Airports as a destination brand asset
‘Destinations exist when they are relevant.’ - Wally Olins
Passing through Doha’s breathtaking Hamad International Airport en route to Tbilisi a couple of months ago, not only did I spend two hours in awe, but I was also able to get a sense of the region without leaving the airport.
When we think of brands, we often overlook the fact that not only corporations are brands. Destinations are too. As we say at Saffron, ‘brand is the promise of an experience, delivered.’ This applies to destinations no differently than it applies to corporations. Destinations also engage in branding practices – as we have helped do for places like Vienna, Turkey and London.
So, I ask myself (and ask you): Are airports mere transit hubs, or can they serve a larger purpose in delivering a destination's branding promise? Can airports actively participate in branding, service design and experiences to enhance a country's growth and cultural relevance?
Airports are the first and last impression
Considering that your first and final interactions with a destination usually involve an airport, one should regard the power of these complexes of runways, shops and passengers worthy of being taken seriously.
First and last impressions are capable of shaping your overall perception. In psychology, this is called the primacy and recency effects: first impressions (and the very last ones) truly hardwire themselves into our memory. An airport's care for service design, architectural sophistication, not to mention their resourcefulness and cleanliness, can play starring roles in crafting these impressions and, subsequently, the destination's reputation.
Airports like Hamad International with its immaculate Orchard garden, welcoming travellers with a dreamlike environment, truly walk the walk. Shaping the environment in such a way introduces Doha’s distinctive allure and promise while reflecting the ambition to put Qatar centre stage, not only in the Gulf region but on a global scale.
A demonstration of culture and identity
Places like Incheon International in South Korea keenly tie into this narrative, employing architecture and design elements that echo regional culture and heritage. Traditional music and art displays sprinkle it with a local zest, making such airports authentic gateways that deepen travellers’ connections to their journeys. They offer a cultural amuse-bouche, or a sort of appetiser, through local dining experiences, exclusive local shops and cultural displays from the get-go.
The flip side of the coin is the USA. Despite being the third most-visited country in the world, the experience is evidence of its declining reputation instead of enhancing an image of progress and freedom: I can't remember a time when I didn't have to endure seemingly endless queues and immigration officers that are usually as unwelcoming as they are uncomfortable to interact with.
Then, we have examples I label as ‘missed opportunities’ such as the (not so) beloved Heathrow Airport. To my eyes, Heathrow fails to convey and promise the experience of London’s quirk, rich diversity and dynamism and end up as a bland space devoid of identity.
A competitive edge on the world stage
Hitting the nail on the head with service design and experience can elevate airports from simple transit hubs to ultimate launch pads for journeys. It’s not just a matter of hiring a world-class architect to make a beautiful terminal like Richard Rogers did with Madrid Barajas’ Terminal 4. It’s a matter of understanding the emotional journey of travellers, providing amenities that can make the experience truly take off.
Technology also plays a role, giving new meaning to the term ‘flying smart’. Singapore Changi Airport is a perfect example of this. Collaborating with Accenture, it is further transforming operations and enhancing the experience for travellers by leveraging innovative technologies such as extended reality or machine learning. These efforts enable Changi to seamlessly engage travellers at various touchpoints starting before they arrive at the airport to long after they leave and are tightly linked to Singapore’s brand positioning: ‘Passion made possible’.
We must not forget that the promise must be delivered: Nairobi’s Jomo Kenyatta Airport doesn’t offer Hamad’s yoga classes nor was it designed by Moshe Safdie like Changi, but does it need to?
Globalisation implies competition
Let’s not overlook the business side of airports. Destination branding is increasingly concerned with a certain ‘commercial imperative’: competing with neighbours to attract more economic activity than they do. Tourism and business are key tangible ways to reach that but reputation is the intangible that is best transmitted through experience. Airports compete if we take into account stopovers.
For instance, even though I wasn’t travelling to Doha, I still chose my stopover to be at Hamad and not Frankfurt, or Schiphol. As IBM’s Bridget Van Kralingen famously said, ‘The last best experience that anyone has anywhere becomes the minimum expectation for the experience they want everywhere.’ If I stop and think, an airport has, economically, become a city itself in many ways, employing people in different sectors and services. Certainly, not only do airports contribute to a destination’s reputation but also to its economic performance at large.
Indeed, airports are far more than just waiting rooms for flight connections, or the middle ground between a plane and a destination; in many ways, they are the check-in desk to your city or country. Airports may well play a crucial role in enhancing a country's cultural relevance and growth by actively engaging in branding and service design.
Beyond logos and empty taglines, it is imperative that we consider the concept of designing airports as promises. In order to best serve the places we craft brands for, we must take into account the emotional journey travellers go through, setting expectations and building reputations that are as authentic as they are beneficial.
Gabriel Benbunan Ferreiro