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Better by Design

Improved locations, creative seating and upscale offerings are transforming the travel experience



The events of 9/11 changed almost everything about how we travel. Fifteen years later, there are more intensive security screenings and protocols; travelers are all a bit more stressed, arriving earlier to airport terminals and lingering at gates longer than ever before.

Those changes have had an equally dramatic impact on the world of aviation retail design. With travelers making a beeline for security checkpoints, airport facilities have pushed their commercial offerings from ticketing/check-in locations to post-security spaces, where travelers are spending upwards of two to three hours prior to their flights.


That idea of a convenient, more appealing offer was the guiding force behind the renovation of the McNamara Terminal inside Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) last fall.

A complete revamp of the south end of the terminal, the project (named Core 10) has taken the traditional food court setting – wherein each vendor follows their individual design standards – and reimagined it as a cohesive collection of geometric “volumes.”

“It’s an interesting approach, considering the fact that most national brands have well-defined [design] guidelines that they must adhere to,” says Nicholas Giammarco, creative principal of Studio H2G (Birmingham, Mich.), the design firm heading up the project. “Our design had to be compelling enough to have the national brands embrace the overall concept and agree to house their individual brands inside our pre-defined envelopes.”


The project also challenged usual spacing conventions: Although venues are typically on a perimeter with shared seating toward the center, here, the plan peppered eateries and varied seating styles throughout the hallway and gates.

Common seating is available, with counter stools, traditional tables and communal high-tops surrounding the Pinkberry location, which sits like an island in the central boarding areas. Alternative accommodations are designed to create a comfortable oasis, like the Gordon Biersch restaurant that features its own bar, theatrical lighting and diverse seating options. And with two sides open to the terminal, the semi-private space concedes to traveler desires to be more in tune with the gate areas, says Giammarco.

“It’s important to make sure that the food court and [boarding areas] have continuous interplay,” he says. “Airports have figured out that they have an opportunity to provide a better travel experience with more convenient gate hold experiences.”


Located in the center of the Washington, D.C.-based, rotunda-like Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport’s (DCA) Terminal A, a new eatery called Page offers shared amenities where travelers can charge devices, thanks to outlets at each seat. Patrons can also surf the web, monitor real-time flight notifications and order food from the 75-plus iPads integrated into each seat of the restaurant.

Page’s bar, which surrounds a sculpture-like structure that “flowers up” to highlight the terminal’s expansive ceiling, also makes use of technology with LEDs that shift color temperature according to the time of day (warm tones projected at sunrise and sunset, and cooler temperatures projected mid-day).


“As you walk down the hallway into Terminal A, Page is the beacon at the end that draws you in. What was a little dark and sad is now this amazing bright and pleasurable place to be in,” says Greg Merkel, creative director of ICrave, the New York studio that led the design of the project.


The trend of improved gate-side amenities does have its challenges, says Matt Dubbe, market leader for aviation architecture at architecture and engineering firm Mead & Hunt (Middleton, Wis.). 

“The problem is that you get [fewer] seats per square foot by putting in some of the restaurant-style seating, so there tends to be a lot of standing around as people are trying to board,” he says. “I’ve seen it from Los Angeles to New York to the Midwest, where there are crushes of people with no place to sit.”

That will start to change though, he explains, as airport facilities aim to solve another dilemma they’re facing: boarding areas that are simply too small for the number of travelers they accommodate.

“The gate hold areas are sized according to the size of aircraft … and the trend in almost all aviation now is going to a larger aircraft,” he says. “So that’s one thing that’s going to have to ‘right-size’ itself over the next 10 years.”



Dubbe believes the opportunity more thoughtfully designed food and retail programs bring to the table (in terms of increased revenue potential) is the push airports need to start expanding terminals.

“It’s also going to force airports to provide like products in terms of amenities,” he says. “I think that piece is poised, and it’s going to [expand] at every airport.”

That’s something Justin Blatstein, director of aura for OTG Management, the New York-based airport hospitality group that operates Page, says he’s also seeing, with airports treating their spaces more as the destination.

“In the past, travelers have been viewed as captive audiences,” he explains, “but now travel is being looked at as a lifestyle.”

And it’s an aspirational style of living that’s increasingly focusing on the upscale.

Take the new Carry On concept store, for example, that specialty retailer Brookstone (Merrimack, N.H.) launched inside Salt Lake City Intl. Airport’s (SLC) Delta terminal in January.

A way for the brand to appeal to high-end consumers, Carry On is a quieter, more subdued concept than Brookstone’s conventional airport shops, which are typically bright, animated spaces. Here, softer textures and neutral colors complement the high-end merchandise.

“We designed Carry On to be an oasis from the more hectic areas of the airport,” says Nick Delyani, visual and store experience director for Brookstone. “We chose warmly colored fixtures and kept signage to a minimum to show off our apparel. It’s a very calm, inviting environment.”

Food and beverage offerings are also getting a premium touch: OTG’s Blatstein says his firm worked with prominent Washington, D.C.-based chef Carla Hall (of “Top Chef” fame) to develop the Page menu, so travelers could enjoy an authentic, from-scratch D.C. restaurant.

“We really look to create a local experience,” he says. “Because, if you think about it, the airport is the doorstep to the city, and it’s your first and last impression of that city.”


A well-balanced retail and concessions mix can create a sense of place that brands an airport in the minds of travelers, Mead & Hunt’s Dubbe says. And one way to do that is to ensure store design complements the design of the airport.

“I’m not saying you have to mirror the architecture,” he says, “but it doesn’t hurt to understand the drivers of the palette and try to be compatible.”

Another important strategy is to come much earlier into the fold of facilities planning.

“In the old days, when it came to location or square footage, we used to carve up space on a platter and say, ‘This is what you get,’ ” Dubbe says.

And that’s now changing. Retail design planners are, in fact, having a seat at the table earlier in the planning process than they ever have before, he explains, which helps create a more holistic view of how passengers are being processed from the front of the terminal to the door of the aircraft.

If all of those components start working together, then travel retail design has a critical role to play in helping airports drive loyalty and demand, he says. “And you’re going to find people that just absolutely swear by your airport.”



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