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

How design and business came together at the Bradley International Terminal at LAX

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.

LGD: Fentress was the architect for the airport terminal, and you said the foundations were already in the ground. At this stage, how were you able to actually implement the program to be integral to the architecture?

MG: In designating where and how the media features would be incorporated, Marcela Sardi was key. With her firm, Sardi Design, we tracked where passengers had “dwell times.” The first major opportunity for a media feature was the space of the light well; this intermediary space connected the old terminal and the new terminal structure. All departing passengers crossed a bridge after clearing security, while arriving passengers came down a multi-level escalator after passing through passport control. This was an interesting space with people both coming and going. So this created an opportunity for a welcome wall, and at the same time, an experience sending someone off!!  Sardi designed the Bon Voyage Wall and Welcome Wall to fit within the architecture so they would appear as seamless elements of the building.

Security guards stare at a media screen located on the entrance of the Great Hall.

Another major opportunity was identified in the Great Hall, where there was an existing elevator planned. We realized this structure offered the opportunity for a central icon, an organizing element of the passenger experience. Every proposed media feature was intended to look like it was part of the architect’s original plans. So we proposed extending the elevator structure so it was visible across the extent of the Great Hall, which opened up the opportunity for the Time Tower, a digital medium inspired by the great clocks of the railroad stations, civic halls, and terminals of the past century. The extension of the elevator tower also enabled the creation of a public lounge n the otherwise inaccessible upper level of the terminal, adding another dimension to the passenger experience

The sweeping roof that came down on the west side of the main hall, opposite the tower, presented another opportunity to integrate a major media feature. We wanted to create a terminus. This would become the Story Board, something iconic and relative to LA. Storyboards are an integral part of the creative process in entertainment and film productions, and we saw an opportunity to create a three-dimensional expression symbolic of LA as a creative capital.

We also were challenged by the fact that the Story Board feature , which extended over 120 feet across the space, would be viewed from many different vantage points, with the entirety of the view blocked by retail stores and other architectural elements. This lead to the decision to design a truss supported array of displays which would play up the multiple view points, using the screens to express varuous vantage points in the same narrative or scene. Any story would be experienced in multiple ways depending on the itinerary of the passenger, a phenomenon similar to the way travel is experienced.

A media screen superimposed over the hall’s elevator volume.

LGD: You have mentioned some of the physical challenges, but this is a public project, with many constituencies involved, how did you get their buy in?

MG: The Executive Director of Airport, Gina Marie Lindsey was enormously supportive, as was Michael Doucette, who directed the overall development of TBIT for LAWA and had to make tough calls on accommodating the features into a building already under construction. The combination of leadership support from the executive side, the board, and the development side made this possible.

This project could have died a thousand deaths along the way and was on the verge of being “terminal” so to speak, on several occasions.

We had 23 presentations to the Mayor, the Board of Airport Commissioners, various city council people, and to the commercial development group of the airport. The greatest concern of the board was the anxiety that we might create a “Times Square” environment with the scale of the media features proposed. Our greatest challenge became ensuring that the underlying control system, media, and content created a true environmental media system and not a collection of digital signs. It’s with great satisfaction for all the team, then, that many passengers, when prompted about their reaction to the “signs,” asks which signs you’re talking about. They see the media as experiential features not digital signs, and therein lays their value for both the passenger experience and for sponsors.

Visitors aren’t jarred by the screens, Rubin says, and find that they seamlessly tie into the airport experience.

LGD: What have you learned from the experience?

MG: First, that it is possible to create a media architecture that adds to the experiential quality of a place. Media does not have to be depletive of experience, or disruptive of the sense of place. It can be composed as part of an intended expression or as a vehicle for engagement.

Second, we are on the verge of either becoming inundated with signage in our public places, or at the cusp of introducing a new form of medium which does more than “message out”—a medium that allows for various forms of meaningful interaction.

Third, that the success of architectural media in public places will often require a revenue platform that supports the intentions for the space, whether that is derived from sponsorships, user support, digital activation, events, or even the equivalent of district assessments. To develop this type of media, maintain a rich mix of content, and refresh experiences requires that the design process begin with a framework, which supports the generation of the required resources.

Finally, that the ownership and operation of these environments cannot be left to chance. In the case of the environmental media experience at LAX, LAWA has hired JC Decaux, as the third party operating entity responsible for maintaining the system, curating new content, and securing sponsors. LAWA’s leadership, however, remains key to the success of the media environment. Recognizing this responsibility, LAWA is setting up a process designed to ensure the dual goals of an enhanced passenger experience and a revenue platform are achieved through a multi-year plan and regular review process. There really are no precedents for this, so the next few years will be an experiment in the public/private creation of a media environment.

Leslie Gallery-DilworthFAIA, is an architect and urban designer. For 12 years she was the CEO of the Society for Environmental Graphic Design, prior to that she was the founding director of Philadelphia’s Foundation for Architecture. She has received three design fellowships from the NEA and was awarded their USA mid-career fellowship. You can find Leslie at [email protected]

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