Long, long ago when I was a Wharton undergraduate, I was a marketing major. One thing that I remember is that to attract, retain and satisfy customers, you need to understand them. My senior project was all about a funnel cake mix to be sold in grocery stores. We did a great deal of research to understand who might buy the product, why they might buy it, and how best to handle it to maximize the possibility of purchase and repurchase.

Fast-forward many years and in a different context, one airport, Denver International Airport (DEN), has undertaken studies to understand its customers so that airport managers can optimize their facility to maximize customer satisfaction.

In 2014, the airport’s operator, the city of Denver, completed a segmentation study of travelers using the facility. The study found that travelers could be segmented into six groups.

  • “Engaged Explorers” love the novelty of travel, are open minded and like to share their experiences through social media.
  • “Demanding Elites” value status and are both career and family oriented.
  • “Efficient Experts” think of travel as routine and consider themselves travel experts and advice givers.
  • “Occasional Escapists” consider travel an escape from everyday life, travel infrequently and are excited about the journey.
  • “Harried Aspirers” are stressed by their lives, juggle career and family concerns, and often treat themselves beyond their usual budgets.
  • “Uneasy Earlybirds” represent infrequent, anxious travelers who find the airport experience stressful and filled with hassles. They just want to get from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. They dread the experience.

The study included a complete analysis of demographics and sociographics. Engaged Explorers tended to be female (53 percent), have children under 18 (44 percent versus an average of 31 percent for other segments), and spent 32 percent more in airport than all other segments on average. Engaged Explorers are younger than other travelers and have average incomes. Most importantly, these travelers want unique and interesting options. They also want premium status. Demanding Elites are predominantly male (65 percent) with incomes nearly 50 percent higher than those of all other segments on average. Demanding Elites spend 62 percent more than other segments and take an average of 18.1 trips per year (versus 5.6 trips for all other segments).

For these and other statistical reasons, airport managers decided to concentrate on these two groups—Engaged Explorers and Demanding Elites. Airport managers believe that all groups will benefit from a “halo effect” resulting from their efforts.

The study resulted in the core branding idea for the airport:

DEN helps the traveler feel more empowered to make the most of their time and keep their lives moving during their travel journey by offering options that balance work and play and a unique experience that embraces both global sophistication and the beauty and spirit of the modern West. Or, in short, “living life, traveling well.”

With travelers and the airport’s business partners in mind, airport managers want to take a wider view of passenger needs, beyond Wi-Fi and meals. They wish to thoughtfully highlight local favorites and strengths that appeal to a global, savvy traveler. They want to provide passengers with access to the outside, bring the outdoors to the inside and steer clear of a design aesthetic all about the Rocky Mountains. The future of the airport should capture the spirit of Colorado while avoiding stereotypes or kitschy interpretations of Colorado and the West.

The study is a unique and aggressive take by an airport to understand its customer. Some airports sponsor consumer opinion surveys on a regular or irregular basis. These studies, while useful, are fairly shallow and focus on an airports’ performance in general metrics (cleanliness, customer service, “what do you think is missing,” etc.). Others participate in the Airports Council International Airport Service Quality (ASQ) monitoring program, a worldwide survey effort that provides participants with information about their performance and allows for benchmarking against domestic and international peers. However, there are few, if any, airports worldwide that have taken the time and put forth the effort to truly understand their passengers and what motivates them, and how they can develop their facilities and services to best address their passengers’ needs. With the forthcoming redevelopment of Jeppesen Terminal, the terminal where ticketing, baggage check, baggage claim and ground transportation will occur, it will be fascinating to see how this market research is used to determine facilities, amenities and concessions for the future of this great airport.