Ottawa International Airport Revitalizes with New Retail and Dining Experiences Post-Pandemic [Interview]

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The retail and food and beverage component of the Ottawa International Airport is poised to see growth with more airline passengers expected following the lull during the pandemic.

The launch of a new food program coupled with new retail offerings will also give the airport a boost in sales on its commercial real estate locations on the site.

Coleman Swartz

Coleman Swartz, Director, Commercial Development, Ottawa International Airport Authority, said a major redevelopment unfolded through COVID.

“We didn’t expand the terminal. The last time we did that was in 2008 when the building physically grew,” he said. “But we had already planned to completely rebuild our security checkpoints, specifically the main screening point that most of our passengers pass through, and the retail and food reconfiguration was coordinated to go along with that, in 2018 and 2019.

“What we did is we moved our security checkpoint up to the top level of the terminal because where the previous one was it was way too small. It was outdated, old technology, very short little lanes . . . We actually put our new retail centrepiece right in that old space.”

iStore (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)

The new food program will have a total footprint of around 14,000 square feet. This is a reduction from the previous program size of about 17,000, but it is “right-sized” and better located.

Swartz said the new retail program will be around 6,000 square feet, down from around 7,000 previously with locations right-sized and relocated in order to serve customers best and optimize revenues.

He said the new food program has 14 locations in total – counting the food hall as one location, and the Bridgehead Coffee within it as a separate one. This is a reduction of two units from the previous program – both were pre-security on the Departures level and were underperforming.

The Locks at YOW (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)

The new retail program has seven locations (not including two duty-free shops). An eighth is contemplated and may be opened within the next few years.

The flagship new central retail travel essentials store, The Locks, opened in August 2021. The two specialty stores, iStore Express and No Boundaries, opened October 2022.

No Boundaries at YOW (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)
No Boundaries at YOW (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)
Big Rig at YOW (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)
Big Rig at YOW Airport (Image: YOW)

On the restaurant side, Big Rig opened in September, and Canal Market Hall (the central food hall) opened mid-October.

Within the food hall are some local brands including La Bottega Nicastro and Bridgehead Coffee. The food hall is run by SSP America. It also includes Pizza Vino, The Grill and a Bento sushi spot.

“The next wave is going to be another Bridgehead Coffee shop down in the Arrivals area. It’s going to replace a Tim Hortons that’s there and they’re going to rebuild and slightly relocate Starbucks which already exists in the domestic post-security area,” said Swartz. 

“Starbucks was opened in 2011, so it’s already approaching 15 years old It’s a little bit under-sized. It’s a little bit tired. And we’re moving it also a little bit to make room for a larger retail store down at that end.”

Marché du Canal Market Hall (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)

After the travel slowdown during the COVID period, Swartz said the airport is “rebuilding a new normal.”

“Ottawa’s passenger traffic pre-COVID was just over five million passengers a year. We did close the past year (2023) at just over four million,” he said. “That puts us at 80 per cent which is lagging a little bit behind some other Canadian airports and definitely behind the U.S. We’re probably on par with most of Europe right now. 

“We just have this slightly more conservative outlook . . . Everything that makes Ottawa really good as a real estate investment town most of the time kind of works against us in COVID which is the (federal government) is your main employer and normally they’re a source of stability but in this case they’re a source of lagging contribution you would say. We believe that government travel is probably the biggest missing piece because we think leisure travel is pretty good. We have Air France serving direct to Paris which is brand new for us as of last summer. Game changer. Fantastic development for us and for the region.

“We’re waiting for government which is both government employees traveling outbound and people coming into Ottawa to do business with the government.”

YOW Central Market (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)
YOW Central Market (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)

Swartz said it’s important for the airport to get that local flavour and character into its retail and food and beverage offerings. 

“We’ve come a long way. Got a little bit of a ways to go but we’re really proud that we now offer much more of a sense of Ottawa to our passengers,” he said.

iStore (Image: YOW Ottawa International Airport Authority)
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi
Mario Toneguzzi, based in Calgary, has more than 40 years experience as a daily newspaper writer, columnist, and editor. He worked for 35 years at the Calgary Herald covering sports, crime, politics, health, faith, city and breaking news, and business. He is the Senior News Editor with Retail Insider in addition to working as a freelance writer and consultant in communications and media relations/training. Mario was named as a RETHINK Retail Top Retail Expert in 2024.

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