Ever since the Piedmont Triad Airport Authority put the brakes on a planned airport name change, the future of that process has been – well, up in the air. And while airport officials have been vague about its airport name plans going forward, a new request for help that the Airport Authority has put out to advertising, marketing and consulting firms sheds some light on the major rebranding and renaming effort that’s in store for the airport.
Over two months ago, airport officials at Piedmont Triad International Airport (PTIA) hit the reset button on a proposal to change the name to Central North Carolina International Airport. But other than that the plans have been hazy. Will the airport definitely get a new name? How much will the new effort cost? When will a name change take place if it does? Is the authority dead set on Central North Carolina International Airport and just getting public comment so the board can say that the public had input? Is there a possibility the authority will keep the current name, as many citizens want? What other changes are in store in addition to a possible name change?
The new request for qualifications (RFQ) provides some answers. Also illuminating were the airport’s responses to questions from companies seeking the job.
The current brouhaha began on Tuesday, Dec. 19, when the seven-member Airport Authority voted to change the name of Piedmont Triad International Airport to Central North Carolina International Airport. The backlash from a public that had no idea the change was coming led the board to vote at its January meeting to put that change on hold, collect input from citizens and find the best path forward.
Now the authority has put out the RFQ in an initiative much broader than a name change. It calls for a total makeover of the airport’s image, brand and look. According to the guidelines in the RFQ, the effort will involve everything from a new name, new logo, signage, the airport’s website and the look of its terminals – as well as a marketing plan to promote the made-over facility that’s likely to be sporting a new name. The effort will also look at ways to enhance passenger traffic and airline service at the airport in addition to the previously emphasized goal of promoting economic development at the airport and in the region.
The RFQ for “Airport Branding And Naming Services” states: “The Authority is seeking a Branding Agency/Consultant to assist in developing and implementing a new brand for the airport that meets particular criteria established by the Authority. The Agency/Consultant will conduct research, suggest airport names for consideration, recommend a brand position, create a brand design and design standards and assist the airport with a tactical plan for implementation of the new brand.”
This is not a project that goes to the lowest bidder – instead, the most qualified firm will be selected and airport officials will then negotiate with that firm to determine the specifics of the project and how much the airport will spend on the initiative.
While many area residents don’t want to see the airport’s name changed, the RFQ indicates that the Airport Authority feels the current name is holding the airport back. The materials speak of the airport’s economic development successes in recent years and goes on to say, “Unfortunately, the airport’s current name, Piedmont Triad International Airport, is not well known or recognized outside of North Carolina and is unfamiliar to potential industrial recruits in the global market. This renaming/rebranding of the airport is being considered to address this challenge.”
The Airport Authority members have always talked about the need for a name change to promote economic development at the airport and in the region, but not in terms of its effect on passenger traffic or airline service. Interestingly, the firm hired for the larger rebranding effort is being asked “to evaluate airline service decisions in response to a name change” as well as the “ability to evaluate passenger demand [in] response to a name change.”
Passenger traffic is something airport officials have been trying to boost for years and, in recent years, they’ve started to see some solid growth in that regard.
The branding firm the airport hires is also expected to take into consideration the public feedback and the suggestions that have been provided since the Airport Authority’s announcement of the name change. Firms were informed that they’ll be asked to conduct an “Inventory and assessment of the current brand, including review of existing studies, existing public comment, and existing market research.”
That public comment inclusion in the new rebranding effort is a big change from the process that brought about the initial name change to Central North Carolina International. The first time the board tried a name change, it didn’t get any input at all from the general public. The name change was surrounded by Manhattan Project-style secrecy until the Airport Authority finally dropped its bomb on the public just before Christmas.
The firm hired is also expected to help find ways to sell the new name and brand to the public. The RFQ calls for “involving other key stakeholders in the process” as well as “the ability to communicate brand position and value to the media and the public.”
Airport Authority member Linda Shaw, a former Guilford County commissioner, said the renaming process is going to take some time.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a decision made real soon,” Shaw said.
She said the authority members had been listening to public comments for the past several months. Shaw said Steve Showfety, the Airport Authority chairman who’s also president of Koury Corp., met with one of the harshest critics of the name change and the two men had discussed the matter on amicable terms.
One question that remains is how committed the authority is to the Central North Carolina International name. When the authority announced that name out of the blue in December, it presented that name as the obvious choice and as the name that won out by a long shot.
One firm interested in taking on the project asked airport officials in an email: “News reports indicate that the board has already chosen ‘Central North Carolina International Airport’ as the new name. Does this remain the preferred name, or should this project include a new and complete name exploration?”
The authority’s response to that vendor was, “As part of the scope of this project, the selected firm/team will be required to conduct research and suggest airport names for consideration.”
Another firm interested in the project asked, “Should we assume that name development is part of the program?” The authority’s answer was “Yes.”
The authority did say in one response that the estimated time frame for selecting a branding company was 30 to 60 days, but there’s no indication of how long the actual rebranding process will take. One vendor asked, “Do you have a date in mind (or general target) for when you would like to be in market (launch) with the revitalized brand? If so, what is driving that date?” The answer was, “The Authority will discuss specific target dates with the selected firm/team.”
There were other points the airport will only discuss with the selected consultants but clearly doesn’t wish to do so now.
One question, for instance, read, “The RFQ indicates that the brand must meet specific criteria established by the Authority. Would you share those criteria?”
Airport officials responded, “The Authority will discuss specific criteria and detailed goals with the selected firm/team.”
Other answers were also not very informative.
When asked, “How many constituents/stakeholders do you see being a part of this process?” PTIA officials responded, “Numerous.”
There may be numerous stakeholders but the ultimate decision will be made by one board – the Airport Authority.
Airport officials are even more vague on the cost of hiring the rebranding company as well as the entire cost of a name change and rebranding effort. Airport Authority members discussed the plans for the change among themselves and with staff over the last half of 2017, and presumably the question of cost came up at some point in those conversations, but no airport official has stated publicly even a rough idea of the expense involved. Even the vendors taking part in the project don’t know how much they stand to earn. The RFQ doesn’t mention a price estimate or a price range for the work.
One firm asked, “Is there an approved budget for this project?” and the answer was that the “scope and budget will be coordinated with the selected firm.”
Another asked, “Have marketing dollars been allocated for this initiative as well as subsequent campaigns? If so, would you share that information?” The airport’s answer: “A budget will be coordinated with the selected firm.”
Airport officials have instructed the firms applying that “No pricing/costs/fees should be included in your Statement of Qualifications submission.”
PTIA Executive Director Kevin Baker said that, while the airport doesn’t have any projected cost yet, it is going to make sure that those costs are kept down.
“We’re pretty fiscally conservative,” Baker said.
He said that right now was a good time for a rebranding and renaming process because much of the signage at PTIA needs to be replaced regardless of whether there’s a name change.
“We have a need right now anyway,” he said.
Baker said there would be a cost for things like new business cards and stationary, but he added that those have to be refilled over time as well.
As for the fate of the name, he said that when the board changed the name in December, clearly the high level of interest in the airport name was unanticipated and now PTIA has opened up the process and is listening to suggestions for new names as well as for other ideas to improve the airport. He said the Airport Authority clearly liked the name it chose in December but it is open to suggestions.
“The board is willing to hear other thoughts,” he said. “We’ve got to go through this process.”
Baker said the driving idea behind the change was to promote economic development.
“That’s a big part of our mission – to provide jobs,” he said.
The RFQ states that the airport has two main goals: to provide the best possible service and customer experience to passengers and act as an employment center in the aerospace industry. Those were the same two goals Showfety listed when he applied to Guilford County Board of Commissioners to be reappointed to the Airport Authority for a fourth three-year term, something that’s expected to happen on Thursday, April 5.
While airport officials are gung-ho on changing the airport’s name and image, some critics say the airport’s problems aren’t related to either.
Guilford County Sheriff BJ Barnes said that, in his opinion, the name of the airport doesn’t matter much.
“A rose is a rose is a rose,” Barnes said. “A name change isn’t going to get it.”
He said what PTIA – or whatever you call it – needs is lower fares and more flights to more cities. He said that’s the way to increase traffic to the airport, raise its profile and make it a success.
No one can say PTIA isn’t environmentally friendly. The RFQ states that “In order to reduce costs and to facilitate recycling, plastic covers, binders, dividers, tabs, etc., are prohibited. One (1) staple in the upper left-hand corner is preferred.”