Winds of change are blowing through the concourses at Denver International Airport, carrying smells of varnish and sawdust that are drawing in veteran travelers to experience new retail spaces.
"They needed some fresh (restaurants)," said Scott Cohen, a business traveler from Oakland, Calif. "For a long time, you couldn't even get a decent cup of coffee here."
Cohen was sitting among other passengers in the recently opened Crù — A Wine Bar in concourse B — one of two new wine bars in the airport, with another one on the way. But the airport's commercial team is not just looking to open wine bars.
The Premium Value Concessions Program is a new competitive process aimed at diversifying and updating DIA's concessions, rolling out or refreshing 100 concepts over the next three years.
The project's goal is simple: to make more money for the airport and its retailers while improving the food and shopping options for its patrons.
Existing tenants can opt in to the incentive program, which uses financial reports and secret shopper scorecards. Three new requests for proposals are put out each month.
The top scorer gains an automatic lease renewal, and the bottom two then submit proposals that are put in a larger pool with outside bidders, in an attempt to prove it is a candidate most likely to succeed.
John Ackerman, DIA's chief commercial officer, said sales are already increasing as a result of the incentives.
"People are now really having to think hard about how they want to run their businesses," Ackerman said.
At a community table in the wine bar, Parker Gregg of San Diego waited for his delayed flight while sipping wines and nibbling on the "Rocky Mountain High" cheese plate.
"This caught my eye immediately," Gregg said. "It's amazing to have tastings that are made locally because that's something that's important to me when I travel — to taste the local flavors."
Barb Swartz of Denver was enjoying the bar's food but wants to see what else is added to the retail repertoire.
"This is nice, but there isn't a lot of shopping," Swartz said. "Like Atlanta — you walk in there, and it's an entire mall!"
Ackerman's team hopes to find the balance between trending concepts, those with local character, and the trademarks recognizable to international travelers.
"It's that balance between what is science and what is sorcery," Ackerman said. "It's more sorcery; we know it when we see it."
DIA has hired a staff architect to help guide the retailers through the redesign process. The Body Shop on Concourse C was one of the first to complete its remodel in December.
Ackerman said the shop reopened Dec. 14 and saw a 50 percent increase in sales for the week of Christmas over the same week in 2011.
"We expect a 20 to 30 percent pop," he said.
The airport is a city of Denver enterprise fund that does not rely on tax dollars.
"We have to feed ourselves," Ackerman said. "We can get money from our airlines, we can make our own, or we can borrow it."
Doing business at the airport can be lucrative and is highly sought because of it.
In 2011, the food and merchandise vendors grossed $260 million in sales, generating more than $44 million in revenue for the airport.
"We have some concessionaires who aren't happy (about the new program)," Ackerman said. Having a business at DIA "made a lot of our partners millionaires, but we want only the best for our customers."