CO: Denver International Airport is Working to Become a Destination — with Ice Skating and Goat Yoga — In and of Itself

Jan. 21–On any given day at this Denver landmark, there could be goat yoga, ice skating, beer tasting, live music and fine art.

You might even meet former Broncos quarterback and Super Bowl champion Peyton Manning.

This isn’t some all-inclusive Rocky Mountain vacation or a VIP state tour. It’s Denver International Airport — and in some ways, airports the world over — in the year 2018.

Air travel is surging globally, and DIA and other airports that are spending billions of dollars to lure more flights and revenue are also embracing far-flung ideas designed to make passengers feel less like cattle and ease the stress of flying.

“Airports have changed,” said Stacey Stegman, DIA’s vice president of communications, marketing and customer service. “It’s a competitive field for airports. It’s not like … we’re competing for local people to fly out of Denver. We know that we are their hometown airport. But what we are seeing is we compete for people who are connecting, we compete trying to get more flights here. If we’re offering things that are exceptional and more fun, that makes us more appealing.”

In the past three or four years, airports around the world have been boosting their amenity offerings — from miniature horse therapy at Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Airport, to the movie theater at Portland International Airport in Oregon and nature trails and a planned indoor forest at Singapore’s Changi Airport.

DIA and other airports are busy — and getting busier

More than 60 million travelers started, continued or ended trips at DIA last year, the airport’s busiest ever. And worldwide, air passenger traffic in 2029 is expected to be double what it was three years ago, the Airports Council International says.

Add to that shrinking seat sizes aboard airplanes and more fees, and that’s where stress-reducing amenities can make a difference.

“Having things like a pet pig or a llama, those things give a humanity to the airport and to the travel experience,” said Michael Taylor, who analyzes passenger satisfaction for J.D. Power. “Today there is just so many people going through airports — every airport sets a new record each month. There’s just more of a crush of people and the more you can introduce a human element and treat people like humans, that helps with the experience.”

DIA and the “art of airporting”

DIA officials say these extras are also a way to lure new airlines and flight routes, create incentives for passengers to connect through Denver and even attract local residents who aren’t getting on a plane.

“Our primary focus is on passengers first,” said Stegman. “We want to make sure we are meeting their needs. But if we can be great for the community as well and be a place where they want to come and spend time, that’s a good thing for Denver, and for the whole region.”

DIA even has a catchphrase for this all-things-to-everyone approach: “The art of airporting.”

These initiatives helped North American airports reach an all-time high in overall passenger satisfaction, according to a 2017 J.D. Power survey of more than 34,000 passengers. Denver ranked fifth among U.S. airports that have 32 million or more passenger visits a year, according to the survey, behind Orlando, Detroit, Las Vegas and Phoenix. (Newark’s Liberty International Airport was at the bottom of that list.)

Grooming another customer: The one who isn’t flying

But in Denver, air travelers aren’t the only people who’ve taken notice of the changes. According to DIA, about 20 percent or more of people who attend special events — such as beer tastings and the temporary ice skating rink — aren’t even there to fly.

Two days after New Year’s Day, DIA’s skating rink outside the Westin Hotel was booming, even at midday.

Lisa Hillman, of Denver, was there with her two sons for their second recent visit. They had no flight to catch but decided it was worth the 20-minute drive from home.

“We thought it was kind of odd at first to come ice skating at the airport,” she said as her boys laced up their skates. “But I think the way they have set it up is really nice.”

All of these things, of course, come at some cost: The ice rink came in at about $150,000, a limited run for goat yoga cost some $7,100 and uniforms for the Canine Airport Therapy Squad run roughly $130 a piece.

Those tabs are minuscule compared with DIA’s planned $1.5 billion gate expansion and $162 million operations and maintenance contract for the airport’s underground trains. Those are on top of a $650 million terminal building renovation that will significantly change the campus’ layout.

But airport officials say the amenities can more than pay for themselves and note that they are covered by revenues, not tax dollars. For instance, the ice rink had paid sponsorship and goat yoga, DIA officials say, had a $1 million-plus media value.

And the therapy dogs? DIA officials say you can’t put a price on relieving passenger stress.

“You’re definitely seeing a trend across the broader airport community,” said Scott Elmore, vice president of communications and marketing for Airports Council International — North America.

DIA’s amenities convey a “sense of place”

Elmore’s trade industry group, of which DIA is a member, recently did a survey of airport amenities and found a sharp rise in recent years. At the top of the list were nursing rooms for new mothers and pet potty areas (Denver’s airport has both.)

“Each airport is going to be doing things that show off their unique sense of place,” he said. “The one thing I can say about Denver is they do a great job of showing off what it feels like to be in the Denver area without having to leave the airport.”

That includes the booming Root Down restaurant in Concourse C, plans for a Denver Central Market and even a popup business called Yoga on the Fly, where travelers can get a quick zen fix.

“We’ve been really well received,” said the yoga shop’s owner, Avery Westlund.

The all-volunteer therapy dog squad might best capture Denver’s character, though, with nearly 100 canines (and one cat) it’s become the largest such airport program in the nation.

Gretchen Dirks’ young poodle Halston was a big attraction as passengers made their way through Concourse A on Jan. 3. As a wave of people stopped to say hello — “Can I touch him?” asked a Mexico City-bound man — Dirks remembered a time when the dog calmed a toddler on the brink of a meltdown.

“It’s a great way to kind of give back,” Dirks said.

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