Louisville & Ford Int’l Update Brand Identities During Facility Renovations

Jodi Richards
Published in: 

Terminal renovation projects often provide shiny new flooring, fresh paint and updated fixtures. But they can also be an excellent opportunity to spruce up dated marketing strategies. Gerald R. Ford International and Louisville International are both seizing the chance to renovate their brand identities while remodeling their facilities.

Grand Changes
When Brian Ryks traveled to Grand Rapids, MI, to interview for the top spot at Gerald R. Ford International (GRR), his first impression of the airport was not overwhelmingly positive. 

Project: Terminal Improvements; Branding/Marketing
Louisville (KY) Int’l Airport
Terminal Renovations: $9.5 million 
Funding: Airport authority
Expected Concessions Improvements: $8 million 
Funding: Concessionaires
Design Architect: Alliiance
Associate Architect: Stengel Hill Architecture
Branding Consultant: Kolar Design
Retail Concessionaire: Paradies
Food & Beverage Concessionaire: HMSHost

Project: Terminal Improvements; Branding/Marketing
Location: Gerald R. Ford Int’l Airport (Grand Rapids, MI)
Main Terminal Renovations: $45 million
Concourse B Renovations: $12.3 million 
Design Architect: Alliiance
Associate Architect/Engineer: TowerPinkster
Graphic Designer: Felder Communications Group
Concourse B General Contractor: Christman
Food & Beverage Concessionaire: HMSHost

When Ryks stepped off a newish jet bridge in spring 2012, everything in the concourse was blue and gray. “There was really no color,” he recalls. “Up and down the concourse it was very sterile looking.” The bland first impression simply did not jive with updates he noticed in the airport’s Grand Hall and other buildings he saw when exploring the region. Grand Rapids, particularly downtown, was vibrant and full of life, he notes. 

Creating a sense of place at the airport through branding and marketing became one of Ryks’ top priorities as chief executive at GRR. The airport’s previous brand had been around for at least 30 years and was in dire need of an update, he explains. 

Branding is important because it “introduces local flavor, differentiates our airport and helps to shape a positive travel experience,” Ryks comments. Creating a new brand for GRR was a powerful opportunity to transform the airport and passenger experience, while also stimulating economic growth and promoting West Michigan, he adds. 

“A strong brand is a key success factor in helping to drive customer preference,” Ryks emphasizes. 

For local residents, effective branding that reflects the quality of life and investments within Grand Rapids can create a sense of pride about the airport, notes Ryks. For passengers visiting the region, pleasing aesthetics, a quality concessions program and top-notch customer service all play a part in creating a positive first impression, he adds. 

Building the Brand
In 2013, GRR embarked on a $12.3 million project to renovate and expand its Concourse B and hired Minneapolis-based consulting firm Alliiance to lead the design efforts. “In large part, what we were doing was introducing character, theme and sense of place to the airport,” explains Alliiance principal Eric Peterson, AIA. 

That mission closely aligned with Ryks’ vision of rebranding, and the two paths ultimately converged.

Local consulting firm Felder Communications Group assisted in the rebranding process by interviewing a variety of stakeholders about the goals, opportunities, strengths, challenges and tangible assets of the airport. Questions included: Who are we? Who do we serve? What distinguishes us from other airports? What is our personality? Why should customers choose us?

By sharing their opinions and knowledge, board members, airport leaders and community members assisted the design team’s discovery process. GRR’s consulting team also reviewed consumer ratings and industry research. “The goal was to find our brand story and bring it to life,” Ryks explains. “We knew we wanted to leverage our local DNA.”

On the positive side, researchers heard that GRR is easy to navigate, with an expedited process from check-in through security and courteous staff. But a lack of concessions variety and unappealing ambiance in some areas of the airport emerged as negatives. Armed with feedback, the design team worked to leverage GRR’s strengths and improve its weaknesses. 

Ryks considers it important for the airport to complement and reflect the vibrant, lively and exciting things that occur in the region, because it is the first impression for visitors. “It’s about allowing a customer to identify you with something,” Ryks elaborates. 

At GRR, that something is a canopy in front of the terminal that covers the roadway. In addition to being functional, it also reflects aviation through its airfoil shape and symbolically conjures the water and waves of nearby Lake Michigan. The canopy helps identify and reinforce the airport as an important aspect of the region, he explains. 

Another way GRR communicates its brand is infusing local themes and flavors into concession offerings. Retail shops were rebranded into Grand Rapids Magazine Travel Stores, and the local craft brewing industry was added to the airport’s food/beverage lineup. 

Lighter colors throughout Concourse B and a terrazzo floor that communicates water themes help remind locals and visitors of the region’s natural assets. Murals that illustrate Western Michigan’s emblematic elements — including tulips, windmills and Lake Michigan beaches — line the concourse and immediately provide a sense of place, Ryks comments. 

After the Concourse B renovation concluded in January 2015, retail revenue is up about 60%, and food/beverage receipts have increased about 40%. Airport executives attribute the impressive gains to dramatic improvements in offerings. Previously, the only bar area had just four bar stools and the sole restaurant had room for maybe 20 people, Ryks relates. Today, the concourse has many more food/beverage options and a common seating area that can accommodate more than 100 guests. The new Michigan Tap Room has 25 seats at its bar alone. 

Next up for GRR is a $45 million project to create a “consistent experience throughout the entire facility,” as Ryks describes it. Primary elements include expanding the Grand Hall, creating a consolidated security checkpoint and renovating Concourse A.

Creating Synergy
Synchronizing renovation projects and branding efforts can provide countless benefits, advises Peterson. Often, however, the marketing and/or public relations departments operate separately from the rest of an airport. “How you construct or renovate your airport — what you do — portrays a message about the airport,” he says. “It’s essentially an airport brand.” 

One airport’s brand might be the wide breadth of flight service it provides, while another chooses to highlight its physical surroundings or how well staff members serve guests. “It’s all the experiences that people have,” explains Peterson. “The question is how purposeful you want to be in shaping what that brand is and communicating it.”

A brand is more effective when it’s reinforced from several directions, he adds. “If everybody is singing the same message and communicating the same feeling and it’s authentic — which is important — then it’s going to resonate and be very successful.” 

Print and television ads provide just one type of exposure with customers. Ads can be amplified, however, if the same message also lives in the airport and is successfully integrated into operations, explains Peterson. “It makes a unified, raised platform for everybody.”

Spirited Momentum in Louisville
“Distilling Great Experiences, Setting Higher Standards” is the message Louisville International Airport (SDF) wants to impart to travelers. Officials plan to do so through a $9.5 million terminal enhancement program that kicked off in mid-January. The program is designed to update aging mechanicals, enhance the facility’s aesthetics and create a stronger community presence.

SDF’s last terminal remodeling occurred in 2006, and the roughly 35-year-old building needs to be “freshened up” again, explains Executive Director Charles “Skip” Miller. “The building itself as a basic structure is fine. It’s in good shape and has good bones, as the architects would tell you.” 

While Louisville Regional Airport Authority has done an excellent job maintaining the facility, industry changes and time have taken their toll, he relates. “It’s cosmetically, and from an image standpoint, that we need to do something,” Miller specifies. The airport and community both see the current terminal project as a major opportunity to ensure that the image travelers receive when they come through the airport leaves a strong, positive impression.
When passengers deplane, officials want them to immediately know they’re in Louisville, KY. 

Like the team at GRR, personnel at SDF began the planning process for renovations and rebranding by reaching out to the local community. Roughly 20 individuals were assembled in working groups to explore the airport’s facilities, its associated customer experience, current aviation trends and how they affect SDF. Participants included community business leaders who could share their experiences with customers. 

According to Miller, “soup-to-nuts discussions” in the working groups helped shape and define the airport’s $9.5 million project. Specific ideas provided by participants include adding more local food/beverage offerings and incorporating artwork in the terminal. The working groups also served as an important sounding board, he adds.  

The roughly 10-month planning process also yielded the decision to hire Alliiance — not only to help design physical terminal improvements, but also to create and implement the airport’s image and brand within the community. “We wanted a firm to approach this from both perspectives,” Miller stresses. 

Reaching out to business partners through the local working groups helped SDF hone in on the airport’s brand, Miller reflects. “I think staff along with some well-intentioned architect could have sat back on our own and easily come up with colors of paint, terrazzo and built a specification to replace some of our escalators — that would have been the easy part. But that’s not what the community or the airport authority wanted.” 

Stakeholders wanted more than updated facilities, he continues. Although it wasn’t immediately clear what else they wanted, the working groups eventually defined it. “It took some time, effort and a lot of thoughtful discussion to find out  what that ‘it’ was,” muses Miller.

Alliiance, in concert with Kolar Design, used interactive processes to guide the working groups through images, words and statements about the region. Together, they chose a select few that resonated the most with participants and are the “most provocative, true and long-lasting,” explains Peterson.  

“It was an interesting experience,” Miller recalls. Three concepts eventually prevailed: beautiful contrasts, crafting quality experiences and bringing people together. Ultimately, the airport’s story was summarized as: “Distilling Great Experiences, Setting Higher Standards.” 

Once the official motto was developed, Kolar translated it into a new logo and other graphic imagery, while Alliiance expressed the message in SDF’s architecture.

Peterson notes that the brand an airport develops should become a filter or reference point to guide its design process. But it’s not just an applique, he cautions. For a brand to be successful, it should be a “deeper, guiding principle that’s truly connected to the region and to the other messages that the airport is putting out there. It all fits together,” he explains. 

After Alliiance began its design work, SDF reconvened the original working groups three more times. This allowed members to see how the airport and consulting firm were interpreting their suggestions and to “make sure we were all on the right track,” says Miller. 

Aesthetic Enhancements
Facility improvements, which will affect nearly all 185,000 square feet of public space in the terminal, include new terrazzo flooring and carpeting, fresh interior paint, upgrades in the area along the moving sidewalk in the landside/airside connector, four new core escalators connecting the lower-level baggage claim to the upper-level departure/ticketing areas, and new artwork and graphics. 

In addition to subtly incorporating SDF’s new brand, the design team also created areas where the message and associated imagery are more overt. For example, the corridor along the moving sidewalk will feature an architectural wrap showcasing four image compilations that depict experiences travelers may encounter while exploring the region, explains Bill Thiemann, managing director of creative services at Kolar. On a subliminal level, the graphics convey that the community is modern and forward-looking; but on a more literal level, it presents imagery from the community that shines a spotlight on regional stories, Peterson explains.

Airport executives expect the current construction program to wrap up later this year. The project is intended to be the first in a series, with each building on others to maintain the look and theme of the terminal while also retaining previous investments. “Airports spend a gazillion dollars in getting a certain finish and look, but don’t have a plan going forward,” quips Miller, determined not to follow the pattern. “To me, it’s the missing piece every airport operator eventually faces after putting a lot of investment into facilities, because they will eventually get old and need freshening up.” 

Concessions Update 
SDF is making a concerted effort to include retail and food/beverage spaces in its current program to create a more modern, unified appearance and message throughout the terminal. “A lot of airports go through a concessions program, then a terminal remodel, then another concessions program, and it never matches up. And it looks just like what it is, which is a mismatch. We wanted something that does more than that,” Miller relates. 

Even though SDF’s concession program has been “incredibly successful,” authority officials want to make it even better, he explains. New contracts for both retail and food/beverage providers were issued in conjunction with the terminal project, and are expected to result in approximately $8 million in improvements. Airport officials anticipate that renovations will lead to greater retail performance and an even better customer experience.

Because the new branding and image plan was in place when the airport issued requests for proposals from concessionaires, the project team was able to include some design guidance to potential proposers, notes Darrell Watson, the airport’s director of properties. 

Ultimately, Paradies secured the news/gift contract, and the food/beverage contract was awarded to HMSHost.

New concessions will include more regional businesses, brands and culture to provide a more local feel, explains Watson. On the food/beverage side, travelers will get a true taste of the area from Book & Bourbon Southern Kitchen, Bourbon Academy Tasting Room, Coals Artisan Pizza and The Comfy Cow. In total, HMSHost will invest more than $6 million in improvements. 

Retail enhancements from Paradies totaling more than $2.3 million will also highlight local flavor via the Distillery District Marketplace, Kentucky Bourbon Trail and Winner’s Circle. Current retailers — including Brighton, Churchill Downs, CNBC News Express, Finish Line and Louisville Slugger — will be upgraded under the new agreement as well. 

Lessons Learned
Integrating a “sense of place” into airport architecture has been around for nearly two decades, but the processes that GRR and SDF are employing move the concept into a richer realm, says Peterson. By connecting with the community and airport stakeholders, the architecture and design can broaden to not only reflect the region but also the airport’s brand and what it wants to communicate to guests, he explains.  

Airports that want to express a stronger image and make bigger statements about their local communities need to invest time and effort in reaching out to local business partners, advises Miller. “This is not an Internet survey of the general public asking for their ideas,” he specifies. “This is a question for people who are charged with managing facilities that are attributes to the community and provide that community experience.”

While not all airports have the luxury of synchronizing their branding campaign with facility renovations, Peterson emphasizes that the two should still mesh strategically and philosophically. “But if they can (occur simultaneously), don’t pass up the opportunity,” he notes. 

Developing an effective brand and meaningful sense of place does not have to drive up design costs, but it does require extra time, adds Peterson. “You’re going to have richer opportunities if you’ve got more money to spend,” he qualifies. “But if you know what your authentic message is, you can always come back and (make sure) the design is communicating that.”


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