A tale of two North American airports

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On a quickfire trip to North America last week, I took in two major airport visits in two days, and had a fascinating glimpse into how the airport companies in Montréal and Chicago – and their partners – are re-imagining commercial activities.

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First, at Montréal-Trudeau, Aéroports de Montréal held the official opening of its new-look retail and F&B operations, including ARI-North America’s new duty free store (centrepiece of the development) among ten new shops and restaurants.

This is ARI’s biggest overseas expansion of The Loop brand to date, and a template of others that will follow at home in Ireland and abroad. My favourite elements included the Québec design and theming that guide travellers through the store, as well as aspects of the offer that neatly reflect the region. A highlight is ‘The Great One’, a sculptured stainless steel moose by Québec artist Mathieu Isabelle (above). It’s the kind of installation that, if designed differently, could look hokey, but here it adds a touch of artistry that works in this environment. And as we saw on our visit, it attracted huge attention from passengers and their camera lenses.

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Branching out: The Quebec pine that stands at the entrance to ARI’s luxury goods store at Montreal-Trudeau Airport

The pine wood that frames the luxury store across the corridor also delivers Sense of Place, as do parts of the store. The Canadian speciality wines area is excellent, and there’s a solid offer in Québec speciality food and gifts. Perhaps the ubiquitous maple syrup offer, which commands much shelf space, could be even more of a feature through a more prominent showcase.

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The Collection du Canada: A lovely addition to the new The Loop store featuring the best of Canadian wines

Elsewhere, there’s a version of ARI’s Irish Whiskey Collection, done so well at Dublin T2 in particular. Here, it’s less convincing as it houses spirits from around the world without say, a strong Canadian identity (though we understand there are plans to develop this area in time).

Overall, the main store offers great visibility and access, a good mix of the personalised and generic plus a far broader offer in the key categories of P&C and liquor than ever before.

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Celebrating the ARI opening at a dinner after the inauguration were (l-r) Caribbean-ARI Director Lindell Nurse, Caribbean-ARI Chairman Doug Hoyte, ARI-NA Director Mario Caron, ARI-NA Financial Controller Lise Roy, ARI CEO Jack MacGowan, ARI Montreal GM Jacques Dagenais, The Moodie Report Vice Chairman Dermot Davitt, ARI Director Retail Operations Gerry Crawford, Caribbean-ARI GM Pat Molloy and Caribbean-ARI Director Frank Odle

There’s plenty more to savour in the airside zone too. Vino Volo’s always high-class store and wine bar, a fine dining restaurant plus Les Délices de L’Érable, a lovely showcase for small manufacturers from Québec.

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Vino Volo: A first outlet at a full international terminal

Crucially in this airport redevelopment, a number of the new outlets (notably in F&B) are located landside. As airport CEO Jim Cherry explained to me (in an interview we’ll publish soon), the dramatic shift of virtually all commercial activity airside after 9/11 is slowly being rebalanced. Travellers are now more used to the rules around security and airports are better at facilitating a smooth transition landside to airside today, so there is room for a more expansive offer pre-security once more, he said.

At Trudeau, that’s resulted in a nice blend of destination retail, grab and go dining plus one of the best new bars I’ve seen at an airport anywhere recently, in Quebec craft brewer Archibald (below left).

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The bar and brasserie company has three outlets in the Canadian province, but this is its first at the airport. It has a good menu of classic burgers, steaks and fish allied to superb service, but its stand-out points are its Quebecois décor – from deer and moose heads to furs and wooden fixtures throughout – to its in-house beer range, ranging from pale ale and pilseners to porter and stout. Over dinner with the ARI team in this little corner of Québec, it was hard to believe that just yards away was the functional, sterile check-in zone.

Given the quality and breadth of the beer and food offer, perhaps this is one concept that could be better placed airside. How many travellers will be relaxed enough to sample the extensive craft beer list when they still have to face security?

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All change in Chicago: Dufry’s new duty free store in T5

A day later, Chicago T5 offered a different vision of retail and F&B for international travellers. The starting point for Westfield and partners such as Dufry was very different than Montréal: previously 95% of all commercial was pre-security, making the challenge of the transition a huge one over the past two years. What’s admirable is that from almost no commercial airside, there’s now a walk-through duty free store, a solid blend of F&B with local brands and flavor, plus a lively destination offer that goes well past souvenirs to art and craft, at I Love Chicago.

Partly because the terminal beyond the commercial heart has not been radically changed, T5 still retains elements of the old unappealing terminal don by the gates – a real contrast to the mall-style hub at its centre. Also, some of the local brands that have been introduced feature here through kiosk-style counters rather than full restaurant spaces. For Chicagoans who know and love these F&B brands, that won’t matter, but to the majority of travellers these units might not carry the same appeal.

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Some of the local brand names that lead the T5 F&B offer

Now that it lies airside, the duty free store is obviously a major departure, and all passengers encounter it on their way through. P&C is well represented and broadly well merchandised. But even at 10,000sq ft, there is a cramped feel to parts of the store, with a lot of fixtures that will make access difficult at very busy times.

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Coming soon: Michael Kors and Emporio Armani will open soon on the ‘luxury row’ at Chicago T5

Compared to P&C or even liquor, the space devoted to, for example, confectionery and accessories, is very limited. I also wonder how many passengers will enjoy the experience of browsing through the watches or jewellery while they face back at security five yards away, as they put their belts or jackets back on?

Overall though, this is a terminal that has come a long way in a short time. With some better wayfinding and marketing of the offer, this has all the elements to be an attractive and successful concessions arena.

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