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The Struggle and Payoff of Setting Up Shop in an Airport

The Struggle and Payoff of Setting Up Shop in an Airport

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There are also staffing and logistical challenges.

“First it was just me,” he said. “Then I hired a couple people to help, because I had to go buy the inventory and do the payroll.”

Mr. Montoya continued, “But what you have to understand is, the airport is pretty far away from the city, so not that many people want to go out there to work. Then you have to be sure you hire people that can clear security, so background checks become really important. Then once you get them their badge, just getting from the parking lot to your stand can be literally 30 minutes. So you have to have people who can deal with that.”

Francine LeFrak ran into an especially onerous security issue when she set up a kiosk selling handmade jewelry at Newark Liberty International Airport in December. The two employees she hired for the venture — clients of Same Sky, a nonprofit she founded that teaches formerly incarcerated women in Jersey City to become entrepreneurs through jewelry-making — had criminal records.

“One of them was actually wearing an ankle bracelet from the county jail,” Ms. LeFrak said.

The Port Authority of New York and New Jersey has a partnership with a management company to bring small businesses into the airport’s Terminal B. When she brought them her business idea, “I never thought they’d say ‘yes’ to me in the first place,” Ms. LeFrak said.

“Then, once we got in, at every turn there was a headwind,” she said. Mostly, the problem was weather. (The kind that doesn’t cause flight delays.)

“We kept praying for a snowstorm, but our prayers weren’t answered — there were no lingering passengers,” Ms. LeFrak said. The kiosk was not a financial success.

For her, however, quitting the airport was easy: Her lease lasted only one month.

Other airports, like San Francisco International Airport, also have ways to attract start-ups for test runs. A pop-up program started in 2014 allows two first-time airport vendors six-month or one-year leases on a pair of small storefronts in Terminal 3. The airport charges the businesses 8 percent of gross revenue, or a minimum annual guarantee. (The catch: Potential renters must submit a formal proposal to the Airport Commission and are subject to a monthslong vetting process.)

Michael Lindsay, an owner of elizabethW, a boutique that sells fragrances and candles in downtown San Francisco, landed a one-year lease on one of the pop-ups in 2015 and ended up paying more than $5,000 for it. “But it was worth it,” he said. “So many people discovered us. Thousands of people are passing by every day. And if there’s a delay, everybody’s shopping.”

In markets like Tampa, Fla., which does not have a short-term kiosk or pop-up program, the stakes for small business owners are higher. To open an offshoot of his local Irish pub, Four Green Fields, at Tampa International Airport last August, Colin Breen partnered with a “concessionaire,” one of a handful of big management companies that lease airport storefronts.

The hoops he had to jump through to secure the 10-year lease on his 1,500-square-foot space took him by surprise. “I didn’t realize how demanding and intense it was going to be,” he said. “There was at least a year of paperwork. And every business that wanted the space had to go before a panel to be judged by an airport board. They actually graded you on whether you made eye contact and spoke into the microphone.”

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