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Passenger Terminal Today speaks to Simon Scott, head of international business at Leslie Jones Architecture, about the airport retail experience in Dubai and the company’s appointment to the Al Maktoum Airport design team

How did Leslie Jones Architecture come to be involved in the Al Maktoum Airport design team?

Leslie Jones Architecture predominantly deals with mixed-use retail projects. It is my responsibility to grow the international sector including aviation, by using my 20+ years of aviation experience gained from various projects such as London Heathrow Airport Terminal 5 (T5) and Dubai International Airport Concourse A.

We understand the differences and similarities between shopping on the high street and shopping at an airport. People go to a shopping center to get a particular item or to spend the day there. Shopping at an airport is very different because you primarily go there to get a flight.

Part of our strategy with any airport project is to fully understand the passenger process and make it so the retail and food and beverage offering is not only part of the operational process, but also adds to the overall leisure experience for passengers. We can’t influence the whole experience, such as a delayed flight for example, but if there is something enjoyable to do then it can help to mitigate some of that distress.

Dubai International Airport has its own unique scenario because 80% of passengers going through the airport are transfer passengers. It is therefore important to convey an essence of what Dubai Airport is about during that transit process. This includes everything from the signage and wayfinding through to the retail offering. If you can get it right then it should add to the whole experience and make the process quite exciting.

What’s the difference between designing retail areas in Dubai compared with Heathrow T5?

The profile of passengers going through Dubai is very different, even the amount of time travelers spend at the airport is different. A growing sector for Dubai is the Asian market because as a demographic they are traveling more and they have their own particular needs. Food and beverage offerings account for 30-40% of the whole retail offering at Dubai International, and depending on the background and circumstances, passengers will have different levels of expenditure as well as taste. Al Maktoum will be ahead of the game by having enough space to provide that diversity. It will make the experience exciting and will work as an extension of an already enjoyable experience with airlines such as Emirates.

What are some of the similarities and differences between the airport retail experience and the high street?

Retail moves on year-on-year but there are many aspects of retail design that are very similar between the high street or shopping mall and an international airport. The main reasons why people move around a shopping center are not so different to why they move around an airport, browsing for example. An operator of a high-end luxury store wants to create an exclusive environment and wants to be more enclosed, whereas if you are selling duty free goods such as perfume then you want travelers to go through and see the offers.

Some aspects of retailing such as e-commerce present huge challenges for the high street and the shopping center but present a different challenge for airport retailing. People actually have the time to browse and find something. That doesn’t mean that they should be denied interactivity or connectivity to buy, but there’s more chance that a passenger is going to have a look at the goods even if they are going to buy at another time. The ability to browse and create impulse buying is higher in the airport.

To help encourage this, the incentives for passengers often come from arrangements the airport makes with the retailers. The outlets are concession based so there is an incentive for the airport to get the retail experience right because it gets a portion of that income. In terms of Dubai International Airport, that is slightly different because the same company owns Dubai Duty Free and the airport. Therefore, inherently there’s even more reason to get it right – the business model has its own incentives.

What part do designers play in shaping the retail experience?

What we have to do as designers is provide the right environment to not only create things that are exciting but that are innovative in terms of airport retailing. For example, double-height flagship stores, things that aren’t available in airports at the moment that people experience in other retail environments. We also need to create flexibility. You might think you know exactly what your target market is because you know which planes are going out from that part of the airport, but terminals, airlines and routes are always changing. So what might be right in terms of a profile one year could be very different two or three years down the line.

This presents technical challenges. For example, putting in large numbers of food and beverage outlets requires the support of systems such as waste disposal and pumps. You can’t easily exchange what was a retail unit for a food and beverage unit unless you’ve planned it beforehand.

Ultimate flexibility is the highest cost. It’s a balancing act, so something we’re trying to do is establish the right level of flexibility so the project team can take it on and deliver the correct product. There will always be compromises but you test different scenarios to get a good middle ground.

Interview by Hazel King

March 27, 2015

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Kirstie joined the team in early 2017 and brings writing, communications and client experience with her. Now an assistant editor, she produces content for our magazines and websites. Away from the office, you will find her blogging on her lifestyle website or searching the internet for photos of sausage dogs.

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