Phila. airport hailed as a retail gateway

Angie Alfonso, a Temple University tourism and hospitality student, helps staff the new Minute Suites rooms at Philadelphia International Airport.
Angie Alfonso, a Temple University tourism and hospitality student, helps staff the new Minute Suites rooms at Philadelphia International Airport.

With new shops and stops, it has arrived nationally.

Posted: April 24, 2011

Clark Freshman had a little time before his 6 p.m. flight home to San Francisco one day last week when he spotted the Philadelphia airport's new "pod" hotel inside security and near the airline gates.

"You could actually take a nap. I couldn't believe it!" said the Hastings College of Law professor, who was in Philadelphia to speak to Temple University law faculty. "I set my timer, slept for about 25 minutes. I woke up, did some work on the computer, and I'm off to my flight. It was perfect, and I rarely rave about things."

Minute Suites is just the latest of 165 retail offerings at Philadelphia International Airport. Need a place to snooze, sip from 24 wines by the glass, get a manicure or massage, dine on lobster, or pick up a $6,500 silver leopard from Taxco Sterling Co.? It's all within a 11/4-mile stretch of terminals.

Since the days of expensive hot dogs and junky souvenirs, Philadelphia's airport has gained national stature for keeping travelers fed and occupied with a growing variety of restaurants, shops, and services - virtually all inside the security checkpoints.

Philadelphia is only the second airport to attract a Minute Suites "transit" hotel, a concept that became popular in Japan and debuted at Atlanta's airport in November 2009. That facility has had about 12,000 lodgers. Minute Suites opened here March 16 between International Terminal A and Concourse B, with 13 private rooms.

The 7-by-8-foot cubicles - about the size of a tanning booth - have a daybed sofa, a television, a workstation, a sound-suppression system, temperature controls, and free Internet. But no bathroom. The closest restrooms are a few dozen paces away across the airport corridor.

The rate is $30 for the first hour and $7.50 for each additional 15 minutes, with discounted rates after four hours and a flat $120 overnight.

The Philadelphia suites were fully booked on several nights of inclement weather and are especially popular with women, who prize the privacy and prefer them to sitting in a lounge or bar.

"Airport retail has changed dramatically in the last 10 years," said Pauline Armbrust, president and chief executive of Airport Revenue News, which tracks airport concession trends.

At Philadelphia International, there are two (soon to be three) XpresSpa stores, three (soon to be four) Vino Volo wine bars, three (soon to be four) Chickie's & Pete's sports bars, and a swank Legal Sea Foods restaurant.

Pittsburgh International Airport was the first in the nation to develop a retail mall design that attracted specialty companies such as Bally, Gap, Victoria's Secret, and Tie Rack.

"Pittsburgh set a very high bar, and the rest of the industry reacted to it," said airport management consultant Bruce Boudreau in Burlingame, Calif.

The shift locally came in the mid-1990s, after city-owned Philadelphia airport ended long-term concession contracts with Aramark and brought in Marketplace Development Inc. to revamp shopping and eating.

"In 1994, Mayor Rendell said it best," recalled Deputy Philadelphia Aviation Director James Tyrrell. "He said, 'You know, when I come in here with my son and he wants a hot dog and a soda, I'm out 10 bucks.' "

"In 1994, you didn't have much of a choice. You could either get a hot dog or get a wrapped-up sandwich. It was very expensive, and the quality was not very good."

Retail sales took off after Sept. 11, 2001, when new security requirements made travelers arrive earlier for flights. They were in the airport longer, and with the end of airline meals, passengers needed to buy food before taking off.

From 22 concessions in 1994, Philadelphia International today has 165 stores, including upscale Mexican restaurant Cantina Laredo, Life Is Good accessories, and Mindworks, a children's store.

Every year, 12 to 20 retail leases expire. "We will either renew them or solicit for new concepts," Tyrrell said. "That's how we got Legal Sea Foods, which replaced T.G.I. Friday's, and Wendy's replaced Flamers. We always look to improve the quality of our program."

Passengers - who last year spent an average of $10.04, or $154 million total, on Philadelphia airport concessions - expect it.

"The average household income of passengers at Philadelphia International Airport is $100,000 a year," Tyrrell said. "They are educated. They tend to have more expendable income. It's split between business and leisure, so half of them have expense accounts. You've got to give them what they want."

And many want a Philadelphia cheesesteak.

"One of the biggest questions you get is: Where can I get the best cheesesteak?" Tyrrell said. "The politically correct answer is: Any place in this airport that sells them." At least 10 restaurants do.

In 2006, Pete Ciarrocchi, owner of Chickie's & Pete's, opened his first airport outlet in Terminal E, and later in Terminals C and A-West. A fourth Chickie's & Pete's will open in the fall in Terminal D.

The airport had wooed Ciarrocchi for five years. "I kept saying, 'I don't know.' It was so difficult to get in there with the security and parking your car. Like who's going to work there?" the restaurateur recalled.

After opening six Chickie's & Pete's outside the airport and 22 in arenas and stadiums, Ciarrocchi relented.

"I said, 'What haven't we done yet?' Airports was one of them. I like to try any new outlet for our food."

"We just think it helps our brand. We enjoy the airport. It's a great place to work," he said.

Chickie's developed two items specifically for the airport - cheesesteak nachos and a lobster-and-cheesesteak sandwich, "now mainstays in all our restaurants," said Ciarrocchi, whose family opened a taproom in the city's Mayfair neighborhood in 1977.

The addition of local brands help differentiate an airport and bring regional flavor, culture, and color, said Boudreau, of LeighFisher Associates. "It rounds out the program. People get a little tired of seeing the same thing from airport to airport."

"Philadelphia has one of the more highly regarded concession programs in the nation," Boudreau said.

Minute Suites chose Philadelphia because of available space, 1,455 square feet, in a busy location, between the international terminal and US Airways' busy Concourse B.

Philadelphia has "exceeded our expectations," with about 400 lodgers since the opening, said Minute Suites' CEO Daniel Solomon. "Last week, sales exceeded the week before by about 25 percent. We saw our first fully booked day in Philadelphia March 23, when 13 people spent the night with us."

The mini-rooms appeal to just about everybody. "We are finding that the female professional market really gravitates toward us. Most of our traffic is individual business travelers," Solomon said.

"A few weeks ago, we were bombarded by red-eye folks, couples on their way to St. Maarten and some of the islands. We had three couples who came in and stayed with us," he said. "We've had in Atlanta small families, especially the European families who come right in."

Bookings tend to coincide with people's sleep-wake rhythms. "We find the early-morning red-eye flights will come and check us out," Solomon said. "We are pretty booked at 4 a.m., 5 a.m., 6 a.m., and 7 a.m. Then it tapers off around 10 a.m. until the afternoon, when people feel the urge to nap after lunch. And it gets busy again in the evening."

Minutes Suites is staffed 24/7 by students from Temple's School of Tourism and Hospitality Management. "We were very excited when they came to us. We are always looking for these kinds of partnerships," said Temple associate dean Elizabeth Barber.

The students earn $10 an hour. "I went to an informational session. It made me really want to work for the company," sophomore Angie Alfonso said.

"People's reactions when they walk in are 'Oh, my gosh, this is great.' When they leave here, they leave happy, and relaxed, and glad they got to sleep."

View an image gallery on shopping and more at Philadelphia International at

Contact staff writer Linda Loyd

at 215-854-2831 or


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