Are Activations Worth It In Travel Retail?

Image credit : The Tiffany photo is one I took while flying through Changi. It is for illustration purposes only and there is no reference to this execution within this article. 

I had one of those days last week. For some reason I couldn’t see the wood for the trees. I was looking for the jam. I knew that we had one and I knew that we would normally keep it in the fridge. I stood staring into the fridge and I couldn’t see it. I called out to Jill….

Me: Where is the jam?

Jill: In the fridge?

Me: It is not.

Jill: Yes it is!

Me: Where??

Jill: HERE!! (reaches into the fridge and hands it to me).

Me: Oh! Thanks. (quietly eats some humble pie)

Ever had that? Ever been looking for something but cannot see it even though it is right in front of you? Some refer to it as mental blindness.

Although it had been a long week and I was tired, there are other contributing factors at play. I am sure that I am not alone when this happens.

So what has this got to do with Activations?

Sometimes I see passengers experience ‘mental blindness’ and walk straight past Activations. They are completely oblivious. Considering the work that goes into Activations, this might seem a little soul destroying. But what can be done?

There is an advertising model called AIDA. AIDA stands for:

  • Attract Attention
  • Maintain Interest
  • Create Desire
  • Take Action

This model can be adapted for the purposes of Activations. We could however split this into 2 sections: AI and DA.

Attention & Interest (Pre-Human Interaction)

  • Activations should be impactful enough to attract attention
  • The goal should be to create a sense of curiosity or intrigue within the passenger
  • The Activation needs to create enough interest for the person to enquire for more information or at least try a sample

Desire & Action (Human Interaction)

  • Disrupt the passenger on their way past
  • Creating a sense of “must have” desire or need within the shopper
  • Converting someone from interested to someone who takes action and buys
  • Even if they do not buy, installing a memory in the shopper that may result in a sale later in the domestic market

 Creating Activations that fit the AIDA model becomes easier when you are clear on what the role of the Activation is.

What is the role of the activation?

Why do brands use activations? There are a number of reasons or purposes:

  • To drive volume and profitability
  • To drive brand awareness
  • To communicate a brand message
  • To encourage shoppers to choose them over the competition
  • To encourage new shoppers to consider their category, product or brand
  • To act as, and to be known as a signpost to the category
  • To launch a new product
  • To revitalise a product or brand
  • To embrace and maximise a calendar event (i.e. Chinese New Year, Christmas, Ramadan etc)

There are many reasons for having an Activation but you have to be very clear on the rationale from the outset. If it is a pureplay approach to driving incremental volume and profit, you may come unstuck.

There are many reasons to question the use of Activations.


Challenges to Having Activations

  • They are expensive. There is a lot of investment that goes into to having activations and this includes paying for:
    • Space
    • Creative and design
    • Construction & Installation
    • Staffing the activation
  • Impact is not always measured. If you spend money on an activation but do not review the performance, how do you know whether it was a worthy investment?
    • What is the commercial impact of the activation?
    • What is the halo effect?
    • Does it deliver a return on investment?
  • Falling at the final hurdle is often the biggest challenge that brands face when it comes to Activations.
    • The wrong people put onto the activation
    • “Bodies” on the activation rather than having a skilled active selling team
    • Lack of product knowledge and brand engagement by the front line team

Despite this, there are some real positives to having an in-store activation within Travel Retail.

The Positives For Having Activations 

Travel Retail is a “window to the world”

In hubs such as London, Paris, Dubai, Singapore etc, you get a broad mix of nationalities and demographics. It exposes your brand to huge potential. If you work with the retailer, you can get some interesting data that will enhance your domestic strategies in international markets. 

Control over brand execution

When you create an Activation, providing it fits within the airport fire regulations and duty free retailer requirements, the brand owner has control. This means that you can execute something that is totally “on-brand” rather than what others may require. This gives brand managers some great ability to stay on message.

Creates an echo that could lead to purchases at home

Effective activations may lead to subsequent sales after the event in the passenger’s domestic market. Create the right level of engagement in store can create an echo which pays dividends later down the line.

One Key Reason Why Activations Fail

When you consider the effort that goes into an Activation, the biggest influencer on whether it succeeds or not will be how well it is executed in store. I have lost count the number of times I:

  • Have not been acknowledged
  • Had to interrupt staff talking
  • Had to interrupt staff having personal chats with customers
  • Found someone hiding behind cupboards and texting on their phone
  • Have been ignored
  • Sold another brands product
  • Sold down the price ladder

I could go on.

The point I am making is that it is PEOPLE that make the real difference. Whether you use agency staff or employ your own team, it is essential that the right people are put into place and that they are trained to a high standard.

We have a service called MYSTERY SHOPPER PLUS and we are asked to go and assess the experience that shoppers get when activations are on. We used experienced ex-retail managers who know what “should” happen. 

Recently we assessed some activations and experienced broken fixtures, selling another brand, shoppers being ignored or just handed out samples – no engagement, not even a smile.

Without the right people Activations are just wallpaper…. Or even worse!

The Commercial Impact

Activations can cost tens of thousands of pounds to design, build, install and run for a relatively short period of time. The commercial element has to be considered. As one of my old commercial finance bosses would say – “Does it wash its face?” meaning, does it pay for itself?

Based on hundreds of evaluations I have done on activations during my career, there is a possibility that incremental sales may not cover the cost of the activation. As an industry, we have to be realistic though and remember that this is about having your brand exposed to the world. Where else do you get thousands of eager potential shoppers walking past your brand?

Rather than a profit driving mechanic, an activation becomes a bold statement about your brand.

So? Are Activations Worth It In Travel Retail?

Depending on how the final part of the puzzle is dealt with (the in-store execution), it can be a great way to drive additional focus and create great brand awareness in store. Done well, it can drive incremental sales and profit. My final advice for this article is:

  1. Use decent front line staff to work on the activation
  2. Train the staff well
  3. Incentivise the staff
  4. Measure, Measure, Measure
  5. Experiment to find the best option for you

If you want to know how your team are performing in store or you want an evaluation on your in-store activation, drop me a line at I will share with you our unique approach to Mystery Shopping that will deliver powerful insights and get results.

Thanks for reading.


If you have any questions about data harmonisation in Travel Retail, do feel free to drop me a line.

Have a great week.


Founder & Managing Director
One Red Kite Limited

Author of “Travel Retail : The Insider’s Guide”
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