“We are building a spectacular terminal; we are determined it will deliver sensational experiences.” Abu Dhabi Airports (ADA) Company (formerly ADAC), RFP document, April 2014.
The 2014 RFP issued by Abu Dhabi Airports Company for the retail operations at its planned new terminal at Zayed International Airport (formerly Abu Dhabi International Airport) was not simply an invitation to tender but a challenge to revolutionize the airport travel retail experience. The scale and challenge of ADA’s vision were met through partnership and commitment from the airport’s partners – those ‘sensational experiences’ have now been delivered.
The Design Solution (TDS), a specialist in airport commercial planning and retail design, played a significant dual role in the terminal’s development – which spanned 16 years – providing expertise in commercial planning across the whole terminal space.
Following the launch of the airport’s retail RFP, TDS then worked with retailer Aer Rianta International (ARI) in a joint partnership with local partners – operating as Travel Retail Sales and Services (TRSS) – in designing three category experiences, in skincare and P&C, jewelry and sunglasses.
Planning the space and flow
Covering a total of over 700,000m2 of terminal space, including over 26,000m2 of retail space, the project scale and the airport operator’s need for a new standard of airport passenger experience challenged the industry to think differently and work in new ways, as Robbie Gill, managing director of TDS, explained: “We worked very closely with ADA and the terminal’s brilliant architects – Kohn Pedersen Fox (KPF) – and their stunning architecture set a challenge for us to build commercial additions inside the whole envelope that could help to deliver an even more dynamic space but remain in complete harmony with the architecture. This included the main duty-free store, four soaring icon stores, a series of retail pods (including four luxury pods) strategically positioned across the space, and four category-focused arcades.
“The scale and ambition of ADA’s project demanded a long timeline, which began for TDS with our appointment in 2007 as the retail planners. In 2014, our role in the terminal’s development further expanded into retail design for ARI.
“The vast scale of the terminal was challenging, particularly with the central space able to fit a football pitch between the columns. The solution was to create ‘lily pads’ of commercial pods to entice passengers to explore across this vast space. With the terminal’s notably high percentage of transfer traffic – over 70% – there was a difficult challenge to create the right balance between the creation of a walk-through duty-free/P&C core for passengers departing from Abu Dhabi and delivering transfer passengers to the ‘front door’ of the shop.
“Due to the layout and exceptional depth of the commercial space we created a collection of smaller units to suit the categories, such as watches and jewelry, where the brands’ needs for store frontage was a priority over large areas of floor space. The solution was a series of arcades that target four customer segments: watches and jewelry (735m2), fashion accessories (1,060m2), mid-market fashion (820m2) and family and children (300m2), with each expressing its own unique design character through locally inspired themes.
“We also created a series of concepts for Arrivals, including the Arrivals duty-free store and a series of pods in Arrivals for specialist stores. Our retail designs for ARI’s successful RFP bid included the main Abu Dhabi duty-free beauty and P&C store and new category concepts in jewelry and sunglasses.
“It was important to thread a Middle Eastern focus into every aspect of the project, particularly in a dedicated area at the opposite end of the IDL from the duty-free shop, and the design themes throughout the whole space resonate with local references, including Emirati art and traditional crafts and patterns.”
New space, new designs
For the TDS design team, inserting their design vision within the distinctly strong design personality of the KPF-designed terminal building required a radical new expression of the airport experience. Gill outlined the pioneering planning and design challenge:
“The creation of a wholly new space sets a radically different challenge to working on existing spaces. The great advantage, of course, is that integrating rather than adding retail elements into a space opens up the opportunity to create a more commercially effective and holistic expression of the retail experience. This approach also supports the categories and brands while delivering a uniquely cohesive and coherent experience for the passenger, blending the commercial offering into the fabric, spirit and experience of the whole terminal.
“We began our planning by establishing the path of the shopper journey, including the positioning and design of the structures that would act as the shell that encloses the main duty-free space. Among the most eye-catching features in the retail areas are the four icon stores that soar into the lavish space above them. These structures complement the terminal’s flowing structure and act as major focal points to both balance and navigate the space and prevent the dramatic height of the terminal making the space feel unbalanced.
“We are very proud to have contributed a dual role in commercial planning across the whole retail space and then supporting ARI in designing the retail experiences across three key categories. This breadth of experience and understanding across the whole terminal gave us unique advantages in how we holistically understood, visualized and detailed the passenger experience across every step of their journey through the terminal.
“ADA’s vision and sustained commitment have delivered a Terminal A experience that is about much more than a shopper experience; it is specifically designed to also help shape and influence the traveler’s perception of Abu Dhabi and the UAE. The retail adventure is absolutely integral to the traveler’s experience of the whole terminal, setting a remarkable new benchmark for the industry.”
The ARI retail adventure
Having completed the planning and flow of the commercial space for ADA, TDS and ARI worked with local partners as TRSS to design the Abu Dhabi duty-free category experiences in skincare and P&C, jewelry and sunglasses.
Adrian Bradshaw, CEO of TRSS, commented on the importance of the project: “Seeing this project come to life has been a remarkable experience. We’ve poured our passion and commitment into creating these world-class stores, and it’s incredibly rewarding to see passengers enjoying them over the last few weeks. This venture is more than just a business achievement; it reflects our dedication to excellence and our commitment to providing an exceptional shopping experience in travel retail. The positive feedback we’re receiving from our customers is a positive affirmation of our efforts and vision.”
Kevin Patience, design director of TDS, shared the design story behind the creation of the travel retail environment: “The stunning experience we can see today in Terminal A is founded on the opening line from ADA’s RFP with its emphasis on seeking ‘sensational experiences’.
“In particular, as a retail designer, one of the key factors in making our designs fully effective was the airport’s willingness to commit space for the categories and brands to perform in.
“Our core design strategy for ARI was to create stories within each category, adding multisensory elements, hospitality and ‘retail theater’ to engage with and excite passengers with spectacular and memorable experiences. Of course, each category and store transmits its own unique experience and personality but we also ensured it works within the cohesive ‘whole space’ experience too.
“As such, each story is linked to the next by a physical element or connective trail – such as the contemporary mashrabiya-style patterned canopies which are adopted across the whole space to form our ceiling ‘veils’ which signal the flow from one subcategory to another.
“When we partnered with ARI to design the P&C and skincare experience and the concept islands for jewelry and sunglasses, there was a real sense of excitement in our London studio and a sense of responsibility that this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to create something that truly breaks the mold of traditional shop design. As we look back seven years at the concept visuals and now see the images of the finished ARI stores, it’s hugely satisfying to see the ambition and confidence that ARI expressed in our initial designs.
“The breadth of our role in both commercial planning and retail design enabled us to integrate design into the DNA of the whole space, creating a truly spectacular ‘whole space’ that is unlike anything ever seen at an airport. However, the stunning vistas across the terminal are not the whole story. Within this picture, we can also zoom in on the details that enable each of the product categories to shine – and we can then zoom in even further to demonstrate how the individual brands achieve standout and celebrate their spaces.
“Across the terminal, I’m delighted by how closely the finished experience reflects our planning and design concepts and, as a retail designer, I think the ARI retail experience blends uniquely well with the architecture and design of the terminal building. Best of all, it is absolutely beautiful to experience. ADA and ARI wanted to share beauty as well as efficiency and hospitality across the whole experience, and everyone at TDS shared that passion. We’ll let the shopper decide, but I think our partnership has delivered exactly that.”
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