How and why Brisbane Airport created an online marketplace in 16 days

Airport's marketing leader describes efforts to launch an online marketplace and the technical and cultural steps it took to achieve it

An ecommerce marketplace isn’t the first thing you’d expect an airport to create in a time of COVID-19 crisis. But that’s exactly what Brisbane Airport has done in 16 days in order to support its retail tenants and end customers.

Brisbane Airport Corporation head of consumer marketing, Mike Doyle, told CMO the idea for the new BNE Marketplace was triggered by two factors. The first was GM of consumer, Martin Ryan, being inspired by the experience of shopping online and its possibilities for the airport’s retailers.

The second was recognition its major tenant, Lotte Duty Free, had $70 million worth of product it was no longer able to sell because consumers were literally not coming through the airport. Foot traffic onsite has fallen 96 per cent since 29 March 2020 as a result of restrictions placed on travel. This meant Brisbane Airport could no longer support its 90 retail tenants in a traditional manner.

So Doyle and his marketing team were charged with pulling together the bones of an ecommerce site. Within days, a mud map, game plan and solid frame for the digital offering was in play, with the first test order completed 16 days later.

At its launch on 16 April, the BNE Marketplace featured 200 tech items, beauty products and watches, and more items are being added each week including gifts, perfume, chocolates and liquor. It’s initially operating as an order online and delivery model, with fulfilment and shipping software provider, Shippit, facilitating Australian resident purchases.

“We rallied around the idea, working through processes that would normally take months into hours, such as risk, compliance and legal,” Doyle said. “One team member had experience with Shopify and worked on small ecommerce websites. Another had worked on our paid parking services dealing with payment gateways, and had some experience tying together ecommerce platforms with sites, although parking is more complex.

“Then we used our marketing skills across the five-person team around how we communicate, what we put on the site, and how we tell people about it.”

Turning around the marketplace as quickly as Brisbane Airport did is no mean feat. Doyle said the technical aspect was the straightforward element, and staff used what was available to them via the platform.

“The two big elements are how to get product in and orders out,” he explained. “How you surface that product, and how consumers navigate around a site, is done by the platform. But you have to get product in and look at how orders are dealt with.”

For this, Brisbane Airport used a plugin, which allowed it to ingest product listings via Excel documents. For output, Doyle reached out to Shippit, who he’d worked with in his former role as head of marketing at surf retailer, City Beach. Using Shippit, Brisbane Airport could configure the platform to take email orders, build product shipping capability and content information.

Brisbane Airport also boasts a significant customer email database, which was integrated into the ecommerce platform so data could be passed back and forth.

More than design, built and integration is the bigger and strategic piece of decision making, Doyle said.

“In our case, strategic decisions drove the process… We had an end goal, then a list of things which led us to the right solution that suits the customer,” he said. “The process was more about the what, why and benefits to the customer.”  

It was also a conscious decision to position the new offering as a “marketplace”. Doyle agreed several tenants may already have owned channels as go-to-market, or operate through other third-party ecommerce sites such as eBay or Amazon.

“Rather than suggest we were an ecommerce channel, we positioned this as a marketplace opportunity open to all tenants,” he continued. “Just like our physical terminal is a collection of offerings, our digital marketplace offers the same opportunity.

“Given all the new retail experiences available today, we are seeing retailers leaning towards these sorts of opportunities as another channel to customers. You don’t know how people will choose to behave or shop.”

For Doyle, Brisbane Airport was in a strong position to launch a marketplace given its brand credibility and reach with consumers.

“We have a home game advantage in that we have a large database due to the nature of the business. Plus there is a lot of positive trust in our brand as a government adjacent player - we are a trusted part of the functioning life of Brisbane,” he said. “Moving into this space doesn’t feel foreign and gives shoppers some comfort as we can from a place of honesty instead of one where we’re seen as making a quick buck.”

While the new marketplace isn’t expected to deliver Brisbane Airport any significant bottom-line gains, Doyle said has importantly kept 25 people in jobs as well as helped retail tenants keep their staff employed.

“And it keeps our relevance with the greater community,” he said. “If this [crisis] goes on for a few more months, we still have that slice of mindshare.

“It’s important culturally, too, and shows we are not going anywhere. It shows Brisbane Airport is here and supporting tenants and the community.”

Risk versus innovation

Doyle agreed the challenging COVID-19 crisis has proven a catalyst for rapid digital transformation and business innovation across a raft of categories. In a normal environment, getting the BNE Marketplace up and running would have taken a lot longer. One thing that helped secure action was executive leadership support and advocacy.

“Martin [Ryan] is a passionate advocate for the consumer, who saw the opportunity and could articulate that clearly to our CEO,” Doyle said. “His personality, entrepreneurial spirit and customer mindset drove this. He knew we had an ability to act and couldn’t let this opportunity pass.”  

What also helped was risk and compliance mostly being taken care of by the platform itself. With the platform having already been secured to operate in strict regulated markets, Brisbane Airport was able to rapidly adopt the product and go live, Doyle said.

“This COVID-19 situation lent itself to us seeing this marketplace in a more positive way, and our people and quick refocusing of business meant we all got behind the approach,” he said. “What we also did is said we were going live on this day, and worked backwards. It’s really the best approach.

“We are seeing this as an MVP - it’s not as elaborate or sophisticated as I’d like, but it does what it needs to do. It’s proving the point. We’ve made a foray into this space and it’s quite a bold one.”

What also helped was keeping costs to a minimum. Doyle said the team spent just $400 outside operating and staff costs to build the initial platform.

From a marketing perspective, Doyle’s team is relying heavily on its owned email, social and website channels to raise awareness of the new offering.

“Under normal circumstances, we’d put some investment into marketing and look at that to lead us to sales, but there’s no precedented for this digital approach,” he said. “We’re trying to build a groundswell of support where we can.

“We’re hoping at some point the commercials add up so it’s a viable option for us to start to pay to promote. But for now, we’re working to a zero-cost marketing approach.”  

Marketplace momentum

And things are looking bright. Doyle reported product sales in excess of six figures via the BNE marketplace within its first week.

“That’s real money for our partner. It powers the appetite for what we are doing, and it’s real world example of our support for retailers and staff,” he said.  

On a personal level, Doyle was also heartened by the fact the business trusted him and his team enough “to let us do this”.

“As an airport, you wouldn’t have thought necessarily of us being a key industry going online,” he commented. “From a staff perspective, most people shop online, so they get the concept. But it’s not our BAU as an airport.

“As this became a reality, you could see the lightbulbs going off and smiles across the business, and we had many people wanting to participate. It’s as much a break from the norm, and has been an opportunity for people to take stock and ask: If that’s possible, what else is possible?

“It encourages blue sky thinking and signals to the rest of the business that we are doing things differently now.”

Doyle described the marketplace initiative as a “bright spot in this doom and gloom and moment in time”.

“It’s testament to the leadership of the airport, who realised opportunity and embraced it,” he added. “We could have just waited for passengers to come back, and no one would have questioned that strategy.”  

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