DFW Highlights Healthy Fare

Rebecca Douglas
Published in: 


Vendors had to demonstrate that their menus included lighter, healthier concession items to be included in the airport's ad campaign.

Not many days go by without some form of market research occurring at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport (DFW). It's so common, listening to customers is considered standard operating procedure.

"We survey customers approximately 320 days per year," reports DFW marketing vice president Sharon McCloskey. "We're constantly talking to them to learn how we're doing against specific targets and long-term strategic goals."

That doesn't, however, mean airport executives respond with blind obedience to everything customers suggest. A recent $100,000 advertising campaign designed to direct passengers to existing concessions rather than introduce new ones indicates they sometimes take customer input with a grain of salt.

Changing the Menu

When airport visitors began requesting healthier food options a few years ago, DFW promptly boosted its healthful offerings. Food and beverage manager Peter Barwinkel discussed industrywide trends such as low-sodium and low-fat with concessionaires, and many gladly introduced healthier alternatives. The Cowtown Bar and multiple locations of The Texas Stadium Bar added a vegetable wrap to their menus, and the Varsity Grill began serving market salads.

"Even concepts with a lot of fried food didn't hesitate to add steamed and vegetarian options," recalls Barwinkel, now assistant vice president of concessions. "They recognized the need to adapt to the changing market."

The airport also added UFood Grill, a counter-service restaurant that highlights the nutritional virtues of its items. Instead of offering a token vegetarian option, meatless options such as three-bean chili, roasted portabella mushroom sandwiches, ginger-soy tofu bowls and sweet potato mash are mainstays. Because nothing on its menu is fried, airport visitors often opt for oven-baked "UnFries" as a side order for turkey and veggie burgers.

Facts & Figures

Project: Advertising Campaign

Location: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport

Cost: $100,000

Duration: 6 months

Elements: Light-pole banners, window clings on airport trains, shadow-box ads in terminal & television spot on CNN Airport TV

Objective: Promote healthy concessions offerings

Concessionaires Highlighted: 35

Estimated Impressions: 2 million

Entrée bowls at UFood automatically come with whole-grain brown rice rather than white. And salad eaters don't have to request low-fat cheese or light dressing on the side; they're both standard.

"UFood Grill provided some great new choices for travelers trying to eat healthier," says Zenola Campbell, DFW's vice president of concessions. "It was a whole new concept for the airport, and customers responded well to it. Variety is the No. 1 thing passengers ask for in concessions, and healthier choices was No. 2."

Unit sales more than tripled, notes Campbell, when a Subway unit featuring sandwiches with six grams of fat or less replaced another brand built around higher fat, higher calorie hot dogs.

Here's the Twist

With new health-conscious options faring well, airport officials were intrigued when visitors continued to request even more health-oriented concessions. Trends noted in ongoing customer surveys about multiple subjects prompted the Marketing Department to dig deeper with two additional concessions studies at a cost of about $36,000. Cross-referencing those results with outside data prompted DFW to further deploy its marketing forces before making additional adjustments to its concessions mix.

"Sometimes there's a disconnect between perception and reality," explains McCloskey. "We had healthy concessions options, but apparently many customers didn't realize they were there."

The same year passenger research indicated strong interest in additional healthy concessions (2007), DFW was named the best airport in the country for healthy food options by the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. The following year, it shared the top spot with Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Airport. And even when it fell to eighth in the nation in 2009, DFW still offered at least one low-fat, cholesterol-free vegetarian option at fully 77% of its concessions.

To reconcile the disparity between what customers perceived was available and what actually was, the airport launched a $100,000 effort to educate customers about its healthful food and beverage options. A combination of funds from the operating/maintenance budget and annual fees paid by all concessionaires were used to pay for the six-month multimedia campaign. Advertisements highlighted 35 concessionaires that qualified with "healthful" products and services.

A high percentage of low-fat and vegetarian items consistently places DFW at the top of a survey ranking airports according to healthy food options.

"We worked diligently to make sure customers would be receptive to items that appeared in the ads," notes

McCloskey. "Concessionaires had to deliver on the promise of healthier options."

Tenants not qualifying with healthful selections will be promoted during one of the marketing department's two or three other main campaigns throughout the year.

The first element of the healthy concessions campaign was presented before visitors entered the airport. Banners outside the terminal and in the parking garages introduced the concept, with additional ads inside following up with more details.

"You can't expect people to catch much while they're driving, but it's a good place to set the stage," explains McCloskey.

The Skylink trains that connect DFW's five terminals proved to be prime locations to place ads directing airport visitors to specific concessionaires. Backlit shadowboxes throughout the terminals were also key.

Printed materials with slogans such as Fit for You, Fresh for You and Light for You included varying health-oriented visuals and offers but followed a consistent style to reinforce the overall campaign message. Renew for You ads expanded the campaign to include service and retail concessionaires such as XpresSpa and L'Occitane.

Input from passengers prompted DFW to begin boosting its healthful offerings years ago.

The most expensive portion of the campaign, reports McCloskey, was a 60-second television ad that ran two times per hour, 24 hours per day on CNN Airport TV. The spot, which appeared on television screens in gatehold areas and other passenger-dense locations, delivered an immediate appeal for customers to try the airport's healthy concessions.

"We've learned that passengers will walk five to ten minutes from their gate for concessions," she explains, noting that print ads consequently expressed the distance of specific concessions in exactly those terms.

Between the various airport media, marketing executives estimate the six-month campaign delivered 2 million impressions. Although the airport didn't measure customer perceptions after the campaign ended, increased revenues at health-oriented concessions validated the strategy.

What's That You Say?

DFW also corroborates its "robust customer research" with consumer spending analysis performed by Buxton Consulting. "Sometimes what people say in a focus group or during a videotaped interview doesn't match with they really do," explains McCloskey. "They often express aspirational views of themselves."

When it comes to eating, for instance, passengers may say they want more seafood and salads but actually continue to consume hot dogs and chips. "People like to see themselves as healthy, but for many, it's still tough to resist that cheeseburger," relates Barwinkel. Some of the healthy items introduced by major chains, he notes, are not as heavily embraced as expected.

Buxton provides information about what DFW passengers actually purchase vs. what they say they purchase or say they are interested in purchasing. "Sometimes the two line up; sometimes they don't," McCloskey notes.

DFW provides the names and addresses of passengers, and Buxton analyzes their credit card buying habits. Information is reported en masse, not for specific individuals, but McCloskey acknowledges some passengers would likely consider the marketing measure invasive.

Ultimately, she notes, it's a tool the airport uses to provide customers what they really want. That topic is omnipresent as the concessions department refines its offerings throughout the airport. Terminal A will be addressed first, reports Campbell. With an initial batch of requests for proposals issued late last August, more are expected in early February. Completion is slated for 2014.


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