The Airport: Your New Third Place?

Fueled by strategic brand partnerships and customer-centric use of technology, are airports turning into our new “third place”? In recent years, being in-transit has become, for many people, the least enjoyable part of travel. In fact, the best part of the journey for many is simply reaching their intended destination. Fortunately, many airports are busy figuring out how to make the customer experience more efficient, relevant, and enjoyable.

More than an airport

Just as Starbucks famously aspired to be our “third place” between home and the office, airports have an opportunity, and are indeed striving to, play a significant role in peoples’ lives between home and destination.

Of course, some airports have been destination brands for years. Nashville International Airport has showcased live country music in its terminal since 1988, making residents feel at home and giving travelers a taste of the city’s rich musical heritage. Since 2006, Hong Kong International Airport has boasted a nine-hole golf course created to USGA standards, a first in the country. And, since 2010, the Kuala Lumpur International Airport offers has offered travelers a tropical oasis at the center of its donut-shaped terminal, a rainforest (complete with a sculptured waterfall) called the Jungle Boardwalk.

But now, through more customer-focused use of technologies, airports are evolving into digitally enhanced destination brands—trialing new innovations and partnering with airlines and food and beverage outlets to offer travelers new levels of convenience and enjoyment while in transit.

Striking for their ambition to make an architectural statement, new airports across the globe are also setting themselves up with a focus to integrate digital technology into their physical infrastructures for the benefit of the airport, airlines, and consumers alike.

Likely to be a hit with travelers from all over, Singapore’s proposed new “Jewel” at Changi Airport aims to make a dramatic statement. Its impressive plans include glass biosphere-style structures filled with plants and a gigantic waterfall. Scheduled for completion in 2018, the massive structure at its core will be 10 stories—five above ground and five underground—integrating airport facilities, with retail and leisure outlets.

Digitally enhanced destination brands

Not only are airports striving to create more spectacular experiences aesthetically, they are also getting much more efficient and sophisticated technologically. Already, experimentation is underway with automated bag drops, biometric passport gates, facial recognition systems, airport navigation devices, real time messaging regarding flight schedules, and a plethora of potential advancements that aim to address security issues. Changi Airport’s upcoming Terminal 4, for example, will be highly automated in an effort to “redefine”  the travel experience through cutting-edge design and a more seamless process.

Giving travelers a taste of the smarter, more connected airports to come, London City Airport has recently been awarded a government grant to run an “Internet of Things” (IoT) demonstrator. The objective is to trial cross-technology networking in an effort to reduce many of the hassles associated with flying. If they succeed, missing luggage, delayed flights, and long security lines could be things of the past.

Taking a more inspirational approach, San Francisco International Airport created #converge@flySFO, a space dedicated to the exchange of ideas about technology, start-ups, the shared economy, disruption, travel, politics, and ways to change the world. Beyond creating amenities in the airport, SFO is building on the city’s reputation as the innovation capital of the world and transforming the airport’s traditional role as a transport hub. Reimagining what an airport can be, SFO has created a space of convergence, exchange, and education that engages, inspires—and encourages the kind of innovation it embodies.

Facilitators, integrators, entertainers

Technology certainly promises to make the flying experience easier, but it’s in the areas of non-flying revenues where airports may see the biggest financial opportunities. Faster processing speeds when traveling means potentially more time at the airport. And, for airports that become destinations, lingering longer won’t just be something travelers do to kill time. Those who are traveling will get there earlier or stay longer simply because it’s a fun place to be—and some, who are not traveling at all, may come just to experience all the airport has to offer. Multi-media entertainment, beacon transmitters that send messages regarding retail discounts, and virtual shopping walls that use QR codes will all be part of a seamless experience that will entice travelers to stay longer and spend more.

At its best, the airport is an integrator, where “joined up experiences” can be created through practical use of technology and direct partnerships between the airport and other brands. Here are eight examples that show how technology and smart partnerships are revolutionizing travel experiences around the world:

Heathrow + Virgin Airlines ensure passenger comfort — In 2014, Virgin Atlantic trialed wearables like Google Glass and Sony smartwatches, along with thermometer-equipped NFC beacons, in its Upper Class lounge at London Heathrow Airport. Information enabled wearables allowed staff to begin the check-in process as soon as customers arrived. Meanwhile, beacons alerted airport lounge staff about temperature changes, encouraging them to bring blankets out to passengers on the outdoor deck.

Changi + JetStar Asia streamline the boarding process — Changi Airport in Singapore recently trialed self-service kiosks and bag drops in association with airline JetStar Asia. To speed journeys, the trial allowed selected passengers to print their own boarding passes and luggage tags at a kiosk and then drop their luggage at a designated counter.

Gatwick + Regus give digital nomads a place to work Embracing the idea of the mobile workspace, London Gatwick Airport partnered with workspace provider Regus to install “workboxes” at departure areas to give digital nomads a private, self-contained, and fully-resourced space to work before boarding.

Schiphol Airport + Philips Design cast traveling in a new light — Based on passenger insights, Schiphol Airport and Philips Design worked together to integrate ambient lighting, video displays, and sound technology to create an immersive new “people-focused” experience design . Programmable lighting and animated video make the check-in and boarding process more intuitive and pleasant and also create the right atmosphere for business passengers to work.

JetBlue + Apple enable contactless payment — JetBlue is set to be the first airline to accept payment via Apple Pay for onboard purchases, including certain food and beverage products and “Even More Space” seat upgrades. Planned for the middle of 2015, passengers with an iPhone 6, iPhone 6 Plus or an Apple Watch, which will be launched in the US shortly, will be able to make use of Apple Pay, which offers secure, Near Field Communication (NFC)-enabled contactless payment using an Apple device.

If you would like to contact Stuart Green about any of the opinions or insights expressed in this article, please send an email to hello@interbrand.com.

Contributors

Chief Executive Officer, Asia-Pacific