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Branding tips from the road warrior.

This past year I’ve been to over 50 airports in the US. I’ve seen and experienced the good, the bad and the most disappointing. For a long time airports have merely been geographic facilities that connect people to places, events or attractions that they were headed to.

Today airports are hospitality brands.

They have a bigger role in our lives. They feed us, entertain us, provide shopping, spa services and technology, and they hopefully keep us safe. They also hold the keys to the first impression as leisure and business travelers journey to their ultimate destinations.

It’s nice to see government bodies and transportation leadership that get it. And do their part to enhance the destinations that these airports lead to and also provide consumers with a nice experience since their taxes fund these places.

Here are a few cool things that I spotted airports doing well. How can you apply these ideas to your brand?

1) Be distinct.
TPA airport brands

Detroit Metropolitan Airport (DTW) brings an artful adventure to their brand with a memorable underground light and sound tunnel. The 700-ft. walkway moves passengers from concourse to concourse. The display is one of the first large-scale uses of color-changing LED lighting in the US. There are numerous traveler-produced videos of the tunnel available on YouTube! When you build a brand, you earn points when you deliver something different that people can talk about. DTW did a nice job of enhancing their environment and standing out in the blur of boring airports.

2) Deliver a memorable experience.
Airport branding social media

A customer-centric experience adds to economic development.

Tampa International Airport, (TPA) my hometown airport is awesome. In fact, when I was deciding to move to Florida, this airport was a big reason I picked Tampa. Named year after year by top travel publications as one of the best airports in the US, it’s easy to get around, has free Wifi, the environment is bright and clean, they offer good food and interesting shopping options. And they have set up social media channels to quickly respond to and help travelers. Every time I’ve posted something on twitter they respond in minutes.

What sets TPA apart from many airports is that they truly care about the customer experience and show it. This airport hosts business workshops, provides spontaneous entertainment, from marching bands to dance teams and they have their own in-house personality/celebrity, AKA The Airport Insider. This super brand ambassador not only holds down an important job at airport as an audio video guru, but regularly appears in social media and videos about Tampa and airport news and topics.

In the now traveler- brand ambassador

Airport Insider -branding brilliance

Check out the Airport Insider here as he interacts with airport visitors and gets involved with the local community.

Their great work never stops either, this year TPA started a billion dollar renovation and expansion to stay competitive as an airport brand of choice.

3) Surprise your visitors with something unexpected.

One Flew South Airport Branding

One Flew South – airport brandingImage from One Flew South’s website

An airport restaurant so good, you book a plane ticket with enough layover so you can eat there.

While the Atlanta Hartsfield Airport (ATL) can be hairy, their mix of retail and great dinning has earned them a good airport brand score in my book. It’s called One Flew South  and I have often scheduled my flights so I can enjoy a meal here. Can a memorable meal change attitudes about a stressful travel experience? It certainly doesn’t hurt.

4) Empower your employees to reflect the brand.

Customer service branding
Brand ambassador Service with an added beat.

When you think about all that goes into creating a great brand experience whether it’s your business, one of your clients or major airport brand, don’t lose sight of the value an individual brand ambassador who carries the torch directly to the customer every day has. A few weeks ago I was in the Atlanta airport and met an amazing sales person named William Hannah. He works for Inmotion Entertainment, a company that offers electronic gadgets to go, at over 37 airports in the US.

William mastered the art of attraction as he danced non-stop in front of the storefront. Beyond his display of talent, his friendly, positive attitude, he aced product knowledge too. It’s no surprise that William leads his team in sales performance too.

Check out William’s smooth moves here.

And then there are airports that consistently deliver awful experiences.

In business and leisure categories, unfortunately there are some brand categories that people will use or support even if they totally suck. This applies to these sorry airports.

San Diego Airport

This one was a surprising disappointment. San Diego (SNA) has great reputation of being a beautiful, relaxing destination, so when I recently flew on Southwest and had one of the worst three hours of my life, I was puzzled.

Maybe it’s a stepchild gate and Southwest is still fighting for respect.

What’s more bizarre is SNA’s website makes you think they understand creating a great brand experience. It’s one of the few airport sites that uses a creative tagline “Mastering the art of airports.” The site opens with this copy:

San Diego International Airport is committed to providing superior operational efficiency, service and comfort. Each of our three terminals is passenger-friendly facility designed to accommodate the needs of our many travelers.

Seriously, has this copywriter ever really flown out of this place? Maybe the entire airport is not this bad, but if you are flying out on Southwest, prepare to be miserable. The Wifi is beyond lame, there is no food in sight unless you like fried fast food, there are no recharging plugs/outlets anywhere, let alone enough seating. On top of that, the 4 or 5 people I communicated with were grumpy and must have skipped the customer service class in their training. I had to pay a shoeshine guy to clean my boots just to sit for 10 minutes and be treated well.

LaGuardia Airport

I’ll keep this short and to the point. This place is nasty all the way through, every time I’m there. The only bright note is Felix with http://kglimo.com/, my car service for over 15 years, is there to sweep me away to the city that I love to visit. If you travel to NYC and need safe, reliable transportation, Felix is the man.

Airports are brands too. Hopefully, the bad ones won’t stay on the “airports to avoid” list forever or new options will emerge and consumers can decide who they want to do business with.

Brand on!