Seminar aims to clear fears about opening shops at McCarran

If Carlos Batiste has gauged the market correctly, many people would like to pick up a bag of jerk chicken-flavored popcorn on their way through McCarran International Airport.

Or maybe some German chocolate popcorn. Or something sprinkled with Asian spices.

The first step for carrying out his business plan was to attend a March 26 workshop, along with about 80 others, that McCarran management staged. The session aimed to clear away some of the mystery and tame some of the intimidation of landing a retail store in a terminal.

Batiste, who has run several businesses, now owns Jimmy’s Louisiana Market Deli on Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard. For years, it has been a haven for people craving boudin, red beans and rice or a box of jambalaya mix.

Because McCarran is not a hub where travelers will sit and eat while killing a couple of hours between flights, and because it’s far from Cajun country, he does not think opening a second branch of Jimmy’s would work. Jimmy’s sells a lot of retail fish, which would not go well with airlines.

However, he thinks popcorn would be a hit for people, not only on flights but on rides to the Strip. Because flavored popcorn is nothing new, he thinks stocking international flavors would translate into airport sales.

Airport officials want to stimulate interest in the 15 spots of specialty retail shops due to open over the next three years — the category essentially spans everything except news and gift and nonpackaged foods. But they want to ensure business owners don’t expect quick and easy profits.

Compared with a typical strip mall location, said Scott Kichline, McCarran’s manager of commercial and business development, rents are higher, costs are higher and logistics are more cumbersome. Even counter employees must go through a 10-year background check and get fingerprinted; contractors and subcontractors also need security clearances.

While more than 40 million people depart from or arrive at McCarran each year, which concourses they use can shift dramatically because of airline mergers and bankruptcies. US Airways may soon move to Concourse D to be next to merger partner American, leaving Concourse A empty.

Not everyone, even the big players, get it right. Airport managers said Brooks Brothers sales jumped only after the company followed the suggestion of putting its casual clothes in front of the store instead of the traditional business suits and button-down shirts, in keeping with the tourist mindset.

And then there is the paperwork. Each store opening comes with a book-sized request for proposals, including 25 questions requiring far more detailed concept explanations and financial background than the typical strip mall. A review panel will grade each proposal, weighing factors such as misspelling McCarran, before sending it to the Clark County Board of Commissioners for final approval.

Having dealt with government bodies previously, “I am familiar with the process,” Batiste said. “But I know a lot of people are afraid of paperwork and the financial process. To me, it is worth it.”

Despite the airport environment’s potential pitfalls, which he concedes “can be a little scary,” he sees a “consistent, almost captive market” that hit 42 million people in 2012 as the overriding positive factor.

He has already drafted a list of questions for McCarran managers to ensure he fully understands the business environment.

Lou Collins, who also attended the workshop, has experience as a commercial chef. He dreams of translating that into a grab-and-go food outlet for people wanting something to eat on a foodless flight.

“The best way to do business at McCarran is to kiss up to somebody who already does business at McCarran,” Kichline said.

• • •

Why didn’t Las Vegas think of this first?

The South’s leading party town, New Orleans, has starting rolling out soft drink dispensers in some of its taxis. New Orleans Carriage Cab and Yellow-Checker Cab will equip about 250 of its cabs with small units that will hold 36 cans each. Promoters say the concept took about four years to develop.

Then again, maybe Las Vegas is holding out to be the first city with cabs that are granted liquor licenses.

• • •

In one ray of hope for the visitor industry, the International Air Transport Association said that worldwide passenger traffic growth continued to gain momentum in February, up 3.7 percent year over year as business confidence improved. But many of the gains came from regions outside North America.

In the U.S. domestic market, passenger counts dropped 0.6 percent compared with February 2012, very similar to the recent numbers coming out of McCarran. However, the association said that the trend lines have improved in recent months.

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