Mar 18, 201411:17 AMPoint of View

Q&A: Mike Rubin, on LAX's New Digitally-Enhanced Terminal

Q&A: Mike Rubin, on LAX's New Digitally-Enhanced Terminal

Standing in the Great Hall at the Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX (TBIT). The digital media screens were part of an effort to enhance passenger experience.

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So often in design magazines all the attention goes to the design you see, the elements you can touch. But these visual and tactile elements are often just the tip of the iceberg. Hidden just underneath the surface gloss are the design process, systems, and management which buttress the design and helped to bring about its realization.

As every designer and architect knows, an outstanding project, depends on an outstanding client. For the new Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) at LAX, it all began when Gina Marie Lindsey, Executive Director of Los Angeles World Airports (LAWA), the city agency in charge of the airport, contacted Mike Rubin of MRA International. LAX wanted to create an enjoyable experience for the passengers. One of the many restraints and challenges in accomplishing this goal was that the building was already under construction, and the footings were in the ground limiting choices and flexibility. 

Mike, whose experience over the past 30 years has been focused on conceptualizing and executing destination developments around the world, was challenged with developing a strategy centered on the airport experience as integral to the journey to such destinations. In particular, LAWA was seeking a way to use media to support an enhanced passenger experience while driving revenues to LAX. Here, I speak with Rubin about the whole experience.


The "Storyboard" digital media screens installed above the atrium-like hall of the new Bradley International Terminal at LAX. 

Leslie Gallery-Dilworth: How did you come to be involved at LAX?

Mike Rubin: I did not know anyone at the airport, but I had done a lot of work in the sports world, especially regarding sponsorship, and they were aware of my work.

Sponsorship is actually very different from advertising. Advertising is based on the sale of available inventory of static and dynamic displays based on rate card values, and depends on selling space for national ad campaigns that are rarely customized to be unique to an individual airport.

Sponsorship is different. Sponsorship is based on engaging the passenger by enhancing an aspect of their experience, through entertainment, information, amenities or services presented by the sponsoring brand. For substantial sponsorship, the decision is usually made at the CMO or CEO level, and often requires a long-term commitment that can range from three to 10 years, or even more.

No U.S. airport had to that date deployed sponsorship, which required setting up a framework for naming rights and identifying those assets suitable for such entitlements. The design strategy therefore began with the design of a new revenue platform.

LGD: But how does this strategy produce revenue in the great hall?

MR: In the Great Hall, the new terminal designed by Fentress Architects, we developed a plan to create specific points of engagement along the passenger itinerary. Seven key locations were selected as the sites for media that would support “transformational moments” and that also worked within the fabric of the existing terminal architecture. Additionally, the media content was conceived as features with distinct identities, from a central Time Tower to a massive Welcome Wall, to support opportunities for corporate naming and hosting. That is, the media was designed to have an evergreen source of content, supported through brands that would serve as curators and hosts of media-based experiences, and of a broader program of passenger amenities, services  and enhancements.

The Great Hall at LAX, featuring screen projections by the Moment Factory.

What we realized as we became familiar with the airport was that this environment provides a remarkable opportunity for sponsorship. LAX hosts over 60 million passengers annually, and TBIT alone hosts over 12 million departing and arriving passengers. The on-site audience at LAX was therefore over 10 times that of a major sports venue, if only departing passengers are considered. These passengers have long dwell times while waiting for their planes—experiences that literally beg for enhancement. The demographic is known with precision as is the schedule and intended destination. And unlike a sports venue there is no game competing for the passengers attention, other than a waiting game.

Once it was understood that sponsorship could operate on a distinct platform, and be designed so it would not cannibalize the airports advertising business, the executive team and the Board (of airport commissioners) initiated a program to integrate the business platform and the media into the development of the new terminal. It was a courageous thing to do; it was novel, unproven, and technologically challenging.

LGD: How did you begin to design? What came first?

MR: The business strategy came first. The business strategy was truly the first stage of a systems based design process; rethinking a set of operating conditions and logistics to introduce new operating principles and orchestrate specific enhancements to the passenger experience.

The business plan and development strategy were developed by MRA working with the LAWA executive team, led by a former advertising executive and aide de camp to the Executive Director named Michael Collins. To get this platform in place took more than a year. We had to create the ability of LAX to incorporate sponsorship and determine what the conditions would be for sponsors. For instance, naming would be allowed for only specific assets within a terminal, no terminal could have the name of sponsor on the terminal itself.

During this stage we designed illustrative offering packages, i.e. establishing and defining the high-value connection between the sponsor and the passenger that extended well beyond the media assets being developed, such that any approved  sponsorship would be linked to a suite of passenger services and amenities.

The "Welcome Wall"

LGD: What was especially challenging in this phase?

MG: Because we are talking about a public asset, the airport, it was important to figure out how, as a public amenity, LAX could create a positive experience rather than deplete it. So, for example, if a financial services company such as American Express or Citicard were interested in participating as an LAX sponsors, they would also be required to provide specific services or amenities that improved an aspect of the passenger experience, and that offered a meaningful expression of their particular brand.

There were also rules of engagement established for the media features and the content. Sponsors would be allowed to run brand-related content for no more than 20% of the time, as creative brand expressions rather than ads, with the remainder of content curated to support the identity of the given feature and the environmental experience of the respective terminal spaces.

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