a drink or something to eat, whereas, if I have a crowded hold room, everything’s jammed and people are moving everywhere, I’m more likely to stand in the corner and try to get out of the way. I think providing an environment that passengers can relax and take some time in puts you at ease and lets you start to think about, well, maybe I will go have a beer or buy something to drink or have a snack or whatever it might be.

Lewis: How can airports incorporate these elements?

Wilson: A lot of times, it’s trying to find or make opportunities for space. Airports are extremely busy, and many are constrained already on space and just trying to handle the growth that they’ve all experienced. All of our clients are seeing a lot of growth in passenger levels, and everyone’s bursting at the seams.

What we try to do is look for underutilized space at an airport. There’s some spaces that may not be as conducive to concessions offerings because they are a little bit off the main path of circulation. But we also look for ways to create more space. A recent project in Norfolk, VA, had an opportunity to renovate the restrooms on the airside. But what they couldn’t do was renovate them in place because on one of the concourses, they only had a single set of restrooms. We came up with an approach to actually expand the concourse to build new restrooms. Once those were complete, allowed us to demolish the old restrooms and reclaim that space, some of which went to hold rooms, some of which went to concessions, and some of which went to extra lounge space for different kinds of seating. It’s a matter of trying to utilize underutilized space and find opportunities to create space; relocating some functions that maybe don’t have to be right off the main passenger circulation flow. A lot of times as airports evolve over decades of expansion, they’ll end up with storage operations or airline break room space that could easily be relocated to another space within the airport that allows you to reclaim that space for passenger amenities.