Good morning Boksitogorsk!

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Martin Moodie
Martin Moodie is the Founder & Chairman of The Moodie Report.

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I am flying over Belozersk, which seems like a good name for my weary mental state. I am truly feeling Belozerksed after ten days in Asia dominated by all the mental (in every sense) pressure that goes with organising and moderating The Trinity Forum, followed by a series of key meetings afterwards.

When I land I shall read up about Belozersk, about Gatchima, Pushkin, Sosnovy Bar (I wonder if it’s open) and other places I will fly over tonight. I must be the only air passenger in the world who spends more time watching the inflight moving map than the movies. I love it. I want to find out more about each new name that appears on the map, to find out what the people there do, to go visit one day.

In a moment, my screen tells me, I’ll be saying “Good morning Boksitogorsk!” in deference to the late, great Robin Williams, that saddest of happy men.

Any of us in the travel retail industry should try our hardest to never, ever, lose the sense of wonder that we get from air travel. Think just how special our world becomes as we gaze at that moving map. And it’s not just flying on planes, but being in airports. Because from that sense of wonder comes the concept that we so love to champion, Sense of Place (I use the capital letters deliberately as I believe the notion to be critical).

Next week we will start a new series on The Moodie Report called exactly that – Sense of Place. I can promise you it will make you reconsider our industry and realise one of the most important ways in which we can differentiate ourselves from the likes of Alibaba, Amazon and Apple.

Airports and airlines are like no other place on earth (pedantics among you will tell me the latter are not on earth anyway. Fair point, for which I apologise.). When we are in them or on them we are not like any other people on earth. We are not even like our (normal) selves. Let’s seize on those facts. Let’s make travel retail something Amazon, for all its amazing reach, voice and efficiency, can never be. Sell me something that I can’t get online. Sell me it in a way I can’t get online. Sell me the travel experience. Make me part of it, make me taste it, smell it, sense it.

I am reading a wonderful collection of short stories at present called The Fiddler in the Subway, by double-Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Gene Weingarten. It is teaching me many things, not least how very, very far I have to go to become the writer I would like to be.

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But that’s not the point. The title of the story that also carries the book’s name is the point. It relates the true tale of what happened when world-famous violinist Joshua Bell busked for 45 minutes outside a Washington D.C. subway station. Did anyone notice him? Recognise him? Appreciate him? I won’t ruin the story but let’s just say he didn’t get his usual standing ovation.

I suspect the same thing might happen if he played at, say, Piccadily Station in London. He might make a few Pounds but I doubt many commuters would stop to listen. Now here’s a thought. What if, say, Dubai International or London Heathrow was to let him play, anonymously of course, as part of, say, a week-long busking festival. I am prepared to bet good money (therefore, by definition, someone else’s) that he would earn much more, both cash and recognition, than in the subway. 

Why? Simply because airports are such extraordinary places. Not only do they feature some of the best examples of modern architecture but they also represent an ever-changing cast of characters and human emotions, from delight to despair, love to loss. As another rather greater writer than me nearly said, “All the world’s airports are a stage and all the men and women merely players.”  But oh what a player on such a stage Joshua Bell would be. 

On that note, I see that it’s time to say “Good morning Boksitogorsk!” Onwards. Another airport awaits.

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  • Dear Martin,

    my personal pet subject is airport architecture and I came across both your Moodie report and Moodie blog web presences when scouring the net for new developments in airport design, as clearly the layout and presentation of retail spaces are an ever more crucial aspect of airport planning.
    I am neither architect nor interior designer but ever since my first flight, I found the airport experience rather more fascinating than the flight itself.

    The penultimate paragraph of your blog entry here beautifully puts my interest in airports into words; if I could, I would surely fly to another city to just stay in the airport because it’s the most fascinating place there for me.
    So I eagerly await your new series, they will surely enable me to travel virtually through many more airports!

    With that said, please bear with me for the following observations.
    In the past few years, everyone from airport managers to architecture firms has sung the song of “sense of place” so insistently and overpoweringly that it comes close to being a hackneyed phrase already.
    Simultaneously, modern architecture as applied to airports seems to have exhausted itself in the provision of a curved ceiling, exposed steelwork in the form of roof trusses or mighty columns, and lots of glass.
    I am tempted to say that you could put together an airport with these architectural features, apply a modicum of thought to its layout and name it “Anytown Sense Of Place Intenational Airport.”

    I believe that a true airport sense of place blooms in the interstices of layout, daily operations and entertainment options and can offer enjoyment to those wanting to find it already.
    Take the Haneda airport international terminal as an example. It contains a replica of the most famous Japanese wooden bridge and a retail street composed of old wooden storefronts. In the midst of all of this is a purpose-built stage for performances and events. (Which feature mostly Japanese traditional performing arts.) Yet not this feature alone does the airport Japanese make. The synchronised bowing by staff when opening check-in counters, the astounding cleanness, the quick baggage delivery, the invariably fast and painless passport and security controls – that whole package delivers the message that you are in Japan and could not be anywhere else. In other words, sense of place.
    For a stark contrast, take Frankfurt airport. At present, it apparently features a be-lederhosen-ed (!) band enchanting (?) passengers with Oktoberfest oompah music as a walking act. As a German, I squirm at this blunt attempt of sense of place. Look around more closely and see Germany in the choice of interior colour (grey,grey,grey), the labyrinthine maze of largely neon-lit corridors, the often inacceptably slow baggage delivery (which, furthermore, sometimes fails to respect priority delivery). It looks and feels like a factory wherein the passenger is a production component that is efficiently delivered to the right place at the right time – ie, the right gate in time for boarding – if orders are obeyed (viz., follow all signs and blame only yourself for getting lost) and workers rights are important (viz., don’t expect them to go to greater lengths to expedite baggage delivery – statutory breaks are paramount). No doubt, you are in a place that thrives on a manufacturing, not service, economy – a sense of place of Germany.

    And so on, across the world: feel and sense it in the whole airport; not just in the presentation (traditional costumes?) and content (stuffed pandas in Chengdu, stuffed dirndl teddybears in Germany, Toblerone, Toblerone everywhere?) of the retail offer.

    Moreover, at least Atlanta and Heathrow airports feature pianos in the public areas. So you could send a world renowned pianist on his/her way to see how the experience stacks up against Joshua Bell’s Washington subway playing…

    Having strutted and fretted upon the stage for quite a while now, I hope to have signified a bit more than nothing, and wish you fulfilling travels!

    Best regards from Hamburg, Germany
    Matthias Moehring