Examining ‘Generation Z’ and how they can help influence the design of successful airports of the future

Generation Z is on the rise - Ignore them at your peril’.

Chapman Taylor’s Transportation Director, Peter Farmer, examines Generation Z, or GEN Z as it is better known, and how it can help influence the future of airport design.

GEN Z will be the largest, most diverse and inclusive, politically and economically savvy generation of all. It is broadly defined as those who are now becoming adults, born in the early 2000s. Their generation is more economically influential at an early age, and is looking for something different. As a result, it is influencing those who preceded it. Never before has there been a generation which is incapable of remembering the world without the internet.

“This is the first generation to be born in a post-internet world, truly device-in-hand” - Christopher Wolf, Goldman Sachs.

The potential impact of this pivotal generation been described as ‘colossal’. It reaches beyond its own demographic because it also influences previous generations. Generation Z has been examined extensively by retailers, who are keen to learn how to adjust their strategies to meet the challenges of the future. However, little research has been done on how we, as designers, should respond and adapt transport environments such as airports to suit this new era and cater to GEN Z’s attitudes and habits in order to maintain commercial viability.

We are well aware that the internet is reducing physical transactions and that mobile devices are stretching the transaction environment. However, the time spent in an airport, as well as the time pre- and post-arrival, can be an extremely valuable commercial interlude. In order to reap the benefits, understanding the current cultural trends of this generation is vital and will result in more adaptive spaces and commercial leasing models than we have to date.

Gen Z have an instantaneous and impatient attitude which we can learn from

There is a greater sense of social cohesion, justice, inclusivity and equality among GEN Z, and, despite us fearing technology might create some undesirable pressures, it also brings some positives. GEN Z generally takes its responsibility towards the environment, society and health very seriously. In many of these areas, it is influencing the attitudes and, consequently, the spending patterns of previous generations in educated and articulate ways.

GEN Z tends to be highly visual, perhaps with a relatively short attention span, quick to process and multi-task and demand interaction, either physical or virtual. It wants to be entertained and to have fun. Personal appearance matters to it, and it treats shopping as a social experience as much as a necessity. It spend more on experiences such as holidays, dining, nights out and entertainment, and is inclined to buy fewer goods. Generation Z expects brands to be ‘authentic’ so that it can be unique, and its brand loyalty focuses less on image and more on values such as quality, value, health and sustainability.

The overriding characteristics for this generation in a commercial environment is the demand for personalisation and the ability to customise things. It wants an ‘on-demand’ economy: services such as Netflix and Nike stores where you can customise your own trainers; Rayban where you can personalise a pair of sunglasses; and ‘dine-on-demand’ apps such as UberEATS; making GEN Z the most demanding, and the least patient, customer we have known.

This has resulted in two new steps being brought into their purchasing process, that of reassurance and share.

These new steps switch between the physical and the virtual. The ‘reassure’ step is about an individual leaving a store and purchasing later, possibly when they have left the terminal, whether online or at another venue.

The ‘sharing’ step is an interesting one, and one which could be double-edged. If we give a passenger a good experience, service or plate of food, the likelihood is that this will be ‘shared’. Give them a bad experience and that too will be ‘shared’.

Airports need to be aware of this and accept that they might see a marked drop-off in some sales and an increase in others, and learn to alter their offers accordingly.

So how will this generation impact the airport terminal we know?

While there are significant challenges in maintaining the necessary revenue that a terminal generates for an airport, if we adapt and adhere to GEN Z’s needs then we could develop a new, more exciting and equally sustainable model. 

The young traveller expects continuous internet connectivity. The edges between locations are now blurred to non-existent, even between home, public and transit spheres. When they enter an airport terminal airside environment, they might have already ordered food and begun looking to relax, potentially attracted to visually interesting and comfortable environments. If there is a sense of entertainment present, even better.

The available airport offers need to be relevant and current, and follow trends rather that set them. If we can combine this sense of relaxation and fun with retail, all the better. Airports currently look to combine retail and F&B because this significantly increases sales in both, and this will be increasingly important for GEN Z. We shall still need an element of essential sales areas, but also more spontaneous concessions which invite the customer to test and try, and more ‘showroom’ style areas embracing the concept of ‘trytervising’(1).  This means that the showroom environment can carry far less stock, as it is an online purchase which follows, freeing up sales space which can be focused elsewhere.

Alternatively, having a less definitive line between sales footprint and the airport lounge could result in units getting smaller, yet more integrated within the lounge itself. Airports and retail will need to agree different leasing models which might mean fewer till sales, benefiting instead from a captive audience focused on a showcase.

We also need to look at how F&B will be changing within the airport environment. GEN Z is not used to ordering from a menu, but requires food the way that they want it and where they want it - personalisation again. Sitting in a lounge seat, not in the restaurant, and ordering food how you want it means that some are already benefiting from this, such as McDonalds, which has embraced the idea and seen a marked increase in sales. Bottom line - they are prepared to pay more for a burger or a coffee that we have ‘personalised’.

There will always be passengers who prefer the restaurant experience, but we might well see F&B units getting smaller, with far more grab-and-go counters spread throughout the terminal.

Flexible design

It’s a fact that more flexible spaces are required by the passenger, but this is difficult to achieve in an operational environment. However, it could be achieved collaboratively among stakeholders. Perhaps we need to look at creating ‘micro’-districts within the larger terminals, embodying many of the ideas here but targeting them at specific demographics. We might see more hybrid spaces - blurring the edges between traditional lease boundaries and other spaces - requiring a completely new business model, one based more on partnerships, and proactive management more akin to a gallery than a traditional shopping mall.

We need to explore environmental tools too, such as using sound and lighting to create areas with different atmospheres to suit the time of day. These might be aligned with some specific destinations or to add fun as a way of playing with our senses - like creating a sense of evening during the day, or day during the night.

Airports are already experimenting with new leisure and entertainment ideas, and, while early ideas sought to provide separate areas, we now need to consider how these can be integrated to provide a more diverse experience. Why have a separate gym when you can have an integrated gym, yoga experience and juice bar, such as at the Nike store in New York. A children’s play area might include a climbing wall, a lounge, a café and an outdoor clothing store. A grooming lounge which sells products and a coffee to your partner, and a screening area for sporting and cultural events. Allowing customers to engage with the product will become more common – such as watching the process of making, mixing or cooking.

Designing airports with careful layering and overlapping of lounge, F&B and retail means that we can conceive a kind of curated ‘club’ atmosphere, which might even have its own unique brand. Imagine creating a terminal environment with the quality and identity of a lifestyle club that a passenger, if they didn’t happen to be travelling, might even pay to visit – a positive respite.

I believe that if we adapt our terminal environments to meet the aspirations and demands of GEN Z, we will all benefit from a healthier, more enjoyable, colourful and personal transport environment. The challenge to airports is to develop a new business model and ways of managing or curating these opportunities. 

About the Author

Peter Farmer (BArch(Hons) BA Arch(Hons) RIBA)

Director, London

Peter heads up our Transportation sector in the UK. He undertakes a key role in the continuing development of this sector, related research, masterplanning, due diligence and sustainability.

With over 25 years’ specialist experience across the UK, Central and Eastern Europe, the Middle East, Asia, Australia and the Caribbean, he has an in-depth understanding of the political and business drivers of projects with multiple stakeholders and complex design and delivery teams.

Areas of expertise:

Commercial / Transport

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