Beware The Ghost of Airport Future

Welcome to the latest in a series of columns brought to you in association with experiential marketing, brand activation and consumer engagement specialist CircleSquare. This monthly column aims to inform, surprise and provoke. Here, CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley says that greater industry transparency and a relentless focus on the consumer are needed as we enter a new era.

It is an undeniably shocking moment. It almost takes your breath away and causes even the most emotionally strong to wipe at a watery eye.

These are exactly the emotions Charles Dickens intended to awaken in his festive classic, A Christmas Carol, when the Ghost of Christmas Future unveils to a begrudging Scrooge the horrors that await him if he fails to change his ways. Bah, humbug! What does this much-loved moralistic tale from 1843 have to do with the travel industry in 2021?

Perhaps our own personal Ghost of Airport Past would have shown us the incredible entrepreneurial spirit which expertly developed travel retail from its embryonic days of duty free in Shannon Airport. The Ghost of Airport Present might show us the vast money-spinning empire it has become but maybe it would also hint at the fissures which have emerged courtesy of a global pandemic. And then, of course, there’s The Ghost of Airport Future, but much like Dickens’ protagonist, are we reluctant to glimpse into our future?

A fascinating piece of research by Daxue Consulting in 2019, well before the pandemic struck, unearthed a growing thread on the popular Chinese social media platform, Zhihu. Chinese travellers were sharing their anger about how they were ‘treated like fools’ in the ‘duty free shop at Heathrow Airport’ as pricing appeared to significantly increase for them compared to travellers from other countries.

Whatever the truth of that situation, this perception is far from unique, and stories similar to this one hint at the problems of reputation the industry may face in future. That will especially be the case if retail environments no longer provide that wow factor we used to know and love, if the experiential retail theatre goes missing and if passengers question the choice and the value they get from products priced higher than in domestic markets as well as the service they receive in parallel.

Whilst domestic retail has already been forced into dramatic changes as digital commerce has ballooned, travel retail has stood still, propped up by significant year-on-year growth in passenger numbers which, until Covid-19, have largely papered over the cracks. But now it is clear for all to see that action is desperately needed if we are to avoid sleepwalking into a future of which even Scrooge would be fearful.

“Focus on creating evocative, engaging environments which shoppers find irresistible”

CircleSquare Executive Creative Director Philip Handley

The solution is only complicated if we want it to be, but just two simple steps should be enough. Firstly, from a macro perspective, everyone must accept the responsibility to pull together for the greater good because greed and secrecy are hurting the industry. Airport authorities, airlines, retailers and brands continue to work in silos, refusing to share data, happy to shackle each other into restrictive financial agreements which hamper creativity and investment. However, these barriers can only be torn down from within.

Secondly, we need to put the focus back onto the passenger and rebuild the industry with them at the centre. We need to stop building soulless ‘cathedrals’ which win countless architecture awards but do nothing for our vital shopper.

Instead, we must focus on creating evocative, engaging environments which shoppers find irresistible. We need to provide unique products and story-telling experiences which our shoppers are delighted to share on social media platforms, doing our PR jobs for us. We need to embrace digital for what it is, a brilliant tool to help enhance the physical shopper experience and extend the shopper journey, and not treat it as the solution in itself. We should have the shopper by the heart, not by the balls.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the team at CircleSquare felt we could best help the cause by exploring the micro-solutions; those essential little pieces of the jigsaw needed to help build the big picture of a new travel retail we all want to be part of.

Whilst 2020 was certainly not a fruitful year for most, when we carried out our own annual review, it was obvious to see how we had dramatically evolved our offering to the industry and how we had supported travel retail by focusing on the detail.

We all knew that over time, digital was destined to become a huge factor in travel retail. However, the global pandemic dramatically accelerated these timelines taking many industry veterans by surprise. Fortunately for us, CircleSquare was already 18 months into a programme to integrate digital into the physical experience so we were able to offer immediate solutions to our clients.

An Oakley activation from 2019 that exemplifies how digital, social and physical elements can combine to powerful effect

In response to the dramatic demand for digital, we bucked the trend of investment freezes and acquired a stake in comTogether, an experienced data-driven digital agency, vastly improving our capabilities.

This timely collaboration directly led to the development and launch of our exciting new ‘Connected Shopper’ platform which has been adopted by some of the biggest names in the industry and is extending the shopper journey like never before.

Indulging in a La Prairie digital experience at the point of sale

However, omnichannel is still much misunderstood and it was obvious when looking at some of the knee-jerk reactions from an industry in crisis that we could help our clients find the optimum balance, creating seamless interaction between digital and physical.

When transitioning to a new form of media, it is a common mistake to completely misjudge the content, thus missing the target completely. This is where our multi-disciplined creative teams have been able to help our clients develop compelling and relevant content which engages a more demanding consumer.

A new benchmark: Exploration, inspiration and entertainment at the Burberry store in Shenzhen

Finally, as the industry has continued to chase the lucrative Chinese traveller, we unveiled a dedicated office in Hainan, adding a fifth location to our Greater China network, before shedding some light on how to use digital to target these crucial travellers in 2021.

So, as we head into 2021, have we learned the lessons of 2020 and, like the exorable Scrooge, accepted that we must change in order to give ourselves the future we want?

Creativity captured: A KOL shooting the in-store experience at a Shiseido boutique

*About Circle Square

If you want to start building for a better future, CircleSquare, with its global network of creative studios, is uniquely placed to help you develop evocative environments, connected omnichannel shopper strategies and boundless passenger experiences, seamlessly across both the digital and physical worlds.

CircleSquare’s in-depth understanding of global travel retail has earned it an impressive client list, including Diageo, Mondelez, Luxottica, Lacoste and L’Oréal Luxe, alongside retailers like DFS, Dufry and Heinemann.

CircleSquare has offices in nine global locations including London, Paris, Dubai, Hong Kong and Singapore, covering every phase of the retail journey process from strategy and creative to design and delivery. You’ll find its work in retail stores, pop-up spaces and airports all over the world.

Contact: Executive Creative Director Philip Handley at

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The Moodie Davitt eZine Issue 289 | 21 December 2020

The Moodie Davitt eZine is published 15 times per year by The Moodie Davitt Report (Moodie International Ltd). © All material is copyright and cannot be reproduced without the permission of the Publisher. To find out more visit and to subscribe, please e-mail

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