Puckish and passionate about airports –- “glass cathedrals,” as he describes them -- Sperring’s domains included five in and around London (Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and Southampton) and three in Scotland. He and I were of like minds as far as Airworld was concerned. Before the tour, he loaded up his standard-issue deck of Powerpoint slides for pitches. “Imagine a city with a population over 128 million. ... A city that regenerates itself every day. ... A city with dynamic growth. ... A city with a population unlike anywhere on Earth. ... A city called Airport.”
That "city" is larger than Tokyo, New York, London and Paris combined, if you’re willing to accept the 128 million annual passengers who flow through the five London airports under contract with JCDecaux (a sixth, London City, isn’t) as full-fledged citizens of this city in the sky. Within this aeropolis, Heathrow is analogous to The City (i.e., London’s financial district), with 26 million business travelers per year; Stansted is a suburb of 20-somethings; and Luton (the home of easyJet) is evidently the airport equivalent of New York's Williamsburg, a hub for cheap-thrills-seeking hipsters.
Premium ad space
But, like in any city, there are good blocks and bad ones, hopelessly cluttered public plazas and tony addresses that command premium rates. Near the beginning of our tour, Sperring led me away from the pandemonium of Terminal 1’s general check-in area toward British Airway’s exclusive private reserve for elite passengers. Near the entrance, the floor-to-low-ceiling advertising light boxes were filled
|Photo: Greg Lindsay|
|Advertising is part of the architectural feel of Airworld, with billboards such as this Emporio Armani ad in Charles de Gaulle airport in Paris. Click to see larger photo.
And how much does premium placement like this cost? Well, Sperring said, he doesn’t have a rate card. “It’s a bit like how you would value real estate,” he said. “You’re always constrained by the question of what is other advertising in that environment worth? You’re always benchmarking to X for that ad, or Y for that one, but how much else have you got for sale? There is an enormous amount of elasticity here in the airport, whether you’re talking about airline tickets or the media for sale. The prices are this wide,” he said, holding his arms apart, “and the market will more often than not decide for you. The equation might be something like, ‘We’re getting X for this ad, and Y for that one, and 67 million passengers come through here each year, and how much wow-factor does the space have, and who else is interested in the space?’ And then you say, ‘Right, that’ll be 160,000 pounds.’ Eighty percent of what we sell here is bespoke for our advertisers. It’s less of a science than an art.”
'Afraid of white walls'
There aren’t many spaces with a “wow factor” inside Terminal 1, one of the oldest and most extended of Heathrow’s five terminals. (Terminal 5, which is still under construction, is the future home of British Air’s Heathrow operations and will begin life with 30 million passengers a year from the day it opens in 2008.) The low ceilings and narrow corridors make huge banners or vista impossible, and every square inch of the walls seems covered in JCDecaux’s advertising, plugs for the terminal’s duty-free shopping, signage or all of the above. “It’s like they’re afraid of white walls here,” Sperring said at one point.
Still, whether it’s JCDecaux, ClearChannel or one of the handful of smaller players in the market, airport
|Photo: Greg Lindsay|
|Vodafone has a massive Heathrow display area that allows streaming crowds of airline passengers to physically interact with its products. Click to see larger photo.
But as long as there’s demand, inventory will be found. Sperring also showed me the pitch for the “Lightwave” site, a complex billboard/optical illusion that will fill a traffic island in the center of Heathrow’s terminal complex after the latest fit of construction is finished. The initial asking price for the site is half a million pounds --about $887,000 -- although I was unclear on the duration of the deal. Even more amazing is the scale model of the Concorde British Airways had paid to place at the traffic entrance to Heathrow, which I heard on deep background cost the airline 850,000 pounds for a long-term deal. (Sperring had no comment on it.)
The workhorses of airport advertising, however, are the light boxes lining the walls (especially prevalent at O’Hare and elsewhere in the U.S.) and the stumpy, rotating kiosks throughout Heathrow. Sperring believes these will eventually give way to new technology: "They were built for older airports, really. And as airports start to change, and become more of a glass cathedral, things like this have fulfilled their usefulness and evolve into screens." A few screens are already visible at Terminal 1, where ads share space with arrival and departure information, “but in
|Photo: Greg Lindsay|
|Sponsorship of terminal services, such as this T-mobile Internet access kiosk in Heathrow, is becoming increasingly popular with marketers who seek to get their brands in front of the millions of travelers passing through airports. Click to see larger photo.
Branding airport services
An ultimately more important trend, in Sperring’s opinion, is the underwriting and branding of airport services. To give you an idea of what that means, consider this: While waiting for my flight from Heathrow to Paris Charles de Gaulle to board, I watched CNN’s coverage of Hurricane Rita on a Samsung flat screen not 20 feet from a T-Mobile stand advertising its pan-airport Wi-fi coverage, while nearby, a row of Internet terminals sponsored by Spectrum.net offered pay-by-the-minute Internet access. And then there is the massive Vodafone display in the heart of Terminal 1 –- a semi-permanent theme park where “you can physically put brands into people’s hands without the fear that they’re going to run off with the stuff,” Sperring said. “They’re having a direct interaction with their clients at a time, perhaps, when their service is most valued. And, of course, those people have a lot of dwell time on their hands, so what else are they going to do?”
Vodafone’s stand also serves Sperring’s goal of moving away from static, pre-sized displays and more toward ads that morph to fit specific contexts. As new “glass cathedrals” have come into being in Europe (at Charles de Gaulle) in America (new terminals at JFK and Dallas-Ft. Worth) and especially Asia, the challenge has been to find a place for advertising within giant glass boxes or halls hundred of feet wide. “We try to borrow from the building’s structure,” he said, and one example with a high wow-factor is the elliptical Emporio Armani ad that covers one entire end of Terminal 2F at Charles de Gaulle.
Cramming in the ads
As both the airports and airlines realize there is more and more essentially free money to be had by covering
Next up might be your cell phone. Considering that the airlines (and perhaps, by extension, the airport) know when you’re leaving and know where you’ll be leaving from, text messages paid for by duty free boutiques or local concessions could apprise travelers of their existence or offer them coupons. “But who owns that information?” asks Sperring. “I think the airport would argue that it owns the flight information, but the airline would argue that it owns the passenger.” And I argue that in the U.S. at least, the sharing of that information between those entities, no matter what the size of the cut involved, would be seen as an egregious breach in privacy.
Conflicts over ad space
The relationship between the airport, airlines and the advertising overseer is always a touchy matter. Sperring has it easy in London because Heathrow’s parent, BAA, unequivocally controls the airport, while at LAX, for example, all but a few of the terminals are leased to the airlines, and even at O’Hare, Clear Channel only controls the central corridors –- the carpeted gate areas are the airlines’ own. This leads to sticky situations like the one I stumbled into in Chicago. Clear Channel’s Hickok was under the impression that American Airlines will agree to lease it one of the choicest pieces of real estate in the entire complex –- a blank wall where American’s terminal splits in two. It’s Accenture’s ideal location for its touch screen, but American apparently isn’t having any of it. “They can’t have it,” the airline’s local rep told me, and she made it clear this was American’s last word on the subject.
And even the airport itself may have ideas that run counter to advertising. At Heathrow, which at times resembles a collection of luxury shopping malls with extremely tight security, Sperring and his team have made less headway placing ads in the main shopping corridors. “The lounges are the final frontier,” he said. “Here in the U.K., they want to keep passengers shopping and keep them eating.” His comment echoed what LAX’s Mark Miodovski had told me two weeks before about one of the airport’s historical objections to advertising: “If they’re looking at an ad, they aren’t busy buying things.”
Speaking of LAX, final bids are due today in the bake-off between JCDecaux and Clear Channel for the next 10 years of its advertising existence. Plasma screens, floor-to-ceiling displays, omnipresent billboards and temples to telecom companies --- do they know what they’re in for either way it goes?