How Rick McQueen and Kristie VanAuken use ChapStick, T-shirts and tweets to grow a loyal customer following for Akron-Canton Airport

Rick McQueen, president and CEO, Akron-Canton Airport

For 28 years, the late Fred Krum developed the vision for Akron-Canton Airport (CAK), a vision that changed the relationship between the airport and its customers. It involved low fares and complimentary Wi-Fi and massage chairs for passengers. It called for $250 million to modernize airport facilities. The vision was to create “a better way to go” for airline passengers.

Krum cast the vision, and now Rick McQueen is carrying it forward.

Kristie VanAuken, senior vice president and chief marketing & communications officer, Akron-Canton Airport

“Every decision we make, we think about how it impacts our customers, and we make sure that that continues to be a positive impact,” says McQueen, who became president and CEO after Krum retired in 2008. “We want to be a good partner for this region and we want to give back.”

First-time visitors may be surprised at the effort a regional airport would put into delighting its customers — for example, furnishing new guests with gift bags upon arrival, filled with handy items such as ChapStick, Purell and a personal note from McQueen — or offering complimentary Cinnabon coupons on customer appreciation days and free shirts on “T-shirt Tuesdays.”

CAK has also made strides to improve travel experiences, from retrofitting its website with innovative, interactive content to leading the industry in its hands-on social media strategies and partnerships with low-fare carriers.

“We do not want for our customers to feel like there are bricks and mortar between us — that there’s pavement between us — but that we are all doing the same to serve this community, to get them where they need to go, on time, at a price that they can afford,” says Kristie VanAuken, senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer for CAK.

This philosophy has paid dividends and not just for the airport. In addition to breaking passenger records for 12 out of the last 15 years, CAK has gradually grown its annual economic impact in Northeast Ohio to about $400 million and 2,250 jobs. Smart Business spoke with McQueen and VanAuken about how CAK continues to refine the vision of “a better way to go” through innovation around the customer experience.

Q. How do new technologies such as digital and social media complement the airport’s vision?

◗ KV: There are a couple of reasons why it really makes sense for us, one being because of the broad adoption. Two, because it’s extremely transparent, and we are a very transparent organization by choice and by orientation as being a government agency. And because it’s really cool to be in conversation with our customers and to learn from them what they want and what they like.

The website was very much a product of what we’ve done on the social media front, and then it was figuring out how do we integrate our strong brand voice — this ‘better way to go’ theory’ — which really has deep meaning for all of us here.

◗ RM: This also goes back to our low-fare commitment. What’s the first thing that you are looking for when you go online to look for an airline ticket — lowest price, right? So if our carriers have the lowest price, and it’s so easy now to go online and check all these different fares, it helps us to have that position where people recognize us.

Q. What were the challenges of building a presence on these new platforms?

◗ KV: You don’t deliver content on social media the same way you do on the website or in the same way you do in a TV ad, but they all have to make sense together. I often go back to this analogy of a rock band. So it’s not everybody strumming the same instrument and the same tune at the same time, but every instrument has to play its part. And it all has to come together to make beautiful music.

Last year, we spent a lot of time thinking about the integration of our brand voice, how the public relations effort really needs to be in concert with everything — stakeholders, airline relations and all of the ways we communicate the things that matter to the community. It needed to have that familiar voice of the airport, that warm, transparent, authentic voice.

Q. You have such a strong brand focus. How does it translate into your new media strategies?

◗ KV: It’s not a top-down strategy. The great thing about social media is that it’s all about the customers themselves. We get to go to their space. Social media is all about what matters to them. It’s their space and we are often welcomed into that, and that is a privilege.

We’re honored every time someone even posts something to our wall. Because the way we look at it is, ‘Look, that customer could do anything with those 30 seconds, but they chose to spend those 30 seconds posting something to our wall. It was the most important thing at that moment to them.’ In our minds, that kind of commitment deserves a swift response and deserves our friendly and compassionate answer to whatever it is that they’re going through.

Q. So how does the airport respond to this feedback?

◗ KV: There are two people on my staff, including myself part-time, who monitor and listen every day to what’s going on in the social media realm. But we’re not trying to supplant our current infrastructure for customer service. We have a customer service manager. If something comes up that needs individualized attention, we bring him in. He’s very skilled at quickly responding to customer needs, working on behalf of a customer who needs to interface with an airline or a car rental company.

Another way to look at it is what do our customers really care about? They tell us all the time, and we respond to that. They want free Wi-Fi. Great, they get it. They really respond to our sparkling clean facilities. They want clean bathrooms. … So we listen. We’re looking at all times for something that we can improve. We’re also listening for areas that maybe we should pay more attention to.

Q. What does it take to stay so responsive?

◗ RM: It’s another level of dedication that most people don’t realize.

I use the analogy of a house of cards shaped in a pyramid. I’m sitting at the top of the pyramid just because of who I am, but if I don’t do my job, the house of cards will fall. If our custodians and our building maintenance folks and our operations people, middle management folks don’t do theirs, imagine if you just take one card out. What happens is the house of cards falls as well. So we all have to work together.

◗ KV: There are a lot of different ways that we’re trying to use the technology to try to engage people where they are. There’s a lot of give and take. We try to send information out that they would find valuable. But we also like to bring in our people and our family orientation here.

Q. Is it just the marketing team that’s involved?

◗ KV: We’ve got five in-house bloggers. We feel like there are a lot of viewpoints on the airfield that are interesting, maybe some behind-the-scenes looks that you simply don’t get from the marketing people. I can’t give you the inside track on some cool thing that’s happening on our operations side or even go out there and talk about construction of our new runway because it’s just not in my DNA like it is theirs. Of course, Rick does his ‘Prez says’ once a month, and that’s an open forum for our customers to ask the top dog here any question that they want.

Q. Ever have any really tough questions?

◗ RM: We’ll have somewhere between 20 to 25 questions each month, and quite frankly, the hardest questions to answer are the ones such as, ‘What’s your favorite airplane?’ Well, that’s hard because I like them all! If it’s just about the operation of the airport — I’ve been here for almost 30 years — those are actually easy for me to answer. But it is great to hear what people have to say, and on occasion, they have suggestions on how we can improve our service, and we’re always interested to hear them. A lot of times, they have new destinations that they’d like to see because they travel there all the time with their families.

Q. How do you reinforce the vision for employees?

◗ RM: Part of our strategy has always included people or other employees here in the facilities that don’t necessarily even work for us — for instance, the courtesy van drivers. We contract the parking lot out. Those folks don’t directly report to us. But they have to buy in to the idea that we need to be ‘a better way to go’ and that we need to take good care of our customers.

Even the Transportation Security Administration go down and talk to all of their new employees about how we want them to interact with our customers, that our niche as a marketplace is very customer-driven, and we really do live and die by our tagline.

We give away ‘Better Way to Go’ awards on a monthly basis. If someone has gone above and beyond the call of duty, whether they’re our employees or an airline employee or a car rental employee, whoever — we give them an award. They come up, and I get to talk to them for a few minutes, thank them personally. We give them a little tchotchke, which is an airport bag or a watch or something of that nature. So we try to reach out and develop the culture that will permeate the place and keep the message front and center — that we need to be a better way to go and that customer service has to be a priority.

Q. What can other leaders do to make their company more customer-centric?

◗ RM: You have to make your employees part of the solution and empower them to make decisions and to do things, to buy in and take ownership. I also think it’s key for them to look around their industry and not be afraid to take other people’s ideas and make them your own.

[That applies to] a lot of the customer amenities that people really like here, for instance, a cell phone lot where you can come in, and as long as you stay with your vehicle, you don’t have to go into the paid parking lot. With the advent of the cell phone, people call you and say, ‘Hey, I just got off the airplane … can you swing around and pick me up?’ Our customer service manager saw that at another airport, but we thought it was such as really good idea we incorporated it into our culture as well.

Q. With the recession, ticket price remains a major factor for airline passengers. Will you be able to keep offering low fares?

◗ RM: It’s interesting because, of course, we don’t set the airfares here — the airlines do. But how we can influence those fares is by the mix of air carriers we have here.

We developed that relationship when AirTran came in 1997, and we’ve been able to keep that leadership as we’ve moved forward. In fact, we just did a study and it shows that currently because of AirTran and now Frontier Airlines, the people in Northeast Ohio are saving about $90 million a year in air travel, because of these low fares.

Q. You also have a new partnership with Southwest Airlines, correct?

◗ KV: It’s very exciting for us to start thinking about our partnership with Southwest Airlines. They have committed to staying at CAK and growing here. It’s such important news for this community because it means that we can continue to offer low fares.

On the communications side specifically, we’re going to look at other media that are out there. We’re currently experimenting in Google+. We’re looking with great interest at Pinterest. (The company has since started a Pinterest account). We’re already on Foursquare. We’ll keep looking at the ways our customers want to be in a relationship with us.

◗ RM: We’re in the midst of the master plan right now, which is one of the things that the Federal Aviation Administration asks us to do anyway — but it couldn’t be coming at a better time for us, coming off of record passenger years — one of the key things for me I learned a long time ago from Fred — and that is to always keep abreast of what’s going on out there because we need to be positioned to take advantage of whatever opportunity comes our way. And we don’t know what those opportunities are. <<

How to reach: Akron-Canton Airport, (888) 434 2359 or www.akroncantonairport.com

The CAK Files

Rick McQueen
President and CEO
Akron-Canton Airport

Kristie VanAuken
Senior vice president and chief marketing and communications officer
Akron-Canton Airport

Rick, born: North Canton, Ohio

Kristie, born: Lansing, Mich.

Rick, education: Walsh University

Kristie, education: Austin College (BA), then Western Michigan University (MPA)

What are some things CAK does to make airline travel more fun for people?

Kristie: We had a wonderful customer appreciation day on Valentine’s Day this year. What we wanted to do is delight and excite them, give them that ‘wow’ experience. But on Customer Appreciation Day, it was for everyone who was in the building. It was our opportunity to say thanks for being our customer … so we just wanted to treat them right. We had cupcakes and we had flowers and cookies and free coffee and Cinnabon treats. We also partnered with Delta Airlines and for its first flight of the day we had customized gift bags for every customer that had a bag coming out on our bag belt. So the first thing that the customers saw were gifts for them, individually named, and it was so cool to be down there and see the delight on their faces as they’re searching for their bags and snapping photos. It just created happiness.

Rick: Another thing we’ve been doing is on our website in order to encourage more participation is free T-shirt Tuesdays. You’d be surprised at how many people I see who say, ‘Hey, I keep entering but when am I going to win a T-shirt?’ It’s amazing what people will do for a T-shirt. But once again it’s fun, and it gives them a chance to feel like they are part of what we’re doing.

Kristie: We’ve given away about 400 T-shirts.