Experiential Marketing in Travel Retail – Should we have a different focus?

In this post, I want to consider the concept of Experience Marketing. Experience marketing is where retailers and brands try to engage shoppers with activities or some sort of well… experience. Sometimes, this can go well, other times, the efforts can be a little…. off key.

Travel Retail is an amazing platform to enable brands to connect with people from all over the world. Activity should play a key role within the marketing mix. What I am questioning here is the ‘Why?’, what is the intent? What are we trying to achieve? If experiential marketing means rolling out agency staff with a tray and tasting stock then it is time to re-think.

Giving an ‘experience’ is on trend right now. Commentators and researchers alike are telling brands and retailers that they need to provide experiential marketing. I believe that experiential marketing should go beyond trying to ‘sell’. In fact, I am almost of the view that when designing experiences, selling should maybe take a back seat.

It was the looming Easter school holiday that made me re-think the whole concept of ‘experiences’. It led me to differentiate the concepts of ‘intention’ and ‘outcomes’ as separate goals and deliverables. My intention was to get them off the screens but the outcome was a little different. In a retail environment, the intention would be to sell more but the outcome might just be a something else. 

This is how it went….
Introducing Operation Skybase

I knew my son was breaking up for Easter holidays and so I wanted to do something different. I wanted to make sure the screens were left behind.

We are lucky, our office is a short walk from a moor with streams, woods and rocks etc. During one lunch break I hiked up onto the moor and planned out an activity day for him and his friend. My son is almost 10 and obsessed with the army and so I created an invite (see below) and gave it to them last Friday.

In short, I came up with a ‘mission’ called Operation Skybase where they had to:

  • Hike into ‘enemy territory’
  • Get a water sample from a ‘polluted source’
  • Make a base and await extraction

In reality, the ‘mission’ was a lot more involved. In the end, they had to:

  • Receive a briefing
  • Put on camouflage face paint (I didn’t manage to escape that unfortunately thanks to one of the team putting the idea into their heads!)
  • Read a map and plan a route
  • Hike behind ‘enemy lines’
  • Get a water sample from a waterfall
  • Climb over the waterfall into the woods
  • Search out a coded message
  • Crack the code and report back to ‘mission control’
  • Find out their location was compromised and that they had to move to a new site
  • Plan the route and navigate their way, diving for cover in ‘trenches’ at the sight of dogs or people
  • Help set up a camp in the new area (it was cold and windy – the sleeping bags came in handy!)
  • Help cook food on camp stove
  • Cooked marshmallows on a stick over the stove and put them between biscuits for dessert
  • Played hide and seek where there was a steep hill and a minor incident (apparently and thankfully, 9-year olds still bounce!)
  • Receive a message to say ‘their helicopter could not get to them’ so they had to pack up and hike out.
  • Hike back to base and hand over the water sample

Rather than just ‘right boys, we are off out for a walk’, I turned it into something that would engage their imaginations. It wasn’t super prescriptive either. We went with the flow of things.

It didn’t strictly go to the original plan but hey, they had an absolute ball. They loved their time outdoors, despite ‘almost dying’ (their words regarding the minor incident, not mine) and the only screen time they had was to send texts to mission control. 

Despite huge backpack I carried up onto the moor, the wind and the cold, it was worth it!

Hiking up into the low clouds, running around the woods playing hide and seek, camp cooking, cracking codes. It was an all-out adventure.

By the end of it though, I needed a dark room to lay down in!

The Insights

I started out with the intention of getting the boys away from the screens. I succeeded in this. What I wasn’t anticipating was the outcome. The outcome was something that I had not really thought about until it was pointed out to me. And this is the first insight came from an unexpected source.

I had posted photos and a short overview on Facebook to a group I am in. A lot of people ‘liked’ and commented on it. The comments were reference to “making memories”. I.e. “you created memories the boys will never forget”, “making memories with bells on”.

Last night, I reflected on the day and realised that whilst the intent was to create something that would keep them engaged, what they were getting was something a little different. They were actually creating ‘memories’. The outcome was different. 

In today’s world where many of us are spending all day on screen’s at work and then another 3+ hours on phones, the thing that people are missing and wanting are experiences that create memories.


There is a deeper insight that is almost ‘hiding in plain sight’. It is a concept that has not been discussed within Travel Retail before and is very powerful indeed. I have yet to decide how this should be shared.  

Another piece of insight that came from the day is this…

Sometimes, people need to be entertained. OK, I was with two 9-year olds (well…almost 10 they would say!!). Although children can have a wide and varying imagination, even they sometimes need to be entertained. It isn’t hard to see how adults today need to be ‘entertained’ when people grasp their phones at every opportunity. Boredom is not allowed to creep in to anyone’s day which is a shame. Boredom can be good for you.

So, to summarise, there are 3 pieces of insight that came from this, two of which I will openly share: 

  • Be focused on creating memories (a new outcome) instead of selling (intent)
  • Entertain the shopper

Having an ‘Activity’ no longer cuts it. It needs to connect at a deeper level. It needs to become a talking point, something that you pass on to friends over a coffee or dinner. At the very least, it needs to entertain. When I say entertain, it needs to engage at an emotional level, to bring joy.

How could this be applied?

Well, an example might be to create a ‘fun fair’ on an airport concourse. Passengers could play typical games like Coconut Shy, ‘Hook a Duck’, Tin Can Alley or even a Crazy Golf Hole with prizes to be won. The prizes could be vouchers for money off in store or even win some product. This for some will bring back a feeling of nostalgia, of fun, challenge and excitement. An element of skill or luck always brings out a sense of competitiveness. When passengers win $5 voucher or 50% off a bottle of Whisky, they may be more inclined to use compared to just being handed a voucher with ‘$X off when you spend $YY.’ Bring it to life with candy floss and even a hotdog or a popcorn stand.
The picture below is only representative. In an airport, I am sure it could be adapted to suit the market.

Is it an experience? Yep. 

Is it memorable? Do you expect to see a funfair in the airport? Nope? Well…. I would guess that it is memorable! 

With a little imagination, you can create a sense of theatre that interrupts the passenger in the aim of making them a shopper.

Another example that I have written about before is the possibility of installing a zip wire in an airport.

image from lasvegasexperience.com

Imagine ziplining between terminals!! How amazing and memorable would that be?


The point I am trying to make here is that we need to take a step back and ask ourselves what are we really giving our customers in store? Are we creating a memory for the customer? If we are, is it a positive one?

Whatever you do, it needs to be powerful enough to get people to put the phone down and connect with your brand on an emotional level.

Thank you for reading.


Cover photo : Photo by Javier Cañada on Unsplash, Fairground photo : pinterest

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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