A little more than 30 km northwest of Palermo, Aeroporto Falcone Borsellino serves the western part of Sicily, under the administration of GESAP S.p.a., an airport management company.
Until the onset of the COVID crisis, the airport was seeing unrivaled growth, led by tourism and the attraction of the cultural heritage of Palermo. The drop in traffic, although precipitous, was the lowest percentage drop in the top ten airports in Italy. This article highlights some of the fundamental strategies of airport marketing, based on the experience of the authors.
We will also consider the requirements for the future – including the need for sustainability and green travel.
What higher purpose does an airport have other than simply moving passengers?
What kind of traffic should an airport seek to attract?
How does it grow this traffic?
These are the basic questions we asked when we started managing the airport with a team of professionals chosen for their expertise and commitment to service.
The primary purpose of an airport might be defined as follows: “to enable the secure transportation of passengers in the most effective and comfortable manner.”
This falls short of what we are trying to do at Palermo. Of course, we want to help travellers move as comfortably and securely as possible, but we are also interested in the full experience – beyond simply getting in and out of the airport. An airport can play a critical role in welcoming and saying goodbye to tourists for example, by providing advice and counsel to the confused traveller. The airport is a “tourist helpline” and also a “concierge,” a guide to the region and city. How we perform on the essentials is just the beginning.
Who is the Customer?
This is the first question, as we’ve all learned from Peter Drucker. There are three primary constituents: 1) the travellers: tourist, business, and local; 2) the partners – especially the carriers; and 3) the community itself.
The purpose of the airport is often determined by its geography, the economic and cultural assets of the region. In Palermo, that translates primarily to art and culture, and thus our primary traveller is the tourist – not just any tourist, but the cultural tourist interested in a city at the crossroads of history.
Our primary partners are the carriers themselves, and the travellers they bring. Some might view the RYANAIR passenger as a “smash and grab” tourist, but we view her as a new prospect; someone who comes back over and over, for more than simply the beach and the sun (don’t get us wrong: we have the best beaches and the sun as well). To attract the right partners is a marketing job in itself. We must show carriers why the traveller who comes to Palermo becomes a “lifetime” visitor. Part of this marketing comes from the tireless efforts of the Mayor of Palermo, Leoluca Orlando, who goes out of his way to personally explain to carrier executives why the City of Palermo is a destination of the future.
Finally, we view the community as a customer as well. Our work is to engage and recruit all Palermitans as brand ambassadors for Palermo. How do we expand employment in the community, and what can be done to circulate more of our revenues in the local community? What can be done to encourage community regeneration?
Slow Tourism as a Magnet
Tourism is the magnet for Palermo. But what kind of tourist do we want to attract? The towns attractions go far beyond the beach and night-life of other Mediterranean destinations, so our job as airport marketers is to encourage the cultural tourist. This sort of slow tourist is a better value for both the city and the airport. Why? Because they will return several times, and because they appreciate the deep cultural experiences that Palermo has to offer. They also spend more and buy more signature local experiences.
Most cities have a Top 10 guide to the attractions of the city. With Palermo, it’s a Top 50. This is not an exaggeration, but part of the reason why the slow tourist returns to experience more. Add to that the charms of nearby towns like Monreal and Cefalu, etc. and the slow tourist could stay for a month. As the saying goes, it takes more than a lifetime to visit Sicily.
What can be done to expand airport traffic beyond tourism? There are proposals from business and community groups to help launch improved export/import services. This too, is an important and sustainable part of our strategy.
What local products and services can we help sell beyond Palermo, to the wider world?
For starters we feature many Sicilian products in our airport retail outlets. Not only does this drive increase the profits of local businesses, but our outlets also act as a test market for new products. We are working to increase the “retail experiments” we can enable and activate.
We are also actively looking to help businesses interested in moving light and micro-manufacturing to Palermo.
The Airport Experience
What can be done to create a better customer experience in the airport? COVID has created new demands that we are meeting – we are accredited by the Airports Council International, and provide free testing onsite.
We have begun including public works of art by world-famous Palermitans in our terminal. One example is Domenico Pellegrino‘s Cosmogonia Mediterranea, illustrative of the many bold artists that make up the vibrant contemporary art scene in the city of Palermo.
Future plans include a VIP lounge and a seaside dining experience for travellers awaiting their flights.
The travel industry is part of the complex web of carbon positive industries and it must make extra efforts to become not just carbon neutral, but carbon negative.
Our airport has earned the first level of certification for Airport Carbon Accreditation. We have also installed a micro-grid of photovoltaics as part of the covered parking.
Future sustainability activities will include a larger array of solar panels, electric cars, and greener travel policies.
Beyond COVID: The Triumph of Art
The most famous COVID painting you have never heard about is in the Palazzo Abatellis in Palermo.
Il Trionfo della Morte (The Triumph of Death) has been described as follows: “Death, astride a skeletal steed, shoots deadly arrows at noble pleasure-seekers and elegant ladies who, unaware, entertain themselves around the fountain of youth. At the margins, popes, emperors, sultans, monks and lawyers lie on the ground, already hit by arrows. The rich continue to live a life of pleasure, oblivious to the suffering of the poor.”
The unknown artist who painted this masterpiece around 1445 — in the midst of the Plague — could not have possibly known that the world would once again face the chaos of a pandemic which refuses to go away. Art reminds us of the fragility of our existence. Come and see it for yourself, when you can.
The first quarter of 2021 is already showing signs of recovery.
Palermo airport is performing better than any other airport in the Top 10 for Italy.
We are also considering a Net Promoter Score for the city of Palermo: “Would you recommend Palermo as a tourist destination for your friends?”
Natale Chieppa is the Managing Director, GESAP S.p.A. Aeroporto di Palermo
Giovanni Scalia is the CEO Aeroporto di Palermo.
Philip Kotler is the “father of modern marketing” and the author of 90 books.