Ask people what they like about Tampa International Airport and you'll hear words rarely associated with other airports: uncluttered, easy to navigate, calm.
So, why do TIA officials want to set up 252 really big digital video monitors throughout the airport to carry paid advertising, passenger information and promotional videos about Tampa Bay?
"We're looking at how we can use technology to enhance the customer experience,'' said Joe Lopano, the airport's CEO since arriving from Dallas in January. "We're not just doing this to drive revenue but to improve our relationship with the local community,'' he said.
Whether he can do that without jeopardizing the airport's popularity is a critical question. Former Tampa Mayor Sandy Freedman said spreading video ads and corporate promotions throughout the airport might tarnish TIA's reputation.
"Once you start with all the visual pollution, you're going to lose some of the differences that make the airport so successful,'' said Freedman, who served on the airport's governing board in the 1980s and '90s, "Aren't we already bombarded with that enough?''
Bob Evans, a St. Petersburg businessman who flies almost every week from TIA, agreed, saying, "I think that would muck it up."
Lopano said he's sensitive to the attributes that make the airport special. Monitors won't blare noise, he said. The screens won't go up before they're tested by focus groups of local travelers.
"We don't want to use technology to destroy the ambience we've built over the years,'' Lopano said. "We're not trying to turn the airport into Las Vegas.''
Video ads could replace existing advertising on backlighted signs in the terminals. Some screens might help travelers find places to eat or shop, Lopano said. Monitors in lounges might display calming nature scenes or promotions for Pinellas beaches.
On July 15, the airport published a notice soliciting companies to donate LCD monitors, mostly 70-inch models. Officials aim to install the screens in the first quarter of next year as part of a makeover of the main terminal.
In return, TIA officials and donors will negotiate a "branding opportunity.'' That could include lounges or business centers carrying the company's name.
More and more, airports count on advertising to help cushion their finances. When fewer people fly, revenues from airline landing fees, parking, food and drinks tumble. Ad revenue at TIA grew from $750,000 in 2007 to $943,530 last year.
For years, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport stood out as a trendsetter in exploring ways to generate advertising dollars and swing corporate sponsorships, said Shauna Forsythe, owner of Alliance Airport Advertising in Las Vegas.
The guy in charge: Joe Lopano, then DFW's marketing chief.
In 2005, airport officials signed a deal with Samsung. DFW received 587 flat-screen TVs for the airport-owned Grand Hyatt Hotel and as replacements for old models in passenger terminals.
Samsung got various perks: naming rights for business center lounges, kiosks to display its cell phones and banners throughout the airport.
In a new deal three years later, the airport received 1,172 more video monitors that had the potential to generate $1 million in new advertising for DFW. Samsung also agreed to pay $1.5 million in sponsorship fees.
DFW is the nation's fourth-biggest airport and a major American Airlines hub. So, Tampa International isn't likely to attract as big a deal.
TIA's plans include video walls behind the bag belts in baggage claim and some touch-screen features on the third-floor transfer level.
"A screen at the gate could show the weather at the destination airport,'' Lopano said. "We could show a short video of the Degas exhibit at the museum and then an ad from American Express.''
Information from the Fort Worth Star-Telegram was used in this story. Steve Huettel can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3384.