Last year, I was invited to speak at a museum conference in Cairns, Australia.
After 20+ hours in the air, from NYC to Los Angeles to Brisbane, our CEO Tasia and I eventually landed in picturesque Cairns. The airport was small, modern and clean; a nice change from LAX.
A few steps out of the airport, a reporter and camera crew pulled us aside. “What do you think about the $55 million investment in the airport to open more shops and restaurants?”
“I don’t know” I admitted sleepily, “it sounds like a lot of money.”
“How would you use it?”
“Renegade airport tours I guess…”
My first answer was right, the second was fun and wrong.
The right answer? Build the best f***ing airport museum the world has ever seen.
Airports as Financial Black Holes
Airports allow people to get from point A to long-distance point B without days or weeks for travel.
Airports are also incredibly expensive to build. Denver international airport was $5 billion, Beijing was at least $8 billion and Osaka weighs in at $20 big billions. And that is all before operating costs.
Many airports lose money, which is one reason they build shops and restaurants. These tenants provide rent and other revenue, which helps keep the lights on and the security officers cheerfully taking away your shampoo.
Retail also makes sure you have access to food and trinkets before and after flights, but adding more retail has diminishing returns on utility. You’ve probably noticed most of these shops are selling the same bland sandwiches and cushy neck pillows.
Why not invest in a museum instead?
Three Reasons Your Airport Needs a Museum
There are dozens of reasons that airports and museums are a match made in travel-heaven, and here are a few of them.
First, airports are like Disney World; you go and wait. That extra hour or two when you are juggling Starbucks and Candy Crush is time that you could be enjoying an awesome museum. One priority gets you caffeinated, and the other nourishes your soul. At scale, museums also have a meaningful impact on education and culture. And airports have scale; over 4 billion passengers travel each year.
Second, airport museums are an opportunity to showcase a region’s unique history and people. The Athens International Airport in Greece has a phenomenal collection of pottery and bronze-works, all found by the team digging the airport’s foundation. Most airports aren’t built on ancient Greece, but every airport has a story to tell about its community.
Third, airport museums can make money via airport museum gift shops. Instead of selling digital gizmos, magazines and Swiss watches, you sell items directly related to the museum experience the visitor just had. Business travellers often cite, “taxis and boardrooms” as the extent of a trip, and you can give these folks meaningful experiences and souvenirs they actually want to take home.
There are some arguments against airport museums too.
Should Airports Provide Non-Essential Services?
At an airport, the most essential public-facing services are a way to check in, a way to keep people safe, and a way to get on your plane. Nearly everything else is non-essential, including coffee and WiFi.
A curmudgeon would gaze grumpily into the distance and mutter “museums are non-essential to airports too.” But that perspective is on flight utility and not experience optimization.
For many people, an airport is both the first and last experience they have with a region. The Peak-end rule, a psychological heuristic, says the peak and end of experiences carry more weight when people form judgments, as opposed to an average of the total. An airport museum providing an end-experience may be the difference between a visitor’s trip being “pretty good” versus the “best damn time I ever had.” The latter will influence repeat trips and recommendations for friends to visit too. What could be more essential to an airport than passengers bustling through?
Questions for the Comments:
- What are some “must-knows” that you’d share with airport architects and management considering a museum?
- What is one item from your museum that would be perfect for an airport collection?