What can airports learn from stadium design?

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Despite their very different purposes, airports and stadiums have much in common. Geoffrey Ax, head of the aviation practice at Populous, considers how airports can learn from the latest wave of new stadiums.

In the 1950s, when passenger air travel became more affordable and accessible, millions of people took to the skies daily and airports were rapidly constructed in major cities. As the industry evolved, terminals were quickly upgraded to accommodate the higher volume of people, larger jets and more frequent take-offs. Over the 60 years since, airports have been in a constant state of renovation. Unfortunately, in many cases, this mix of new and old has left passengers with outdated mazes to tackle while traveling to the gate, along with uninviting seating areas, poor food options and limitations in terms of other ways to spend their time and money.

While attempts have been made to maximize the passenger experience – from new parking options to streamlined check-in/security and contemporary shopping and dining experiences – airports still lack a variety of experiences, personality and innovation.

Like airports, sports stadiums recently went through a form of rebirth. Many of those designed in the mid-20th century have been razed to make way for state-of-the-art venues featuring a variety of seating and unique experience options, often surrounded by a mixed-use district for fans to enjoy before, during and after the event.

While airports and stadiums serve different purposes, from an operational standpoint, they are very similar. Every day, thousands of people travel to the venues, make their way through security and ticketing, and share experiences with others, all as part of the ‘main event’.

My question, therefore, is “What can airports learn from stadium design and how can designers of some of the world’s most iconic venues contribute experiential solutions that transform airports into places for people to enjoy?”

Sense of place
Giving guests a strong sense of place is an important step in providing an enjoyable experience. Whether at an airport or a stadium, embracing the personality and culture of the city helps in giving the venue a feeling of authenticity. Sense of place is why Wrigley Field is an authentic Chicago experience, for example. Every detail from brand activation and wayfinding to local food offerings and the history of the club is authentic to the place and enhances Cubs fans’ and visitors’ experiences.

Exclusive and authentic food and beverage offerings can also help create another type of lifestyle destination for fans. For example, the New York Mets’ Citi Field features concessions from local restaurants such as Pat LaFrieda. These serve as authentic reminders of this leg of the journey and help the venue become more than a stadium or airport.

Just as stadiums offer unique fan experiences, such as TIAA Bank Field’s endzone pools in Jacksonville, Florida, and T-Mobile Arena’s Hyde Lounge, in Paradise, Nevada, providing an authentic sense of place at an airport can create experiences that encourage people to make the airport a destination in its own right – turning it into a place they actually enjoy spending time and thus spending money.

Human-centered design
When designing a space that regularly receives thousands of people, a behavioral evaluation must be done to create a human-centered design aesthetic. This approach factors in how people might behave, what they need, and how they might feel when in a particular space. It is based on the simple premise that every person who enters the space will require something different and that we must anticipate their needs before they are even aware of them – no matter their seat or status.

Whether the user is a first-class passenger, frequent flier or a standing-room-only ticketholder, the experience needs to appeal across the demographic spectrum. Each person is there for the same reason and, by implementing human-centered design, designers can empathize with each guest, to see the space through the eyes of those coming through the gates and provide something that creates a comfortable experience for all.

Experience for all
Everyone’s journey to and within the stadium or airport varies, but guests all want the same thing – to feel stress-free, relaxed and comfortable. Because of this, stadiums are creating more sensory-friendly, disability-friendly and child-friendly spaces. Recently, Fiserv Forum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became the first National Basketball Association (NBA) arena to have two separate public sensory rooms for those guests in need of a calming environment. It also features seven public wellness rooms, ideal for nursing, praying, or just a quiet place for fans to unwind.

Spaces for kids are popular in stadiums and airports alike. Stadiums offer batting cages and climbing walls and airports are increasingly adding kid zones of their own. These spaces give parents and children a safe, comfortable place to relax, and may even mean that they look forward to their time at the airport.

As the future of airport design continues to evolve around the needs of the next-generation traveler, airports and airlines can take inspiration from stadiums that bring millions of people together, delivering exciting experiences unique to their communities.

Geoffrey Ax leads the aviation practice at Populous. He has more than 20 years of leadership experience in the project, executive, client management and business development phases for major airport projects with budgets in excess of US$1bn. He has led the small- and large-scope design of terminals, operations, cargo facilities, and more, including the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, Los Angeles World Airports, and Jorge Chávez International Airport in Lima, Peru.

Images courtesy of Populous.

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