With planners projecting that Kelowna International (YLW) will serve 2 million passengers by 2020, the British Columbia airport is embarking on programs to prepare its facilities and customer service practices for future demand.
Currently, YLW handles 1.6 million passengers a year, with eight carriers and charter operators offering 66 daily flights.
Elements of the wide-reaching improvement initiative include:
• expanding the check-in area and outbound luggage facility;
• expanding the aircraft parking apron;
• developing a service plaza with a gas station, car wash and convenience store on the approach to the airport;
• developing the departures lounge;
• launching a customer service program for all airport employees.
Project: Sense of Place/Customer Service Program
Location: Kelowna (BC) Int'l Airport
Owner/Operator: City of Kelowna
Phase 1: Departures Lounge Redevelopment
Opened: July 2016
Concession Tenants: Okanagan Estate Wine Cellar; Okanagan Style; WhiteSpot; Skyway Café & Wine Bar
Noteworthy Retail: Okanagan wines & fruits packaged in carry-on boxes & sold post-Security
Paid Sponsorships: Only gift items from businesses that belong to a group organized by the local tourism board can sell branded gift items in the departures lounge; participants can also buy ads on boarding bridges, electrical transmission boxes, etc.
Phase 2: Additional Concessions Development
Scheduled Debut: Late fall 2017
Tenants: Subway; Tim Hortons; to-be-determined wine bar
The city-owned airport has already completed the apron expansion and is now working on interior projects. YLW officials identify the two-year departures lounge redevelopment project as the key element in enhancing the customer experience.
As retail outlets surrounding the central seating area are renovated, the space continues to be infused with a "sense of place," explains Airport Director Sam Samaddar.
Understanding YLW's homegrown sense of place requires some knowledge of the Kelowna area, a popular tourist spot in the heart of Okanagan Valley. The south central British Columbia region enjoys a semi-arid climate and is dotted with lakes, including Lake Okanagan, which stretches for 84 miles. It is a four-season tourist destination, with hiking, biking, water sports and five world-class ski resorts that feature "champagne" powder. The area is also an agricultural destination, with many wineries and a large variety of fruit orchards to tour. Samaddar estimates that fully 70% of YLW's passengers are tourists.
"The sense of place showcases what the area is all about," he explains. "It features a sense of the community. It is responsive to the community, and we are responsible to the community.
"These programs are in alignment with our businesses and supporting our business community to make the region even better. We are not an isolated entity that brings passengers in and drops them at the curb. We are very much engaged in the broader community and the passenger experience."
The foundation of YLW's sense of place program is built on regional agricultural products, the local art community and area resorts. And all these are featured, or will be featured, in the airport's renovated departures lounge.
The first phase, which opened in summer 2016, is anchored by the Okanagan Style store, which sells seasonal fruits, area artwork and branded giftware from local resorts. ZGF, an architectural firm from Portland, OR, helped YLW refine the space with an open design, based on behavior economics.
The first phase also includes WhiteSpot, an 85-year-old hamburger outlet popular throughout the province, Okanagan Estate Wine Cellar and Skyway Café and Wine bar.
The second phase is currently being designed by Kasian, a Vancouver firm, and is scheduled to open in late fall 2017. It will include a Subway sandwich shop, Tim Hortons and a second bar featuring wines, craft beers and spirits produced in the Okanagan Valley.
The airport worked closely with its master concessionaire to develop local brands and themes. "At the center of that theme is creating a sense of place in terms of what this region offers to the traveler and what locals can be very proud of in terms of showcasing the region," explains Samaddar.
The emphasis on sense of place was first introduced in the international arrivals area eight years ago, with heavy use of Ponderosa Pine, sustainable building materials and geothermal heating/cooling to set the regional tone. The arrivals hall features a "rammed-earth wall," which crews created by tapping various layers of engineered concrete into place. Each layer represents
a different color common to the geography of the valley. A list of all the hamlets, villages and towns of the valley is featured
With the support from regional wineries, the airport hosts free tasting events in the arrivals area during the Spring and Fall Okanagan Wine Festivals.
Building on the popularity of carry-on-board packages of Okanagan wines sold post-Security in the departures lounge, YLW introduced its Farm-to-Flight program featuring local fruits last July.
"The idea came to me from the Maritimes, where you can buy lobsters and carry them on board as you travel home," relates Samaddar. "If you can do lobster, why can't you do fruit?"
The airport worked with its consultants and an established local distributor who was already buying fruit from local orchards to create a similar program. The team developed special boxes that would safely transport seasonal fruit and fit under aircraft seats. The colorful travel boxes feature images of the Okanagan Valley and the phrase "Farm to Flight," which the airport has copyrighted.
The fruit boxes are sold in the Okanagan Style store as a last-minute purchase to share memories of the area. Because the store is located behind the security checkpoint, passengers don't need to worry about CATSA (Canadian Air Transport Security Authority) confiscating their fruit.
Travelers can carry the specially designed boxes onto any domestic Canadian flight, but some U.S. states restrict passengers from importing foreign fruits. The store provides customers with a list of specific restrictions.
The airlines are "fully accepting of the program and realize it is promoting the region," reports Samaddar.
In another effort to infuse sense of place, YLW began a local art program for airport retailers in summer 2015.
"We wanted authentic local art," emphasizes Samaddar. "What you see in stores across Canada are trinkets sold to represent Canada and our First Nations, but the products are made in China. We partnered with the arts community to provide authentic art."
Products range from small artifacts that cost less than $10 to paintings and other fine artwork priced at $450 or more. The airport sells the goods on consignment for area artists, yet the process is transparent to airport customers. Artists are paid the full value for their pieces, and the vendor's profit is covered in a 30% markup. Each item includes the artist's biography and a description of his or her piece.
"This is a way of getting indigenous and non-indigenous art into the airport to represent the region," says Samaddar.
Exclusive Sponsorships & Service
YLW's marketing program includes a variety of paid sponsorship opportunities in and around the airport. The most prominent are for the Okanagan Bucketlist, a group of local ski resorts, golf clubs, spas and wineries organized by the local tourism board. Messages promoting Bucketlist businesses appear on YLW's loading bridges, banners and even wrap-around ads on green electrical transmission boxes.
As part of the sponsorship agreement, branded gift items, clothing and sporting goods that participants sell at their own locations are also sold in YLW's departures lounge. Only Okanagan Bucketlist participants can sell locally branded gift items at the airport, notes Samaddar.
The airport's overall sense of place program is part of a larger initiative still under development: YLW Spirit. Samaddar describes YLW's umbrella effort as a "one campus" customer service program that will involve all 1,400 employees of the airport, airlines and vendors. "No matter what you do, you are part of one campus to serve the passenger and enhance their experience here," he explains, noting that the program
will recognize individual employees for exceptional service.
Once the program is implemented, Samaddar envisions that passengers traveling through YLW will feel like they're at a five-star resort. "We would greet them at the curb, take their bags, park their car and escort them to the ticket counter," he details.
The airport's cadre of 75 volunteer ambassadors figures prominently into the plan.
Airport personnel are currently writing the employee training manual to launch YLW Spirit, which is expected to officially roll out in about two years. "It will take a lot of work to shift the culture for the overall campus to get where we want to go," acknowledges Samaddar.
Beyond the involvement of architects, YLW has executed its sense of place program without assistance from an outside consultant or specialist. It did, however, take inspiration from other airports.
"We have studied a lot of airports and the one I have very high regard for is Portland International Airport," notes Samaddar. "The airport is very well integrated into their community. They have national brands, but they also very much carry local brands to promote the culture and what the region is all about when you arrive at that airport."