The strategy is reminiscent of an old commercial, but Marriott Corp. is betting on it. Which would you choose: generic burger A or a Whopper?
Convinced that hungry and harried travelers would much rather buy a Whopper -- or a serving of Roy Rogers' chicken or a Dunkin' doughnut -- than take a chance on no-name food, Marriott has signed up with Burger King and 14 other high-profile food chains to bring their familiar fare to the nation's airports.
The strategy, called "branding," is based on giving customers products they like and recognize. Bethesda-based Marriott first used the practice in the early '80s to bring brand-name fast food to its travel plazas along the nation's interstate highways and toll roads.
Marriott's move to branding comes at a time when the company has decided it will no longer compete with typical restaurants. As part of a restructuring, the company has agreed to sell 230 of its family restaurants.
It will concentrate, instead, on serving travelers through its Host International Inc. subsidiary.
"Our business is running concessions on airports and toll roads," said Robert M. Dorfman, general manager of the subsidiary.
Leveraging the strength of Host, Marriott is forging partnerships with food vendors that would otherwise be locked out of the airport market.
"We are a brand-new channel of distribution for most of the companies we are working with," Mr. Dorfman said.
Host has accumulated licensing or franchise agreements with TCBY (the Country's Best Yogurt), Mrs. Field's Cookies and Dunkin' Donuts, to name a few.
And the company is putting such specialty retailers as Bloomie's Express, a subsidiary of Bloomingdales Inc., and Cockpit, an aviation paraphernalia store, in its merchandise line-up at some airports. Host also operates a bar patterned after Cheers of television fame in the Detroit airport.
Branding in airports has taken off during the past couple of years as availability in curbside fast-food outlets has plateaued.
"The market was saturated, and national brands in general were saying, 'Where do we go now?'" said Harold L. Ritchie, president of Ritchie Associates Inc., a Chicago-based hospitality consulting firm that specializes in branding.
As a leader in airport concessions with exclusive control over the food, beverage and merchandise sold in 51 of the nation's airports, Host welcomed franchisers to airports as part of an effort to beef up concession sales volume, Mr. Dorfman said.
The strategy works for companies such as Pizza Hut Inc., which two years ago signed an exclusive franchising contract with Host to take the company's Personal Pan Pizzas into Baltimore-Washington International and 18 other airports.
"Host gives us access to a lot of sites and locations that Pizza Hut on its own would not be able to get to," Jon Ketcham, director of concept licensing for the Witchita, Kan., company. By the end of the year, Pizza Hut and Host will have opened more than 65 specially designed kiosks that should sell more than $15 million worth of the miniature pies, Mr. Ketcham said.
While the marriage of Pizza Hut and Host is delivering solid revenues, Host's experiences in branding haven't always been as profitable.
With its Nathan's Famous hot dog outlet at BWI, Host learned that a brand name doesn't guarantee success. Though the Nathan's name is well-known in and around New York and New Jersey, the outlet has struggled in its BWI location.
At BWI, travelers apparently don't know the brand and were not drawn to a hot dog stand even though it is located next to security check-in and a steady flow of passenger traffic. "We made a mistake," Mr. Dorfman said.
To fix it, Host put a Dunkin' Donut display in the Nathan's booth to draw in customers. And when visitors were no longer permitted to meet their passengers at the airline gates, Nathan's benefited from the people who would linger outside its doors awaiting travelers.
As a result, sales have risen to $650 a day from about $300 a day before the gulf war, though Host is still deciding the fate of Nathan's.
In the future, Host will seek to balance national brands with regional products that are well-known to a given audience, Mr. Dorfman said.