There’s nothing quite like stepping off a plane and arriving in a new city. But it can be daunting as well, with the bustling crowds and seas of luggage.
Luckily, airports across the U.S. have a friendly face waiting to help.
Airport ambassadors, stationed at airports across the country, are volunteers who meet and greet passengers, assist travelers with special needs, direct new arrivals in the right direction and so much more.
Pittsburgh International Airport has about 80 ambassadors, including 26 therapy dogs who roam the terminals as part of the airport’s PIT Paws program.
While Pittsburgh natives might know the city backwards and forwards, navigating the city’s dozens of four-lane bridges and finding hidden gems between the three rivers is no easy feat for newcomers.
That’s where the ambassadors come in. They have to be ready to answer any questions that come up and help travelers make the most of their time in the Steel City. To help the ambassadors stay current, the airport hosts an immersive event for them each year: an invitation to leave the airport campus and explore the city.
“Our volunteers not only represent our airport but also our beautiful city of Pittsburgh,” said Elise Gomez, PIT’s manager of Customer Experience. “These types of immersive experiences give them the opportunity to learn more about our city and in turn gives them information and confidence to share with our travelers.”
This year, 45 PIT ambassadors embarked on a sightseeing tour aboard the Gateway Clipper, an iconic Pittsburgh cruise ship. Most of the ambassadors opted for the top deck of the boat, giving them the best views of the city.
Tammy Jacques and Marty Luzer were two of the 45 who joined the cruise. It was the first ambassador outing they’d been on, despite volunteering at the airport for nearly five years. The two ambassadors enjoyed spending their afternoon next to the city skyline.
“I made it work this time,” Jacques said. “I was waiting for this. This was so fantastic.”
During the cruise, the ship’s host highlighted some of the most famous Pittsburgh landmarks and shared fun facts about the city.
Coast to coast
PIT isn’t the only airport to offer immersive experiences for its volunteers. Down the east coast in Florida, St. Pete-Clearwater Airport (PIE) tries to offer at least one immersive ambassador event per year.
Michele Routh, public relations director at PIE, helps organize these events each year. PIE has about 20 ambassadors, many of whom have volunteered at the airport for seven or eight years. Routh calls them the “icing on the cake – the extra special part” of the airport.
At PIE, the immersive ambassador events not only celebrate the volunteers for the hard work they do at the airport but also build relationships with local establishments.
Last year, PIE ambassadors took an all-day tour around their community. They saw local museums and historic locations, and, being on the east coast of Florida, Routh brought the ambassadors on a Clearwater beach trip.
Routh welcomes feedback from her ambassadors and considers their suggestions when planning the outings.
On the West Coast, 100 volunteers at San Josè Mineta Airport (SJC) are invited to watch a Sharks hockey game from a private suite. Lauren Deshpande, SJC’s volunteer coordinator, holds these events to thank her ambassadors for the hard work they do. She considers the volunteers at her airport “invaluable.”
“They just have that patience and that empathy for their fellow travelers,” Deshpande said. “A lot of the people I hire are ones that have traveled themselves who know what it’s like to be in a situation where they don’t have all the answers and need some help.”
Manager of Volunteer Outreach Initiatives Ella Ghica at Houston Airports (HAS) tries to involve her ambassadors in local city events, too. In the past, she’s brought them to a local Houston ranch and held lunch-ins at restaurants in the city.
“The ambassadors represent us to our guests,” Ghica said. “It’s important for them to be in the know with what’s happening in the city and to know that they are valued by the city and by us.”
All the volunteer coordinators said their ambassadors always express their gratitude after attending immersive experiences.
“Even if this [event] wasn’t done, I’d still be out at the airport,” PIT ambassador Luzer said. “This is just cream on the top.”