EXCLUSIVE: From Avatar to Mickey Mouse: How Changi Airport crafts its family-friendly passenger experience installations for maximum impact

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Passenger Terminal Today speaks with Kelvin Tan, head of user experience at Jewel Changi Airport Development, about Changi Airport Group’s (CAG) Disney and Avatar installations, and the motivations and methodologies behind these family-friendly passenger experience investments.

Changi Airport in Singapore and its retail and leisure complex Jewel Changi Airport (Jewel) have both long dedicated significant amounts of time and money to their passenger experience offerings. From unveiling the world’s tallest indoor waterfall, the HSBC Rain Vortex, to being named the World’s Best Airport at the Skytrax World Airport Awards seven years in a row, Changi Airport Group (CAG) has worked to curate an appealing brand for prospective travelers.

Yet, with the advent of the Covid-19 pandemic, the airport (like so many others) had to temporarily abandon a variety of functions and projects, from the operation of certain terminals to the expansion and construction of others, to which workers have only lately returned. Inevitably, this stifled the airport’s creative passenger experience installations.

However, throughout 2022 and 2023, more and more of the airport’s terminals and operations have come back online. As passenger traffic and profit margins recovered, the company cautiously turned back to non-aeronautical revenue streams and concessions. For example, in November last year, Changi Airport awarded eight food and beverage concessions – alongside opening a Monet exhibition and all the shops in the public areas of Terminals 1 and 3.

Commenting on the announcement in November 2022, Phau Hui Hoon, general manager for landside concessions at CAG, said, “With the increase in footfall alongside the opening of the revamped Terminal 2 and Terminal 4, we have made use of the opportunity to refresh the tenant mix and provide visitors with a rejuvenated dining and shopping experience. This is another example of the many ways that CAG tries to provide travelers and visitors with memorable experiences, and we are heartened that our tenants are supportive and appreciative of our efforts too.”

The pull of the ocean
With these concessions firmly reinstated, the airport group found the confidence to think bigger with its passenger experience installations. Later in November last year, Changi Airport Group launched a series of installations, games and activities lead by an Avatar: The Way of Water immersive installation to mark the release of the second film in the science fiction movie series. The Avatar: The Way of Water installations and activities ran from November 11 to January 2 and were held at Jewel Changi Airport and in the T3 Departure Hall of Changi Airport and included a large replica of the home of the science fiction film’s Na’vi characters that passengers could explore.

Canopy Park, at the topmost level of Jewel, was transformed into a glowing, ocean-themed sea of blue, pink, purple and teal with bioluminescent light displays. The park features mystical plants, glow-in-the-dark corals and interactive sea creatures, such as the dolphin, seal and manta ray. A cave tunnel was lined with ceiling lights and water effects projections for an immersive underwater-like experience. “We transformed Jewel’s Canopy Park into a whimsical underwater world to create an after-dark experience through the illumination of various elements of the park, while incorporating interactive elements such as the fog tunnel, snowfall, interactive screens and smoke bubbles. Visitors could interact with the sea creatures on screens using motion to trigger playful responses from them,” says Kelvin Tan, head of the user experience at Jewel Changi Airport Development. At Petal Garden (below), passengers’ footprints left glowing blue waves on the interactive floor screen where there was also a 4m smoke bubble tree.

An Avatar-themed Light & Sound show was also put on at the HSBC Rain Vortex, alongside digital screens displaying marine life at Canopy Park. With a combination of sound and light choreography, the 40m indoor waterfall featured creatures from the second film in the series, Avatar: The Way of Water, such as the Ilu and Tulkun. The show used music from the first Avatar movie and was titled Jake’s First Flight. Tan continues, “It is an inspiring and calming track and brings familiarity to those who watched the first movie. Working with Los Angeles-based water feature designer firm WET, assets from Avatar: The Way of Water were weaved in visually through the projection of Ilu, Tulkun and coral assets in a plethora of bioluminescence colors. This combination worked well to connect the audience across the two movies.”

Reaping the rewards
Alongside this installation the airport also installed 30 carnival game booths, rides and go-kart racing at the T3 Underground Carnival. The T3 Departure Hall (near check-in row 11) featured Mangrove Adventures, where people could play an archer game and win prizes and craft Mangrove Jellyfish toys. Tan says, “Celebrating the year-end festivities has been a mainstay at both Jewel and Changi Airport and has always been popular. We organize thematic or unique events during school holidays and festive celebrations for visitors across all age groups to enjoy. We’ve worked to make Jewel a special place in the hearts of travelers as well as local residents since its opening in 2019. We want customers to have memorable times here bonding with family and friends, regardless of whether they were traveling or not.” Appealing to traveling families and the younger generation of passengers in this way has enabled the airport to simultaneously cash in on peak traveling seasons and establish a loyal, long-term customer base.

Importantly, the airport group capitalized on this Avatar initiative by launching a retail pop-up and some Changi-exclusive Avatar: The Way of Water merchandise priced at S$9.90 (US$7.20) with a minimum spend of S$50 (US$37) in the airport. The group also launched a marine life game named Oceantopia accessible via the iChangi app in November 2022 alongside the Avatar exhibit. In the game, players can explore four aquatic zones and gather marine life collectibles to help rebuild the ocean landscape, and can win prizes such as an iPhone 14.

After one month of running the Avatar attractions, the airport reported a revival in travel retail sales – with the ‘liquor, perfumes and cosmetics’ category and the ‘luxury products’ category once again emerging as the most popular product categories in Changi’s stores. Even with Chinese tourists (the biggest spenders before the Covid-19 pandemic) still absent from the airport’s travel retail scene, some brands saw sales surge beyond 2019 levels. The airport then launched the Dino Glow festive light-up in the outdoor Changi Festive Village in December, which was “inspired by the colors and bioluminescence of the world of Avatar” and featured 1,100 levitating jellyfish beneath the T2 Skytrain track, 3,600 mushrooms and 4,000 dandelions, a 40m tunnel of lighted arches, glowing gingerbread men and dinosaurs.

At the airport’s announcement in January this year that Changi Airport had handled 32.2 million passengers in 2022, Lim Ching Kiat, executive vice president of air hub and cargo development at CAG, reflected, “In the past two years, we strengthened our airport offerings and continued to engage our airline partners in anticipation of travel revival. Changi Airport community’s efforts have paid off – the airport is now leading the Asia-Pacific region in travel recovery. Notwithstanding near-term challenges such as global economic uncertainty and inflationary pressures, we are confident that we will be able to progressively restore Changi Airport’s connectivity and traffic to pre-Covid levels.”

Social storytelling
Building on the success of these family-friendly exhibits, this year the airport launched ‘Disney100’ – a range of Disney-themed activities and retail offerings for airport travelers running from January until April that opened with a Disney100 Light & Sound show at the HSBC Rain Vortex on its launch weekend. Curated again by water feature design firm WET, the show featured a medley of Disney songs including When You Wish Upon A Star, A Whole New World, You’ve Got A Friend In Me and the theme from Marvel Studios’ Avengers: Endgame.

At the Shiseido Forest Valley, visitors can take photos in front of a 4m tall platinum Mickey Mouse statue and walk through a Disney100 archway. When asked about the success of these installations, Tan draws attention to the invaluable role of social media in Changi Airport’s passenger experience strategy, which included the launch of its own TikTok account in 2022: “On social media, there has been a lot of buzz both locally and internationally. We also promoted the activities through Changi Airport’s and Jewel’s social media channels as well as overseas mainstream media, lifestyle and family influencers to expand our publicity and create awareness and mindshare among our global followers and travelers. We have been promoting in markets like Indonesia, India and Australia, which are among our key source markets. We have seen very strong footfall numbers to Jewel with the launch of these activities.”

A total of 10 Disney-themed photo spots have been installed at Jewel’s Shiseido Forest Valley and Canopy Park to support this social media initiative. Tan adds, “Each photo booth is also accompanied by its movie soundtrack and interactive elements for fans to be creative in their photo-taking.” The airport included scenery inspired by Mickey Mouse’s debut film Steamboat Willy (1928) – the very first Disney animation with sound – and other moments from films such as Winnie The Pooh (1977), The Lion King (1994), Toy Story (1995), Up (2009), Inside Out (2015) and Encanto (2021). The airport also granted free entry to the Canopy Park over the launch period (Jan 13-15) to passengers dressed in outfits inspired by Disney characters. In collaboration with the Singapore Tourism Board, four other photo spots called ‘Little Wonders of Singapore’ were also created to highlight elements of Singapore.

The power of dreams
These child-friendly activities and installations have increased passenger dwell time in the airport by encouraging overnight stays. Tan explains, “After the plethora of exciting activities, visitors – especially families with little ones in tow – can rejuvenate at YOTELAIR within Jewel. With 130 accessible family cabins, these rooms can be booked for a minimum of four hours, ideal for short daytime layovers or overnight stays.”

As with its Avatar installation, Changi launched an accompanying Disney-themed Year of the Rabbit Tsum Tsum pop-up store, at Jewel’s Basement 1 (open from mid-January to the end of February). It offers merchandise such as toys, stationery, apparel and homeware. To promote passenger engagement with the Disney-themed activities and commercial offerings, shoppers can win an all-expense-paid trip for four to Hong Kong Disneyland when they shop at Jewel Changi Airport or at one of 15 CapitaLand malls that are ushering in the lunar new year with Disney-themed Year of The Rabbit festivities. Shoppers can also redeem a complimentary set of Year of the Rabbit red packets with Disney characters on them with a minimum S$80 (US$60) spend on a single receipt, while stocks last. When the Disney-themed Year of the Rabbit store closes at the end of February, the retail pop-up will be transformed into The Wonder Store, featuring Disney100-themed merchandise, with an assortment across Disney, Pixar, Marvel and Star Wars branded properties.

Alongside increasing dwell time, encouraging sales and driving traffic to the airport and its retail zones, the airport overall highlights one motivation behind these installations above all others – its lasting passenger experience reputation. Speaking at the Disney100 launch, James Fong, CEO of Jewel Changi Airport Development, said, “Creating wonderful memories for all our visitors continues to be what drives us at Jewel. Disney inspires us to offer our guests more opportunities to bond with their friends, family and loved ones. We are proud to be bringing a touch of Disney’s iconic stories and characters to travelers, fans and families in Singapore to create delightful memories together.”

Tan concurs, “With the diverse profiles of our visitors, we aim to delight all of them across all age groups with the variety of exciting installations and activities to create fond memories. Looking to the future, we will continually refresh with new experiences to enhance the airport’s offerings and programming, to stay relevant to consumer needs and preferences.”

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