Airports: The unlikely frontier in luxury brand innovation

More than most industries, travel and hospitality has had a turbulent few years – at the sharp end of a global health crisis, geopolitical upheaval, and concerns around sustainability. But this hasn’t put off a huge number of post-pandemic travellers from dusting off their passports, with flights on transatlantic routes set to exceed pre-pandemic levels this summer, according to the latest data from aviation specialist OAG. With this in mind, and ahead of the big summer break, we want to focus on the unlikely rise of the airport as a playground for innovative luxury brand thinking.

Travel hubs have always had a glamour to them, and airports in particular. Long associated with the wonder of high-speed international travel, and of course the benefits of duty free zones, luxury brands are a mainstay of any airport worth its salt. But it’s also fair to say that this side of the airport experience has lost its sheen – if they’re not passing time in generic retail spaces, travellers are making do with the facilities on offer in equally uninspiring airport lounges. But a 2023 survey of aeronautical professionals found that over two thirds believed that airports will likely see an increased focus on memorable brand experiences. Brands are reengineering the airport experience, with an array of innovative activities that make these once-overlooked spaces feel exciting once more.

Brands we thought we already knew this side of the security gate are finding new ways to come to life on the other, tailoring immersive experiences for captive audiences.
Visit Doha’s Hamad airport, and you’ll be able to pay a visit to the Vuitton Lounge – the first in the world, and home to a shop, business centre, spa, bar, and 3-Michelin-starred restaurant. For Vuitton fans, it’s a chance to see and experience the brand in a new way that goes far beyond its products, evolving it from a product brand to a lifestyle brand that can live and breathe in a multitude of ways. But more than delighting existing audiences, the airport environment is a chance for brands to speak

to new ones in moments of transit – moments where assumptions are suspended and habits upended. Zurich airport recently launched ‘GateZero’ to do just this: a ‘custom-designed store’ in collaboration with HighSnobiety, designed to offer a ‘curated selection of products and exclusive releases from over 15 brands to travellers as they pass through Switzerland’s gateway to the world’. Designed of course to reveal a new side to brands from Loewe to Balenciaga. It also has the effect of bringing the airport experience itself up to date. Which brings us onto a second group of brands that are innovating in this space – airports, and the countries and regions they represent.

Take Charles de Gaulle airport – it recently unveiled designs to turn Terminal 1 into a high concept multi-use space. Backed by the airport’s newly launched brand ‘Extime’, it incorporates artistic interventions, an architect-designed restaurant, and a reinvigorated retail area that all add up to an elevated experience of Paris that starts at the airport. Back at Doha, visitors also have the chance to enjoy a free tour of Qatar’s capital, or spend time at the Qatar airways-owned Oryx lounge and hotel – complete with luxury rooms and a wellness and sports area. These spaces provide opportunities for countries and regions to shape visitors’ experience and perceptions, crucial ‘soft power’ tools for building their countries’ brands on the world stage. It’s also a chance for brands to add weight to their origin stories.

Luxury is, in part, defined by its ability to constantly discover new corners of culture. Its rediscovery of the airport – long-considered a necessary discomfort to be alleviated, rather than an experience to be enhanced – is yet another small but significant of just this. For us at Rankin, the examples show not just the power of creating brand experiences that make exciting use of their contexts, but more importantly the power of questioning everything.