The Case for Better Airport Branding
By Scott Burkhead
If you are the Director of a small airport, either general aviation or with limited passenger service, located less than an hour’s drive from a major metro area, fortune is smiling on you. Your airport is on the cusp of a significant growth opportunity. I’ll hedge a bit here: a significant growth spurt is there for airports that understand this opportunity and plan for it. As an article in Forbes pointed out, “Business jet traffic is growing so rapidly in this arena, GA airports need to expand their offering beyond traditional fuel, hangar and ground services.”
And, if your airport is more than an hour from a metro area, perhaps providing service to a smaller city, or even a cluster of small communities, the opportunities are more complex. An hour or two drive just to get to the metro area is not long when you’re flying commercial but when you’re paying for the convenience of a private plane it is a perceptual problem. This requires a different strategy than that used by the closer-in facilities. Paradoxically though, as Hattiesburg-Laurel in Moselle, MS, discovered, the long-term opportunity may actually be greater for you than for the closer airport.
The new Third Place
Airports, from large hubs to general aviation facilities, are playing a significant role in people’s lives as a pleasant place to spend time between home and destination. Some, like Nashville International Airport, have been destination brands for years. Nashville has showcased live country music in its terminal since 1988, making residents feel at home and giving travelers a taste of the city’s rich musical heritage. Today, faster processing speeds when traveling means potentially more time at the airport. And, for airports that become destinations, lingering longer won’t be a problem.
Nashville International, Houston Hobby, Chicago’s Midway, or Long Beach are not the kind of small airports this article is about. The airports we’re talking about are heavily general aviation focused catering to charter services, corporate jets, private pilots, freight carriers. Some also have limited passenger service.
Large airports – General Aviation’s new Best Friend?
In places like The Research Triangle in North Carolina, and Minneapolis, regional airports are indirectly helping promote small airport growth. Because the larger airports are critical to the economic development of their region they must focus on passenger business that connects to major business centers – and the more international, the better. Although these airports have historically accommodated general aviation, some no longer encourage it. Even a Lear or a Gulfstream is in poor company sharing runways with multiple 747’s.
How branding helps smaller airports
Economic Developers know companies large enough to create a desirable number of jobs not only need commercial air transportation but also need private and charter aircraft. The local business community and political powers understand this. Genera Aviation airports can provide a great service to economic developers by helping sell the depth and range of transportation options available within the market area.
Success in each of the following scenarios is dependent on airport leadership understanding the critical role strategic positioning plays in attracting new customers. This is the heart of branding – positioning that clearly differentiates your airport from competitive facilities. Graphics, color schemes, and logo are all important but become empty promises without strategic brand insights and positioning to drive them.
First, imagine yourself as director of one of five small airports within a half-hour or so of Raleigh-Durham International (Or other fast-growing airport). A few months ago as part of their long range plan RDU announced that moving forward the airport would not be able to provide the same level of support to GA as in the past. Where will the general aviation customers go? The five nearby contenders are similarly situated in terms of infrastructure, terminal accommodations, and driving time to Research Triangle Park. Our bet is that three years from now three of these five airports will look about the same – maybe a little busier than now, but essentially the same. The other two, however, will have exceeded all expectations of growth and profitability.
Second, imagine yourself as director of a general aviation airport serving two small cities an hour or two drive from a regional metro area. Here, you are not playing a minor role in your area’s economic development, your participation is of major importance. You may compete for some spillover from the metro airport, but the greater return will come from building awareness of your airport and supporting development of the community branding that helps attract new businesses that create jobs in the towns you serve.
Different Opportunity. Different Circumstances.
Looking back three years from now it will be obvious that the airports that grew understood the power of branding to reach customers and stakeholders. They also saw the critical need to immediately reach out to the general aviation audience now shopping for a new home. While they were establishing a strong brand, the successful airports created ambitious master plans and found funding to improve capability and safety. These are the airports whose leaders understood the opportunity and decided their airport would play a larger role in the growth and success of their community.
How to know if branding can help
Start modestly, with a Brand Audit. Find out exactly what customers value in your operation. Hint: it probably isn’t the size of your runway. Or your available hangar space. Your competitors have much the same thing. Success may have more to do with your staff, attitude, vision, and willingness to listen for what the customer actually wants.
If you have questions or would like to talk about how Strategic Branding or a Brand Audit may be helpful to you. Return the contact form to set up a chat. We love talking about this subject.