The Portland International Airport Is Portland’s Most Portland Neighborhood

Mini movie theater to bike tool shed, lactation rooms to tasting rooms: PDX is the best.

By Marty Patail June 13, 2016 Published in the July 2016 issue of Portland Monthly

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Kenny & Zuke’s. House Spirits. The Country Cat. The Portland International Airport has gone full-local—with those distinctively Portland restaurants joining a miniaturized Hollywood Theatre, lactation rooms for new moms, a bike tool shed, and even a new indoor “pet relief” area.

The Port of Portland laid foundations for this Portlandification in the 1980s with a decision, unusual in the industry, to manage concessions in-house. Most large international airports hire independent concession operators, which then tend to fill storefronts with cookie-cutter chains and outlets. PDX, on the other hand, employs a committee of seven to oversee selection and curation, works directly with business owners, and signs leases and contracts on an individual basis. That system translates to increased flexibility, variety, and local brands. (Where some airports offer only one brand of coffee, PDX boasts four.)

“One of the cornerstones of our program is what we call street pricing,” adds Port spokeswoman Kama Simonds, saying that businesses aren’t allowed to charge a penny more for that local IPA just because it’s at the airport. “There’s no markup. We actually audit it.”

The strategy seems like good business. “Sales per enplaned passenger”—a metric for tracking airport retail success—has grown 113 percent over the past 15 years, from $5.80 per passenger in 2000 to $12.37 last year. (Simonds notes that post-9/11 travelers spend more time in the airport, which probably accounts for some of the increase.)

Engineering this artificial economy is a complex task. The committee factors in selection, competition, pricing, and spacing, so that every customer on every concourse has access to, say, a quick hamburger. To do this, the selection committee frequently contacts Portland businesses that might make prime recruits—in one case, even walking up and down NE Alberta Street and handing out business cards and pamphlets.

PDX’s leases tend to run between seven to 10 years, with the next group of concession contracts set to begin expiring in 2017 and 2018. When that happens, you can expect even more new faces to appear. As long as they know what they’re signing up for, Simonds says, anyone can apply.

“Operating a concession in an airport is pretty unusual,” she warns. “You can run a fantastic business downtown, but that’s very different than running a place that opens at 3 or 4 in the morning and closes at 11 or midnight.”

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