The boom in low-cost air travel, as undeniable as it now is, clearly took even the most seasoned air-watchers by surprise. Summarising its 2000 air traffic forecasts, the Government said it had taken little account of low-cost passenger figures, because their growth rate – 8.1% a year in 1999 – was expected to slow down fairly quickly.
As we all know, that isn't quite the way things went. Last year, UK airports handled 217 million passengers, of whom 70 million flew low-cost. Despite the reinvention of air travel as an everyday experience – and the simultaneous transformation of the UK public into a collection of international frequent flyers – airports as a media vehicle still account for just 0.25% of UK ad spend, and most of that comes from business-to-business brands.
But that is not to say airport advertising is necessarily either of the things many in the media world imagine it to be: namely, a niche corner of the outdoor world or a purely business- to-business landscape. In its way, its advocates claim it is as impactful and cost effective as any high-end advertising medium, and it undoubtedly has attributes no other sector can replicate.
Writing last year in the newsletter of parent company Posterscope, Neil Alldritt, chief executive of airport media specialist PSI, described a piece of pitch theatre in the late 1990s – when the company was gunning for the Nokia account – which only airport media could have made possible.
Knowing that the client was flying in to Denmark just as the final decision on the account was about to be made, PSI bought two sites at Copenhagen airport and put up an ad bearing a dummy e-mail header, addressed to the client's representative by name, from Alldritt himself, with the subject line "Let's get connected". Apart from being an interesting (and not apocryphal) use of the medium, Alldritt wrote: "It demonstrated just how flexible the sector can be – I doubt there is another medium that offers a high-impact, multi-million, pan-regional audience and yet can narrowcast to a single individual."
In spite of its versatility, airport media's accustomed role is as a pure business-to-business tool for global brands in the IT, telecoms and banking sectors, and in this capacity, it has seen steady growth in recent years.
"I think big brands are certainly recognising the importance of airports," says PSI new business manager Carl Loew. "I won't say they are scurrying after the best pieces, but there has certainly been a surge of interest over the past few years. As the mediums fragment, there is still only one Heathrow Airport."
Airport media sales themselves are fairly consolidated. JCDecaux Airport holds the media contract for the seven BAA airports – Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton, Glasgow, Aberdeen and Edinburgh – plus Luton.
Birmingham is managed by Clear Channel, while Manchester, East Midlands and Cardiff are sold by Airport Advertising. Airline lounges are in the hands of the airlines themselves.
Minimum of wastage
Within such a relentlessly commercial environment as an airport, there is no real limit to what can be sponsored or otherwise advertised upon, with the advantage that ads may be targeted to specific demographics, allowing a theoretical minimum of wastage.
The sites on offer through JCDecaux Airport include everything from short-term positions, such as platform six-sheets and escalator panels on the Heathrow Express, to long-term back-lit terminals in any airport, searchable by terminal, flight type, departures/ arrivals and airside/landside – and that is before you come to one-off eye-catchers in and around the airport.
"That senior decision-maker is hard to reach, because he consumes media differently to normal people," says Loew. "The airport gives you that transactional moment with him, because of the length of the dwell time."
In terms of major spenders, HSBC is widely recognised as owning the airport space, but Royal Bank of Scotland, Vodafone, Orange and the low-cost carriers themselves are also among the clients who have identified airport advertising as a key media tool.
There is an increasing consumer angle, too.
Luxury goods brands see in these international junctions a place where businessmen and other affluent professionals slow down enough to think about buying something.
"The uniqueness of airports above anything else is that most people are stuck there for two hours or more, with nothing to do. People like business travellers, who haven't usually got much time on their hands to go to mobile phone shops, have time to browse in airports," says Catherine Cooper, marketing manager at JCDecaux Airport.
Hitachi recently ran a campaign through PSI to increase awareness of its Platara plasma TV range, playing non-stop football highlights on a purpose-built stand and using staff dressed as referees. PSI reports that 90% of its target males visited the stand.
In another recent campaign, Saab offered executives the chance to pick up a car at their destination airport for a test drive within a designated radius. Volvo, meanwhile, recently launched a "bluecasting" initiative in business lounges at Heathrow, offering idle travellers the opportunity to download Volvo's Life On Board TV ads to their phone via Bluetooth.
"Anyone who has been to an airport knows you do hang around," says Alasdair Scott, creative partner at Filter UK, the mobile marketing agency which developed the Volvo campaign with outdoor digital advertising agency OneZeroOne. "There is a lack of things to do apart from shopping, and depending on where the media is placed, you have probably got exactly the right kind of demographic, which is to say: bored, rich people with time on their hands, who also happen to have the right kind of upmarket handsets."
Filter's next bluecasting project is a mass-market campaign through Maiden Outdoor sites at railway stations and, according to Scott, airports, too, could soon be the target for mass-market campaigns. Certainly, they have the credentials – of those 70 million low-cost air passengers last year, JCDecaux Airport's research suggests that up to 70% were consumers taking city breaks.
JCDecaux believes the traditional view of airport media as a predominantly business-to business tool needs to be re-evaluated. "Airport is so niche, people don't really understand if it fits into outdoor or if it goes in with business- to-business," says Cooper.
"When we go into agencies, they're very much stuck on the idea that airports are still B2B. That is the case for an airport like Heathrow, but somewhere like Stansted is predominantly a low-cost airport driven by Ryanair's growth. The people going through there and going away on leisure are your average British consumers, with possibly a bit more money in their pockets."
The massive flow of leisure traffic through airports such as Stansted, Luton and Gatwick testifies to the fact that frequent flying is no longer the exclusive domain of the business traveller, even if low-cost flights are not necessarily purely leisure flights.
"We're finding that a lot of business passengers are using low-cost airlines," says Clear Channel account manager Mario Lucrino.
"We would like to see more [advertising to the leisure market], but at the moment it's still business-to-business, and the bigger spenders are the IT companies and telcos."
Nonetheless, there is evidence that a few advertisers are beginning to pay greater attention to the holidaying hordes. Last year, marketers for Unilever's Surf washing powder and detergent brand hit upon the idea of targeting returning holiday-makers, who are united by the fact that they are all either bearing or awaiting suitcases full of dirty clothes.
The promotion employed a method JCDecaux refers to as "zoning and trailing", whereby advertisers communicate with their target audience at key stages along their journey.
"Rather than just using poster sites, it's all about that interaction with the brand and providing services and benefits to the consumer," says Cooper.
"Surf handed out 400,000 samples in two weeks, and they also branded everything from baggage belts and floor media to exit doors."
Likewise, since 2002, Vodafone has maintained a constant presence in the departure lounge of Heathrow's Terminal 1 with its Vodafone Experience information and assistance zone, where customers of Vodafone – and also Orange and O2 – are invited to charge their phones and take advantage of other phone-related services.
The combination of a surging air travel market and a media world which is constantly looking to prove its creativity could well be just the combination the airport sector needs.
Banking on a bridge
HSBC has sponsored the air bridges at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted since the late-'90s. Global head of sponsorship William Parry explains: "The primary reason we got involved with airports was to support our initial launch of the HSBC hexagon brand. In that environment, reaching out to 100 million people in a cost-effective way across a massive canvas was appealing, because it showed both our internationalism and the scale of our brand.
"It was a bit unscientific in its initial creative execution – it was purely to get some awareness on the radar – and we didn't examine it in detail because I don't think anybody had done it before. In the past five years, a lot of other companies have seen the value in advertising at airports, both in the retail space and on the air bridges. I think there are about 10 major branding exercises going on around the world, of which five are ours.
"It is not a space you can use for hard messaging, but to get some brand messages across, it is a good medium."