Catering to Small Visitors Can Yield Large Returns

Jennifer Bradley
Published in: 

With no direct revenue streaming from children's play areas, some airports underestimate their importance. Factor in customer service appeal and secondary revenue opportunities from calculated placement, however, and the potential value of a well-executed romping ground grows significantly.

Consider this: A family's average dwell time in an airport play area ranges from 45 to 90 minutes. That's a lot of time to capture concessions sales and build customer loyalty. Creating and maintaining a family-friendly play area can go a long way toward turning traveling families into happy, repeat customers.

Annie Linstrom, public information officer at the Port of Portland, takes a personal bent on the topic. "If my child is not happy, I'm not going to be happy," Linstrom reflects. "I think we all feel empathetic if there is a young child on a flight getting antsy." Play areas, she reasons, can improve travelers' airport experience and provide a way for children to burn off energy before a long flight.

Project: Children's Play Areas
Sample Airports: Los Angeles Int'l;
General Mitchell Int'l (Milwaukee); Portland (OR) Int'l
Cost: Varies with size, materials & design
Funding: Some airports self-fund while others secure corporate or local sponsors
Key Benefits: Improved customer relations; potential to increase sales at nearby concessions
Key Considerations: Safety; hygiene/maintenance

Jeff Williamson, a business development associate for airports at PLAYTIME, considers the addition of a play area at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport in 2005 an "ah-ha moment" for executives throughout the airport industry.

"They saw the impact it can have on their advertising space, but most importantly, realized they need to become more family friendly," Williamson explains. "This amenity creates an overall great customer experience for people flying in and out of an airport."

Jeff Evans, director of business development at PLAYTIME, reflects on how airport play places have evolved as the industry has become more competitive. "Throwing a couple game panels on the wall and calling it a play area just isn't working anymore," notes Evans.

Location, Location, Location

One of the biggest challenges airports face is carving out space for a children's play area. Revenue-producing concessions, kiosks and grown-up amenities such as business centers are all tough competitors for valuable airport real estate.

General Mitchell International Airport (MKE) in Milwaukee has three play areas. Each was recently updated with new play equipment and carpeting, reports Harold Mester, the airport's public relations manager. The play area in Concourse D includes a nearby family restroom decorated with a children's theme. "It makes sense to have the family restroom right there, rather than requiring a walk down the concourse," says Mester.
Portland International Airport (PDX) also has three play areas - two post-security and one located before TSA checkpoints. "First and foremost, it is imperative to define a footprint and identify the space you'll have to work with," advises Kendall Austin, Airport Terminal Operations manager at PDX. Austin also recommends researching all types of indoor play structures and conducting local site visits to places such as malls.

The pre-security play area at PDX includes slides, activity sets and Lego tables. Evans says that the popular features are smart investments for airports, because they encourage visitors to stay, eat and wait for Mom or Dad, Grandma or Grandpa, to arrive.

During business hours, PDX's pre-security conference center provides a private nursing area for mothers, with electrical outlets for pumps. 

Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) had no play areas until last December, when "LAX Beach" debuted in the new Tom Bradley International Terminal, a few months after the terminal itself opened. Westfield Group, the terminal's concession developer and manager, assisted PLAYTIME and LAX in designing and installing the 971-square-foot beach-themed area for $350,000.

Planners strategically located the new play space near restrooms and the terminal's dining terrace. "Location is very important," says Eileen Hanson, Westfield's marketing vice president. "It's very convenient for families to be able to get their food and enjoy it without having to relocate their entire family." 

Evans agrees: "The location ties into the retail space and how can we encourage families to spent more money. If the kids are in a happy mood, it allows the parents to spend and enjoy that experience a little more."

Themed Fun

Hanson says the beach theme - complete with surfboards for kids to stand and play on, lifesaver rings and a lifeguard shack - is her favorite part of the LAX's new play place. "It was a way to incorporate the outdoors and the California lifestyle into the terminal," she says.

Technology also adds to the area's appeal. An interactive light table in the shape of a surfboard and light bubbles on the lower walls for toddlers really captivate children's attention, Hanson notes.

Aviation is a common theme for other airport play areas, as children seem to love playing on toy airplanes while watching real ones out the window. MKE special ordered aviation-themed carpet for its recently renovated play areas. The 2-inch foam padding, which is higher than the hallway carpet, adds logistic challenges for maintenance crews, but is appreciated by parents. The cushion it provides young children, who slip and fall easily or just need a soft place to sit and regroup before boarding, adds notable comfort.

"The carpet is remarkable," Mester remarks. "It really transforms the play areas and makes them a lot more attractive to children."

PDX's Concourse C play area also features an airplane-themed area for toddler passengers. A flatscreen plays Nick Jr. TV, and the area includes large chairs and tables to welcome families. It's located directly below skylights in the concourse and is very colorful and bright, says Austin. Parents can plug in and finalize work, older siblings can surf or play games on their tablets and toddlers can climb and enjoy more physical play. 

At Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport (CVG), CTM Group helped develop a play area that boasts an interactive floor with MotionAware technology. The floor "comes to life" and reacts when motion is detected, allowing children to activate animations, trigger sounds, play games and use applications. It is a key part of CVG's new "Funway Runway" in Concourse B, and also features the "iReality" ride, which uses four-way motion and hand mapping to entertain children. A 55-inch flatscreen projects the fun as it unfolds.

Play With a Purpose

When Mester assesses the value of MKE's play areas, he emphasizes how happy they make some customers. "It's something we are able to offer that reduces stress when traveling with children," he explains. The junior-set amenities are particularly important as the airport continues to attract more passengers from the Chicago area, he adds: "They choose this airport because they want a streamlined, efficient, relaxed process."

But leveraging play as a marketing tool comes at a price. While MKE and LAX footed the bills for their play areas, other airports secure sponsors to cover or defray the costs. At PDX, concessionaires in Concourse C provided funding for the Koala Kids activity set in their area, and the airport paid for the pre-security play space.

Aquafina is the named sponsor at three of the five play areas inside Dallas-Fort Worth International. And the Nevada Mining Association donated $56,000 to fund the playsite that opened last spring at Reno-Tahoe International.

"Sponsorship has been a big aspect in play areas because brands do want to be family-friendly. And with such a targeted audience, they understand the value," notes PLAYTIME's Williamson. Other acquisition strategies include itemizing the area as a future capital improvement and leasing play equipment, he adds. 

Regardless of where the money comes from, many airports clearly see play areas as an investment in their smallest customers. And the returns can be gratifying.

Westfield sees the matter in decidedly experiential terms. "As travelers start to expect more from their experiences, it isn't just about going through the airport on their way to a journey," says Hanson. "The airport experience is as important as the flight and final destination."

PDX's Linstrom agrees, noting that ticket price is no longer the only factor travelers consider when selecting an airport. "There's more possibility for families to travel now, and even go on their first vacation with a two- or three-year-old child," she says. "What better time to help accommodate their needs as a family? As an airport, we have the ability to provide that space and environment, and improve their overall experience." 

Keeping it Safe & Clean

Fun as they are, children's play areas also often involve Band-Aids and bacteria. That's simply the nature of small children.

Eileen Hanson, vice president of marketing for the Westfield Group, says that Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) was very selective about the materials it used at LAX Beach, the new children's area it opened late last year. The airport wanted an authentic beach feel with a variety of textures for small children to explore, but the area also had to be extremely durable and cleanable, Hanson explains. Some materials were made especially for the installation, including Chilewich and Concertex upholstery fabrics, InteriorArts laminates, Avonite solid surfaces, and hand-painted safety foam sculptures.

At Mitchell International Airport (MKE), designers chose low-pile carpeting for easy vacuuming by the maintenance department. In addition, its large toys from PLAYTIME are anti-bacterial, wipe down easily each day and are designed to reduce tripping hazards for toddlers, notes MKE Marketing and Public Relations Manager Harold Mester.

Jeff Evans, director of business development at PLAYTIME, says that a daily cleaning is sufficient to keep germs under control, since its toys are made from antibacterial materials. Some airports also place hand sanitizer units near the area. Portland International Airport makes such units available throughout the terminal year-round to keep germs under control and little ones protected.

Play area elements are also designed to reduce the likelihood of injuries and certified to specific safety standards. Even with accidents and liability as ever-looming issues, Evans makes a strong case for dedicated play spaces: "What you're really doing is taking all those kids away from escalators, stairs and other things they would turn into play areas, and which aren't inherently safe."


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RECORDED: Thursday, September 7th, 2017 at 11:00 am EDT

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