AIRPORT ADVERTISING: A viable international business medium?

Business travellers are an easy target to reach at airports but media buyers appear stubbornly unconvinced. David Reed investigates what must change

Business travellers are an easy target to reach at airports but media

buyers appear stubbornly unconvinced. David Reed investigates what must


Airports, by definition, have nearly 100 per cent reach of the

international business traveller audience. For that reason, advertising

within airports has become an increasingly important medium for

business-to-business campaigns. Compared with duty free ads, which have

long been the dominant form of airport advertising, these may not

currently be delivering massive revenues. But the marketplace is

developing, especially as business clients look to flood their

audience’s environment with messages.

The opportunities for advertising at airports are closely linked to the

growth of business travel. Some 1.3 billion passengers passed through

the world’s airports in 1995, 65 per cent of them ABC1s. While mass

tourism accounted for a sizeable chunk of that volume, the business

traveller was not far behind. According to a spokesperson for

Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport, 40 per cent of its 25 million passengers

in 1995 were on business flights.

For the media buyer, it is a target profile that is easy to understand.

As Michael Segrue, international director of the specialist buyer,

Poster Publicity, notes: ‘The majority of people buying this medium are

the very people who are the profile of the business traveller.’

What is less clear - and what is preventing greater use of airports as

an international business medium - is how travellers are affected by the

advertising. The absence of joint industry or independent research makes

comparative buying difficult. Add to this some of the ‘Spanish

practices’ that still typify international airport advertising, and it

becomes clear that the medium is going to have to work harder to build

on its existing position in buyers’ schedules.

The impact of airport posters ought to be immense. After all, travellers

can be in front of the medium for anything up to two hours. But as Guy

Cheston, managing director of the Havas-owned airport contractor, Sky

Sites, which holds the BAA franchise for seven UK airports, including

Heathrow and Gatwick, notes: ‘We don’t really sell on opportunity to see

[OTS]. A lot of short-term campaigns go for frequency, for example,

using 50 panels for one month. The OTS is massive, however - you can

walk down a pier on your way to a gate and be hit by the same message

over and over again.’

He notes that there is no syndicated research to verify what posters

achieve in this environment - discussions are still being pursued with

the Outdoor Advertising Association in the UK for their inclusion in the

Postar survey. The likelihood of getting airports included in the

European Businessman’s Readership Survey or the International Airline

Travellers’ Survey is remote.

Cheston does point to bespoke research which Sky Sites has carried out

into effectiveness and awareness for specific clients, such as BT and

AT&T. ‘Those advertisers using creative relevant to the environment and

the people they are trying to reach, for example, using images or words

relating to travelling, airports or flying, achieved much greater

awareness and recall than those just lifting the press ad,’ he says.

What media planners and buyers can get hold of is what Dennis Sullivan,

chairman and chief executive of Portland Outdoor Advertising, calls ‘a

deluge of information’ from concessionaires on international and

domestic passengers and their profile. On the duty-free side, that

includes must-stock lists and shelf-take data. The harder work of

identifying positions within terminals and grading them is done by the

specialist buyers and contractors, such as Portland and Posterscope

International, who physically visit the 100 to 150 key airports around

the world on a regular basis, grading each panel.

Sullivan says such research is critical to using the medium effectively.

And he warns that clients who deal directly with contractors - a

practice encouraged by the latter - are taking a real risk. ‘They have

no real control over positions. It is one of the pitfalls. The disparity

between a good and a bad site might only be pounds 1,000 a year, but

where there is no great price difference, the difference in quality is

huge,’ he says.

The problem is confirmed by Frances Dickens, managing director of

Zenith’s specialist airport division, Meridian Outdoor. ‘Airports are

changing all the time. To the airport, the revenue from advertising is a

pittance. It couldn’t care less if it takes down your panel, which cost

pounds 10,000 to produce, and leaves it sitting in a corner,’ she says.

In the context of airport revenues, advertising is tiny. Total spend in

the UK is estimated at around pounds 20 million, and probably only

reaches double that figure for the whole of Europe. The UK is

disproportionately important because of Heathrow, which handles 625,000

passengers every week. BAA is spending pounds 1 million a day on

refurbishment and redevelopment. Compared with that, international

business-to-business advertising is complementary peanuts, the seven-

year contract to sell airport ads netted BAA dollars 235 million (in

1993) - 5 per cent of its total concessions revenue.

This can lead to a dismissive view of the medium by its owners, which

Iain Jacob, international director of Motive Communications, says may be

passed on to contractors. ‘The medium is held back by its sales

operations, particularly outside the UK. People buy the right to be the

concessionaire from a monopolistic owner and then have to make money.

That leads to a particular type of sales policy, often short term, even

though the contracts between advertisers and contractors are for three


Control over airport advertising is highly concentrated within each

market, but with little regional or international co-ordination. In the

UK, Sky Sites is the biggest concession with seven airports, followed by

Posterscope, Airport Advertising (Europe), which sells Luton, with

Manchester selling on its own behalf. Sky Sites’ French sister company,

AP Systeme, has sole rights over all 90 airports in France. Schiphol and

Frankfurt operate their own sales houses.

Across the globe, in fact, there is a patchwork of directly sold and

concessionary opportunities which make planning and buying hard work. As

Dickens says: ‘It is not for the faint-hearted and lazy. That’s why it

is crucial to have buyers who are totally resourced, with a decent, up-

to-date mapping system.’

She does not believe it is multiple buying points that are inhibiting

the growth of airports as a business medium. Neither does Sullivan, who

notes that, ‘it is not so fragmented compared with roadside. If you look

at China, in the city of Guangxhou there are 1,300 poster contractors

and only one for the airport.’

Moves are afoot to make buying on multinational campaigns easier - Sky

Sites, AP Systeme, Rome, Frankfurt and Schiphol are discussing

introducing standard sizes on a 100-panel package. Cheston says: ‘One of

our corporate goals is to make the medium easier to buy - it is number

one on the list.’

A common European size - the Trisign - was introduced before, but it

failed to catch on. This may have been due to the fact that it was only

available in ten airports. But Dickens is wary about any attempt to

parcel up airport ad sites: ‘Packaging is always a bitter-sweet thing -

you get some very good sites, but there is a downside.’

What she sees as a more fundamental problem is the recent establishment

by Avenir Havas of an outdoor buying point, Airport Media International.

Since Havas also owns Sky Sites in the UK and part-owns AP Systeme,

Dickens notes: ‘It is trying to be a seller and a buyer - that must be a

conflict of interest. From a business perspective, it doesn’t affect me

much, otherwise I would be seriously worried about the precedent.’

Price is also an ongoing concern for media buyers. Airport sites are

notoriously expensive, with a showcase at Heathrow likely to cost more

than pounds 4,000 per square foot per year. In the absence of verifiable

audience figures, cost per thousand justifications are impossible. In

any case, for standard panels, position may be a more significant

factor. ‘Pricing is fairly uniform in the marketplace, which means some

clients are getting reasonably good value, while for others it is very

bad,’ Jacob says.

So far, airports have not had to worry too much about the concerns of

business advertisers and their agencies. The duty-free market has given

them relatively easy money. According to Schiphol Media, just 20 per

cent of its revenues are derived from international business campaigns.

The ending of duty free in Europe in 1997 will make a serious dent in

that income. Much of the development by airports has been designed to

keep people shopping, even when they’re not making huge savings. If

marketing opportunities for business travellers can be identified, media

owners may start to take note.

Shaun McIlrath, joint creative director at Impact FCA, believes it is

agencies who should be creative about the possibilities. ‘Airports are

the perfect opportunity for demonstrations, which I am surprised are not

used more. For example, what about Apple Power Book demos in the

executive lounge?’

Increasingly, airport advertising has been used in a support role by

international corporate brands as part of an exercise in tracking the

audience through the day. Spots on CNN, press ads in the International

Herald Tribune, roadside billboards, airport panels and inflight

magazine insertions can deliver the same target repeatedly, both inbound

and outbound.

The medium can also be used to give a brand a perceived international

impact which its actual status does not merit. Measuring the uplift of

using airports remains problematic, however. ‘Brand perceptions are

totally influenced by their profile in the traveller’s country of

origin,’ Dickens says. ‘You can get a very wide range of response if

someone is coming from a country where the brand has a high profile,

compared with a different person from a place where it is low. What I

would rather see is research into the effectiveness of one large site

versus three small panels.’

For the time being, the future for the medium looks good. Predictions

are that global travel will almost double by the year 2000, and new

airports are coming on-stream at a rate of one every six months. This

means more opportunities for advertisers to reach the elusive target of

the international business executive. The challenge is for media owners

and contractors to begin to address this marketplace more responsively.

Segrue concludes: ‘The demand for airport space is increasing.

Contractors and concessionaires do few favours for buyers. They have to

decide if they want to increase their medium’s reach by being more

flexible. They could just put up their prices to make bigger returns but

I think they will have to be more subtle. Airports could be the last

block in an integrated media strategy.’

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