Make Your Airport an Entertainment Center

This is the second in a series of articles that discusses a new approach to airport development called Airport Urbanism, or AU for short. Today’s topic? Entertainment!

A few years ago, some friends decided to kidnap me on my birthday. They blindfolded me, put me in a taxi, and told me that we were on our way to the airport. When we got out of the cab, I couldn’t see anything, but I could hear crowds and the roar of airplanes overhead and—after I was led indoors—was aware that we were in line for a security screening. One of my friends handed me a boarding pass as we passed through a metal detector. I started to panic. I hadn’t packed anything! Where were we going?

A few moments later, the blindfold was removed and I was staring, amazed, at this:

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We were at the airport—Hong Kong’s airport, to be exact—but we weren’t inside the passenger terminal. My “boarding pass” was, in fact, a concert ticket. My friends had decided to surprise me by taking me to see one of my favorite bands perform.

They were playing at AsiaWorld-Expo, a convention center located at Hong Kong International Airport. Twenty years ago, advocates of the “aerotropolis” model argued that every airport needed large business meeting facilities. But like many similar aerotropolis projects around the world, once it was built, AsiaWorld-Expo had trouble competing with a much more attractive convention center downtown. For years, the building remained largely empty, and troublingly underutilized.

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In recent years, however, AsiaWorld-Expo has become one of Hong Kong’s premier concert venues, hosting everyone from Madonna to Jay Chou. This functional adaptation was a great example of how to improvise when things don’t go according to your airport’s master plan.

It turns out that airports are a perfect place to stage concerts and other large cultural events.

Concerts create a lot of noise—which isn’t a problem at the airport. They require expertise in security screening procedures and crowd management techniques—which airport staff already have. With audiences skewing younger, concert venues need to be easily accessible by public transport, but also offer ample parking—check. The spectacular growth in festival tourism—where people fly to a city for the single purpose of watching their favorite bands—likewise favors airports. Lastly, artists on a tight schedule need to be able to fly in, perform their act, and fly off to the next gig. For airports, that’s a not a problem.

Hong Kong isn’t the only airport that is starting to function as a center for popular entertainment. In South Korea, Incheon airport’s reputation as a place to spot pop singers and movie stars has spawned a quirky phenomenon known as “airport fashion”:

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Devoted fans and paparazzi linger on the airside, hoping to snap a picture of their favorite actors and musicians returning from abroad. These photos—some are candid, others obviously staged—are supremely instagrammable. They circulate widely on social media, and reinforce the connection between airports and celebrity culture in the popular imagination. No wonder, then, that Incheon is now moving away from a business-oriented aerotropolis plan and towards one that also focuses on entertainment and leisure.

Airport entertainment is by no means limited to Asian hubs. For years, Frankfurt airport hosted one of Germany’s most popular techno clubs. There are also examples in North America. On a recent tour of Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, kindly organized by the Atlanta Regional Commission, I visited Georgia’s International Convention Center, located right next to the airport and connected to the pax terminal by a people mover. Expecting to find a predictable schedule of professional conferences and trade shows, I was pleasantly surprised to discover an exciting roster of upcoming dance performances, cheerleading competitions, and volleyball and jiu-jitsu tournaments.

The takeaway? Airports are a natural location for large public events that require a lot of space, a sophisticated security and crowd management plan, and good connectivity to the surrounding region. Hosting these kinds of events has a number of distinct benefits for the airport. First and foremost, it increases your non-aeronautical revenue, and builds on the existing strengths of your airport’s workforce. Second, it improves your airport’s reputation among visitors—who will associate the airport with their favorite band, or an exciting tournament. Lastly, with visitors uploading thousands of images to social media, these events bring in a lot of free, positive publicity.

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How can your airport benefit by adding entertainment to its future development strategies? Often, it’s a question of existing airport facilities, and expanding them to accommodate a wider range of uses—ideally ones that capitalize on unique forms of recreation and entertainment that are already thriving in your airport’s catchment area.

A case in point: Atlanta. Atlanta isn’t just the home of hip hop royalty, but it’s also the city that’s being showcased in the entertainment industry right now. One of the most successful shows currently on TV focuses on Atlanta’s hip hop scene, and the city hosts one of the genre’s largest award shows: think of the Oscars, but for hip hop.

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College Park, the town located right next to the airport, happens to be the epicenter of that industry. It’s home to some of the most famous musicians alive today. Their music isn’t just what people are listening to all over America—it’s what they’re listening to all over the world. In other words, ATL has massive cultural capital, right on the doorstep of the airport, that other cities can only dream of. Wouldn’t it make sense to feature that homegrown talent at an airport concert arena?

That’s just one example of how entertainment can help to diversify your airport’s non-aeronautical development strategies. How is your airport incorporating entertainment into its long-term growth plans, and how can it do more in the future?

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2 thoughts on “Make Your Airport an Entertainment Center

  1. Pingback: Three Takeaways from Passenger Terminal Expo: More Data, Less Parking, and a Big Push to Go Local | MAX HIRSH

  2. Pingback: How Can We Build Attractive Neighborhoods Around the Airport? | MAX HIRSH

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