By Peter Saunders
When PortsToronto planned a 260-m (853-ft) long pedestrian tunnel under Lake Ontario’s Western Channel to Billy Bishop Toronto City Airport (BBTCA), which it owns and operates on Toronto Island, the agency of Transport Canada recognized an opportunity to help fund the public-private partnership (P3) project by earning new revenue through digital out-of-home (DOOH) advertising. Brand marketers would be offered the chance to specifically target a customer base of frequent, short-term business travellers at Canada’s ninth busiest airport, who already benefited from ease of downtown access to the island—compared to getting to and from the much larger Pearson International Airport at the outskirts of the city—but now also would be able to walk there in less than six minutes, instead of waiting for a short ferry ride across the channel.
The tunnel was announced and began to be excavated in 2012. To use it, departing travellers would descend 30.5 m (100 ft) by elevator on the mainland side, cross the main passageway using any of four moving walkways and finally ascend via escalator or elevator on the island side to BBTCA’s Porter Airlines and Air Canada check-in areas.
With the excavations underway, PortsToronto—then known as the Toronto Port Authority (TPA)—began planning a digital signage network and a corresponding mobile app with local advertising firm Black.
“We’re a media company that started out as an ad agency, but we’ve since pivoted to the digital out-of-home (DOOH) industry, because we feel traditional out-of-home (OOH) signage isn’t the right medium for today,” says president and CEO Dean Black, who founded Black in 1992. “Digital signage offers advertisers a better ability to deliver their messages. With dayparting, for example, it becomes easier for smaller advertisers to get their messages out by buying smaller slots of time, while larger advertisers can also benefit by tailoring messages to a certain time of day, the weather and other variables.”
In the case of BBTCA, PortsToronto would own the digital assets, with Black overseeing content creation, ad sales and interactive planning. And while Black would develop the mobile app, PortsToronto would own the rights to its use and licensing.
“Larger companies like Pattison Outdoor Advertising, Astral Out-of-Home or Clear Channel Outdoor have vast networks to sell, but we keep a lower profile as consultants,” says Black. “In this case, we work for the airport’s landlord.”
For PortsToronto, it was an opportunity to use screen-to-screen content movement technology for wayfinding, passenger tracking, information delivery, flow management, entertainment and interactivity.
“We do not receive government funding,” explains Geoffrey A. Wilson, CEO of PortsToronto. “We are mandated to be self-sustaining. So, it is important we identify opportunities to generate revenue that will finance our ongoing operations and fund improvements to the airport.”
Demographics, software and hardware
As mentioned, many BBCTA customers use the facility for short-term business trips. Specifically, research conducted before deploying the DOOH network showed 46 per cent of the airport’s users were frequent business travellers over the age of 45, making more than 10 trips per year, and 37 per cent were mid-career business travellers, mostly aged 35 to 45, who averaged five trips per year. While there were also some younger students and older retirees flying once or twice a year to visit their families, the majority of trips were for business rather than leisure. The overall gender split was 47 per cent male, 53 per cent female.
Compared to other airports, PortsToronto and Black realized most of BBTCA’s passengers were frequent fliers. This made it all the more important not to inundate them with too many competing messages, but rather continue the ‘less is more’ approach that had made the airport appealing in the first place.
“You don’t want Times Square,” says Black. “If the signs are spaced correctly and do not overwhelm you, you’re more likely to look at them.”
In 2013, Toronto-based software provider Dot2Dot Communications began to help plan the new digital signage network. PortsToronto and Black chose to use its Scala Content Manager and Ad Manager software, along with the Scala Enterprise operating system (OS), to drive the network.
Meanwhile, Gridcast Media of Richmond Hill, Ont., was selected as the hardware integrator for the project. Its team specified a mix of LG liquid crystal displays (LCDs), NanoLumens light-emitting diode (LED) screens and touch-interactive Christie MicroTile display ‘cubes,’ along with media players to run the Scala software.
“By getting involved early enough with Black, Gridcast helped make sure the best mix of hardware and software was established for this particular experience,” says Andy McRae, general manager (GM) of Dot2Dot. “It’s the best-documented process in which we’ve ever been involved. We’re honoured to have played an active role.”
The digital experience
In August 2014, PortsToronto and Black publicly announced details of the overall ‘digital experience’ being developed for BBTCA. They were creating a proprietary smartphone app that would serve as a sort of ‘virtual concierge,’ delivering curated information, original editorial content and ads reflecting the unique demands of each regular passenger, in conjunction with content on nearly 50 digital signage displays throughout a new mainland atrium, the pedestrian tunnel and an island-side atrium, all of which would be completed in 2015.
The goal was for the mobile app to integrate with ad content appearing on screens and video walls along the passengers’ path. Within the tunnel, specifically, eight 9.1 x 0.9-m (30 x 3-ft) multi-screen displays would be installed along the walls, where they would be highly visible whether travellers walked along the pathway or stood on the moving walkways. The screens would also use proximity sensors to trigger content dynamically as people approached and passed them.
“No one has really integrated an app into a DOOH program like this before, but it makes sense, given most passengers today are on their device all of the time when they’re at an airport and that’s when we want to reach them,” says Black. “The digital experience creates a narrative journey that will extend from the traveller’s home or hotel to the airport curb to the flight gate and beyond to their ultimate destination. Advertisers will be able to target messages that are relevant and pertinent to the individual, ensuring greater levels of retention and awareness.”
With this vision in mind, the app was designed to let users track their flight status, get traffic updates for their trip to the airport, check weather forecasts for both Toronto and their destination, navigate a map of the airport they will land at and even receive localized information about restaurants and events in their destination city. Any such information downloaded in a wireless-fidelity (Wi-Fi) zone could be bookmarked for reading later on the flight, with the mobile device in airplane mode. This combination would make the digital experience useful for passengers, helping them get to their flights on time and offering them a ‘VIP’ experience, regardless of any advertising embedded into the content.
“When you walk into the airport, among the first things you see are the flight information display systems (FIDSs) and the app can tie into those systems for flight status alerts,” says Black. “Going further, the app is designed to support interaction with the ad-based digital signs via texting, beacons, Bluetooth and near field communication (NFC). There are also touch screens in the airport to allow physical interactivity.”
Black cites such potential applications as an automotive advertiser inviting travellers to choose their own style of car on a screen, save the data and then book a real test drive in that model.
“We’re working directly with advertisers to help design interactive content that takes the overall journey into context,” he says. “And because of this airport’s small size and convenient location, it’s one place where people actually have time to interact with ads.”
A path of screens
The tunnel opened on July 30, 2015, later than scheduled.
“There were delays, but some major advertisers like BMO and Land Rover stuck with us,” says Black.
Shortly after the opening and the digital signage network launch, the mobile app—dubbed ‘Billy’—was made available for Google Android, Apple iOS and BlackBerry devices. Travellers were encouraged to download the app through Bank of Montreal’s (BMO’s) sponsorship of free Wi-Fi service throughout the airport.
Today, as passengers approach the mainland terminal, they first see a 4.9 x 2.4-m (16 x 8-ft) indoor LED-based video wall facing out the windows of the main façade. Once they are indoors, they encounter a 3.7 x 2-m (12 x 6.75-ft) video wall, comprising nine LCDs, primarily dedicated to listing arrivals and departures and secondarily displaying advertising. A 2.4 x 0.7-m (8 x 2.2-ft) double-sided ‘media plinth’ and a 3.1 x 2-m (10.3 x 6.8-ft) nine-LCD video wall help delineate an ‘experiential’ marketing zone, with space to display product samples, kiosks or other collateral. Finally, as travellers arrive at the elevator bank, they see a 7.3 x 2-m (24 x 6.75-ft) 18-LCD video corner wall, which offers multiple templates and channel configurations for ad content. And in the lower level of the mainland terminal, a 2.4 x 2-m (8 x 6.75-ft) six-LCD greets arriving passengers at the elevator bank.
Along the tunnel itself, four ceiling-mounted, double-sided ‘digital skyline’ units support a total of eight 9 x 1-m (29.5 x 3.3-ft) LED screens. For advertisers, these also offer potential integration with static vinyl wraps.
At the lower level of the island-side terminal, two more 3.7 x 2-m (12 x 6.75-ft), nine-LCD video walls greet passengers as they approach the escalators. And as they ascend the escalators, they pass a series of 20 portrait-mode 1.2-m (47-in.) LCD ‘digital posters,’ including 12 on the lower portion and eight on the upper.
Finally, within the island terminal’s ground-level lobby and atrium stand three 2.4 x 2-m (8 x 6.8-ft) MicroTile touch-screen video walls.
“Now is the time for fine tuning,” says Black. “We’ll be adding more screens in the next six months for stronger, long-term branding positions.”
In the meantime, Gridcast continues to monitor and manage the digital signage hardware. And Intel’s Audience Impression Metric (AIM) Suite is being used to measure the network’s performance in terms of reaching travellers, while beacon technology is helping trace how people use the facility.
“The airport has been embraced by business travellers because it offers a convenient, efficient and friendly approach,” says PortsToronto’s Wilson. “The digital experience will add more value and drive engagement by offering relevant information, tools and services. And it will help us better understand our travellers.”