cannabis basics

Souvenir Sunday: how airports choose new vendors

I shared some notes here last week about an educational event Seattle-Tacoma International held to encourage small businesses in the community to bring their products to the airport.

Here’s the “At the Airport” column I wrote about that effort – and others – for USA TODAY.

Hard-to-resist warm cookies, smartly-branded bottled water, and a line of cannabis-themed health and beauty products promising to make you feel great, but not get you high.

These were just some of the products displayed recently at an “opportunities summit” designed to help small businesses from the Pacific Northwest get their foot in the door at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which saw more than $250 million of sales in 2016.

Federal funding mandates that airports create concessions opportunities for small, disadvantaged and/or local business and the Port of Seattle, Sea-Tac’s operator, is determined to both significantly increase representation by these vendors at the airport and boost the airport’s unique and local feel.

To that end, the airport’s outreach event included information-packed how-to panels and fair to introduce existing airport vendors to hopeful new ones and plant seeds for new partnerships and stand-alone concessions.

Deborah Tuggle, President of Bite Me! Inc., was on site with “That Cookie,” made with domestic walnuts and Belgium Chocolate, a product that’s already a best-seller in one of the region’s gourmet grocery chains, where the cookies are sold warm.

“I know people will buy this cookie at the airport,” said Tuggle, who envisions either a stand-alone warm cookie kiosk or a partnership with another vendor at the airport and $3 million in annual airport cookie sales.

Bottled water is a big seller at any airport and identical twin brothers John and William Longley were are hoping to get placement for their bottles of “Plane Water” which are filled with water from springs discovered by pioneers along the Oregon Trail.


The Longley brothers got the idea for their product while working at an airport shop that didn’t sell water. Instead of sending customers elsewhere, they created their own bottled water to sell in the shop and are now determined to broaden their distribution.

The health and beauty products Cannabis Basics founder Aimee Warner had on display caught the eye of Mike Petersen, Senior Vice President Operations for Hudson Group in Seattle as a possible line to carry in the company’s airport stores.

“You want to be the first, to be trendsetting, to have the new big thing,” he said. And even though Warner assured him the products could cross state lines legally, Petersen said “We’ll need to run this by legal and make sure we are protecting the brand.”

While taking a small business into an airport comes with its own set of challenges, those that are successful can reap big rewards, said Deborah McElroy, Executive Vice President of airport membership organization ACI-NA.

“Airports are the front door the community and the last memory, and they serve people from all over the country and around the world. So it’s not only an opportunity to shine on the local level, airports give local businesses a national stage.”

Like SEA, other airports around the country are being pro-active about bringing unique, local vendors from its community into the terminals.

San Francisco International Airport is currently in year three of a five-year Pop-Up Retail Program that allows local business to test new concepts in a gate area of the airport where over three million people pass by each year.

“Airport staff actively reach out to San Francisco Bay Area businesses and host informational sessions,” said SFO spokesman Doug Yakel.

Right now the Exploratorium and Jean-Marie Auboine Chocolatier have set up shop in SFO’s pop-up spaces. In May, they will be replaced by San FranCycle and NYS Collection Eyewear.

Denver International Airport has small business-oriented cart and kiosk program managed by PRI, a specialty retail licensing firm.

There are about 40 locations throughout the airport, which generated over $18.2 million in gross sales in 2016.

“Staff of the company that operates the program canvass constantly for new local concepts and operators in Denver and Colorado, including juried crafts shows, neighborhoods and local shopping centers,” said airport spokesman Heath Montgomery, “They also pursue local manufacturers and distributors.”

Beyond local programs, national airport conferences offer some vendors an opportunity to get their brands better known.

For example, the annual Airport Revenue News conference and exhibition features a Shark Tank-like session where new companies can pitch concepts and get feedback from airport decision-makers.

“In the past we had Camille’s Hand Dipped Ice Cream Bars, Firkin Pubs and a vaping company,” said ARN publisher Ramon Lo, “This year the line-up include Smoke’s Poutinerie, a hangover prevention drink called Never Too Hung Over and Roam Fitness,” a woman-owned company that is about to open its first post-security fitness club, at BWI Airport.

Cynthia Sandall, co-founder and CMO of Roam Fitness says she’s not too nervous about going before the panel.

”When you’ve been living and breathing your startup business you know every fact inside and out,” said Sandall. “That being said, it’s always great to get a new question or a variation of an old one that makes us thing about a certain aspect in a new light.”