Reno-Tahoe Int'l Delights Passengers with Random Acts of Kindness

Kristin Vanderhey Shaw
Published in: 

Spotted recently at Reno-Tahoe International Airport (RNO): Business travelers breaking out in ear-to-ear grins and casual fliers chuckling in a combination of disbelief and delight. The cause? Simple acts of kindness such as a free bottle of water, an unexpected compliment or proactive offers of help from airport authority employees. 

Flurries of heartwarming scenes occur throughout RNO's terminal at least once a month thanks to its Kindness Takes Flight program. Volunteer employees perform random acts of kindness for passengers while on break from their usual positions as airport planners, communications dispatchers, human resource personnel, etc. Collectively known as the "Kindness Team," about 30 staffers work to increase happiness among the airport's 3.5 million annual visitors and encourage them to spread good will to others. 

What started as a social media strategy in late 2013 eventually grew into a full-fledged feel-good project. During its first full year of operation, the program reached in excess of 1 million people, generated hundreds of hours of positive news coverage and more than doubled the airport's Facebook following. 

The program evolved as the Marketing Department developed an umbrella social media strategy to support the airport's strategic five-year plan. "In the process, we created the kindness program to connect with our passengers on a personal level," explains RNO Marketing Manager Rebecca Venis. 

Brian Kulpin, vice president of marketing and public affairs at the airport, describes the results as effective blend of good old-fashioned customer service and high-tech social media. 

Program: Kindness Takes Flight
Location: Reno-Tahoe (NV) Int'l Airport
Format: Volunteer staffers perform random acts of kindness for customers & encourage them to act kindly toward someone else
Example Acts: Free drinks & snacks; proactive offers of help; small toys for children; compliments 
Direct Costs: $1,000/year for giveaway items
2014 Social Media Reach: 1.18 million
New Facebook Followers: 4,400 (117% growth)
New Twitter Followers: 1,950 (92% growth)
Increase of Customer Interactions: More than 1,000%
Survey Results: Customers rate service 6.38 out of possible 7 
Media Exposure Generated: 450+ hours of positive TV news coverage 
Local Concessions Participant: Tahoe Trail Bar

Let the Good Times Roll

RNO launched Kindness Takes Flight on "Black Wednesday" of the busy Thanksgiving travel weekend, with volunteers working shifts all day long. At the same time, it also debuted Paws 4 Passengers, a program that brings volunteer therapy dogs to the concourses to comfort nervous fliers. Premiering the programs in tandem was the airport's way of adding unexpected joy to what is often an extra crowded, stressful travel day, notes Venis. 
Since then, the airport has staged one or two primary kindness events each month, with extras during holidays and special events. Sometimes, the Kindness Team sets up gateside "treat stations" with complimentary drinks and snacks for arriving and departing passengers. Other times, members roam the concourses, surprising unsuspecting travelers with free candy and children's toys. On National Compliment day (Jan. 24), RNO volunteers set up a themed booth and issued kind words to airport visitors.    

Whatever form the kind gesture takes, team members ask recipients to "pay it forward" by performing an act of kindness for someone else. They also hand out small cards, complete with a specific Twitter hashtag, that encourage airport visitors to share their experiences online.

"The reactions were priceless," reports Heidi Jared, RNO manager of public affairs and customer service. "At first, the most common reaction was disbelief. But when we explained, a smile would spread across their face and they would thank us."

One woman actually welled up in tears up when a member of the Kindness Team engaged her. The passenger was coming from a rough weekend in Lake Tahoe, where her 16-year-old daughter dislocated a knee during the practice run of a ski competition. "The simple act of buying that mom lunch was just the kind of small act of kindness that suddenly gave her a little hope that things would be looking up," Jared relates. 

Marketing personnel posted many of the stories on the airport's Twitter page (#KindnessTakesFlight and #RAKWeek2015), in hopes of getting other organizations to join their campaign of making air travel a friendlier and happier experience. "The small goal was to create content people would share," Venis explains. "But we (also) wanted to have a hashtag that would spread ... maybe even bring back feelings of nostalgia."

While staff members knew that gauging public reaction was important, it wasn't their primary measure of success for the program. "It's not about the (number of) followers, but about interaction," Venis emphasizes. "We wanted to create sharable content. Often, passengers share moments of frustration; but they also sometimes share moments of joy. We wanted to help provide moments of joy that passengers would want to share. We created the program to make the connection with our passengers on a personal level." 

The idea for Kindness Takes Flight was sparked in part by viral videos of employees at JetBlue, KLM and other airlines performing acts of kindness for passengers. "Many airports had already put a strategic plan in place for social media, but most of them hadn't developed a strategy for content and platform, at the time," recalls Venis.

RNO's kindness program developed as the Marketing Department refined the details of its broader social media strategy. "Once we realized our objectives, we focused on which channels we would use, our social personality, and how we could measure our success," she elaborates.

ROI on Kindness

According to Venis, the first year of the program cost about $1,000 for giveaway items and reached 1.18 million social media users - shaking out to about 85 cents per 1,000 impressions. 

"If I took that $1,000 and purchased an ad, I can't convince people we are a friendly airport," she notes. "With social media, it's friends telling friends and family, and the credibility is high."

RNO Chief Executive Officer Marily Mora appreciates the results delivered by the low-cost program. "In challenging economic times, many airports aren't able to invest as much in customer service as they would like," explains Mora, noting that RNO decreased in-terminal staffing levels and eliminated its passenger aid program in 2010 due to budget cuts. "This program (Kindness Takes Flight) costs very little, and it's a great morale boost for our customers and staff."
As vice president of marketing and public affairs for the airport, Kulpin highlights Mora's role when reviewing the program's success. "It's so nice to have a CEO who gives us the freedom to do this - one who understands social media, too. She could see what we were trying to do, and that makes it easier," he remarks. "We're all about our passengers; and our employees have the opportunity to never lose touch, no matter what department they're in."

Game Plan for Action

With visible executive-level support, the Marketing Department had no difficulty encouraging participation from various areas of the airports. 

"Some (volunteers) would normally not be out on the floor with customers, and it helps them see the big picture about what we do," Mora comments. "This program really distinguishes us and sets us apart as a welcoming community and shows off our personality in the process."

RNO's Kindness Team meets quarterly, coordinating with airlines to schedule its blitzes of activity during peak flight times. Members are also occasionally rallied at the spur of the moment to provide extra customer service during flight delays or cancellations. 

Marketing Coordinator Janelle Mack has seen the positive results first hand: "Even just in terms of wayfinding, passengers really appreciate the help. We hand out trail mix, granola bars ... whatever we can. We all know delays can be frustrating."

Beyond its measurable results in customer service and marketing, the program also provides benefits to airport employees and even vendors. Some staff members enjoy providing kindness as much as the passengers enjoy receiving it, notes Mora. One team member thanked the top exec for the opportunity to "spread smiles" and the events are known to spread a happy, positive feeling throughout the entire Administrative Office.
One of the airport's local concession vendors, Tahoe Trail Bar, got involved by distributing free coffee, smiles and more than 700 of its snack bars to passengers. Promoting its products in the airport rather than at sports events such as 5K races or paddleboard events allowed the company to connect with a new type of potential customer.

"At the airport, we saw a much less standardized consumer across the American demographic," explains Wes King, the company's chief executive. "We had an awesome chance to see what the average person enjoyed about our bar, and the response was overwhelmingly positive."

Like the members of RNO's Kindness Team, King enjoyed the process. "The best takeaway for me is getting to do something purely for the sake of kindness. It's amazing how good that makes you feel," he reflects. "To see the smile on someone's face when you hand them coffee and a trail bar is wonderful. Often, when you go to events all day [to promote a product], it's taxing. In this case, I came away feeling more energized and excited about what I do."
Jared, who manages the airport's public affairs and customer service, feels similarly: "While a little good PR is always nice, we genuinely did it to enhance the travel experience for our passengers any way possible."

The marketing benefits, however, speak for themselves. With RNO's social media followers up 80% since Kindness Takes Flight launched, people on Twitter and Facebook are clearly "talking" about the airport - in a good way.  
"Social media is always changing, and it's such a pay-to-play environment," Venis notes. "Generating interaction and sharing is becoming so important; and every day, they change the algorithm. It's a constant challenge, and it's becoming harder and harder. The key for us is that we wanted the growth and followers and we wanted the interactions." 

Jared sums it up in one sentiment: "Kindness is not an algorithm that changes." 


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