Airports & Travel RetailersBlog
By: Lewis Allen, Director of Environments, Portland Design   •   email:

Let’s talk about space in airports. We walk through the stuff, surf the net in it, lounge around in it, wait anxiously, day-dream, spend money and sip pricey cappuccinos. Space is infinitely useful for us to have, so we ought to be mindful of what it’s doing for us or, in some cases, to us.

For the most part we assume airport space is beneficially and benignly curated in the best interests of the passenger communities it serves. But there’s a problem. We are creating travellers journeys filled with experiential ‘space spam’. A new generation of travellers are increasingly inclined to regard airport commercial offers and experiences in the same way that they regard the digital spam in their email or social media accounts. It’s culturally and experientially irrelevant in equal measure. And it’s similarly irritating.

Nevertheless, it seems that space spam has fans. More airport retail estate is dedicated to commercial experiences and more smart minds are equally dedicated to optimising the commercial value of passenger journeys made to and through it. Put another way, this means airport space is increasingly curated for the benefit of commercialisation rather than a broader set of social or citizen interests.

The result? Space spam is increasing, There are many airside passenger journeys that are very spammy indeed.

Forced walk-through duty free stores are a stellar example of where commercial interests are prioritised over a more citizen-led approach.
When we ‘force’ travellers to go through a store, we should ensure the experience offered there is relevant or interesting to the travelling citizenry walking through them. But often we don’t. We simply serve up space spam.

Luxury and premium brands in travel retail seem to enjoy space spam the most. They have created an homogenised global landscape of cultural perfection, of beautiful men, emaciated women and celebrity endorsement. The status lifestyles, expensive products and blinged visual language of these brands transform many airport journeys into a commercial experience that feels curiously detached from most people’s everyday reality and mindsets. In other words (you’ve guessed it) more space spam.

Evidence now suggests that new generations of travellers graze the glamorous pixels and sparkling shelves of many airport commercial offers and are unmoved by the utopian lifestyle visions they see there. A disturbing 57% of them do not even enter a duty free store.

Something isn’t working. More and more travellers are not engaging with commercial spaces and offers at airports. In developed retail markets the precious asset of commercial space is increasingly being passed by or ignored.

One explanation for this lack of passenger engagement in airports is identified as ‘Digital Distraction’ – a Wi-Fi facilitated exodus of travellers to the parallel digital worlds of work, social networks and entertainment.

However, for many screen-addicted travellers this habit could equally be described as a ‘Digital Escape’ from airport spaces that complacently harass their captive audiences with commercial offers that are regarded as just so much experiential spam. The response to the commercial teasing from the stores around them is inspired by a well-practiced online habit. Travellers effectively ‘junk, block or delete’
space spam experiences from their airport journeys as clinically as they do from their digital lives. For sure this habit erodes commercial revenue. But worse is the damage it causes to the halos of brands that are so daily and casually ‘trashed’ by a majority of the travellers they are trying to engage with.


Our opportunity is to curate airport commercial space for a new generation of travellers – a generation who love to ‘follow, share and like’.
Airports need to quickly ‘junk, delete and block’ commercial activations that lazily promote lifestyle and aspirational stereotypes. This means curating airport space with a better understanding of the new generation of travellers. Effectively an understanding of people who regard themselves as ‘connected’ citizens first. They live parallel digital lives in an analogue world. The scope of their mindsets and behaviours transcends the ‘captive’ and ‘edited’ world of today’s airport journeys.

A new generation of global citizens are travelling and they are passionate about causes and want to engage with brands who share their values. These next generation travellers believe what a brand stands for is just as important as what it sells. A whopping 76% of people are influenced by a brand’s ethical and ecological values.

The new generation of travellers are emotional and open and share how they feel publicly in order to build meaningful relationships through authentic personal expression. 68% of people share online to give others a better sense of who they are.

And this new generation of travellers are natural and mindful. Urbanisation has left them feeling anxious, crowded and lonely. In response they are becoming more mindful and looking to reconnect with nature.


Simply put, the new generation of travellers think first as citizens within a broader, socially-connected context and then as consumers of stuff after that. They don’t want to become the victims of commercial strategies designed to ‘convert’ and/or drive up airport ATV’s.

They (and I suspect you as well) want airport spaces curated so that they inspire us to ‘follow, share and like’. It’s time to liberate more of our so-called ‘public’ airport space from the grip of experiential spam. Those out-dated commercial offers that block spaces from offering the fascination, relevance and wonder we prefer.

A ‘citizen first’ spirit can deliver space curation with a richer understanding of the new traveller generation. So, instead of harassing them with implausible lifestyles, gender stereotypes and and globally ubiquity, we engage them instead with brands and spaces that respect their complex diversity and individuality. Brands that understand how to engage us with more meaningful experiences by thinking of us as connected citizens first and customers second.

Where better space to start than making spam-free journeys at all stages of the traveller journey to, through and after the airport? It really is time to ban the spam!

Peter Marshall

Founder: Arts
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