Creating paw-some experiences at San Antonio International Airport

Erin Rodriguez, Senior Public Information Officer at San Antonio International Airport outlines the airport’s “Summer of Fun” and creative passenger experience initiatives that run throughout the year.

Imagine you’ve just landed, or you’re headed to your gate – and suddenly, you see a sloth. Or a snake, parrot, an alligator or even an opossum. At San Antonio International Airport (SAT), “Summer of Fun” events are all part of the airport’s popular tradition to give travellers unique and lasting memories they can take with them.

SAT (which sees an average of 10 million passengers each year) partners with local organisations, groups and companies to plan a variety of activities. The events are usually scheduled about once a month on Fridays during the summer. The customer-focused initiative has drawn lots of media coverage and more importantly, a resounding approval from travellers.

“We want people to feel at home when they come to SAT,” said Jesus Saenz, Director of Airports, San Antonio Airport System (SAAS). “San Antonio is a warm, welcoming and charming city. When they arrive at SAT, it’s their first taste of that hospitality that we’re known for and so proud of.”

The summer programme at SAT is always evolving and improving from year to year based on input from employees and travellers.

“Whether it’s a fun and unexpected animal encounter or free face painting or having a caricature artist or balloon twister come – people love our Summer of Fun events,” said Karen Ellis, Chief of Customer Experience, SAAS. “The wild animals are always a big hit. To see someone with their suitcase – getting to see something they weren’t expecting at our airport… It’s such a wonderful thing for everyone to experience.”

Theresa Wilson, who travels often to San Antonio from Tennessee for business, shared a sloth selfie on Facebook last August. “This is a fun way to end a work trip,” she said. “I hope the airport keeps doing this.”

SAT has continued the tradition – most recently bringing back several rescued animals being cared for by Zoomagination, a non-profit organisation in the San Antonio area that works to educate the public through animal interactions.

“To be able to bring the animals to the airport is exciting for us,” said Robert Trejo, co-founder of Zoomagination. “It’s a fantastic opportunity for so many people to meet the animals and learn about them up close.”

SAAS Public Relations Manager, Tonya Hope, said the goal is to spread some happiness.

“We constantly hear, ‘This is so cool! I’ve never seen a sloth in person before,’” Hope said. “Or: ‘This is the first time I’ve touched a snake.’ The feedback is so positive. We want people to remember their time at SAT, take lots of pictures of their experiences and share their stories with others.”

Airport Ambassadors

SAT is also known for a special group of volunteers who lead the way in first impressions. The Airport Ambassadors, who can’t be missed with denim vests and cowboy hats, are always on hand to provide courteous and useful assistance and a warm welcome to visitors of the airport.

“They are reflective of the airport and our friendly community,” Saenz said. “Our Ambassadors are authentic. They really care about everyone they help. They go out of their way to elevate the travel experience by greeting passengers, helping with special events, helping take pictures, recommending restaurants and hotels – the list goes on and on. They treat our travellers like family.”

SAT’s Airport Ambassador programme began in 2000. People as young as 14 years old all the way into their 90s make up the more than 140 Ambassadors who helped 330,400 travellers find their way in 2021. Collectively that same year, they put in 21,854 hours of volunteer time.

Airport Ambassadors are appreciated and recognised with a yearly awards luncheon, prizes, concession discounts and free parking.

Pups & Planes

Another customer-driven programme at SAT called Pups & Planes also draws in an audience of all ages. The programme – one of a few of its kind in the country and the first in Texas – started 10 years ago to bring therapy dogs to the airport to help create a calming environment. The goal is to make travellers feel at ease as they navigate through the terminals.

“We have about a dozen dogs who come with their owners to provide that special comfort and peace that all of us can use,” said David Paredes, Special Activities Coordinator, SAAS.

Each dog has their own trading card with a headshot and information about them such as their favourite pastimes. Perhaps the most popular pup, known as “Happy Happy Hazel,” has her own social media following and celebrity status. The six year-old French Bulldog is a trained and certified Care Team dog who participates in pet parades, visits hospitals, works on the Crisis Animal Response Team, helps out at the Children’s Bereavement Centre of South Texas and was named Pet Partners Pet of the Year in 2022.

In July, Hazel and her handler, Sara Morgan, participated in SAT’s Summer of Fun event appropriately called “Dog Days of Summer.” Hazel and her furry friend, Floki, wore their blue bandanas promoting Pups & Planes as passengers stopped by to meet and pet them.

“Hazel loves meeting people,” Morgan said. “She has an incredible impact because of her personality – she’s so nurturing and sweet.”

Christmas in July

Each July, a pop-up event celebrates Christmas six months early. Travellers are taken aback by hearing holiday music in the terminals, seeing Christmas trees in the Baggage Claim and learning that they might win a Golden Ticket. “A lot of love goes into Christmas in July,” Ellis said. “Last year we gave away a $100 ticket voucher for Southwest Airlines to a random traveller. She was so ecstatic to win something.”

Gift bags with airport swag (such as sunglasses, a beach ball and BBQ sauce and a cooling towel) are put onto the Baggage Claim as travellers’ luggage comes out on the baggage carousels. One of them contains a Golden Ticket – and everyone is eager to see whose bag has it. Last year’s lucky winner said she would use her voucher to take a trip to Mexico.

Everyone is treated to Christmas cookies and photo opportunities with Santa Claus and Mrs. Claus.

“It’s just another fun way to show that we love our customers,” Ellis said. “Everyone gets into it. Our employees wear their best holiday attire and it’s so festive. Good surprises in life are everything.”

Helping people with special needs

SAT’s Customer Experience team also gives tours to people with special needs who want to learn about airport operations. Employees work with various airlines and the Transportation Security Administration (TSA) to show people how to get their boarding pass, move through the security checkpoint and find their gate.

“We’re so proud of these tours and the chance to alleviate any possible fears people may have,” David Paredes, Special Activities Coordinator said. “SAT is also a proud partner of the Hidden Disabilities Sunflower Lanyard Programme. It assists travellers of all ages to self-identify in a discreet manner (by wearing a free lanyard) to let others know they may require additional support – such as assistance from employees, extra time at check-in or security, escorting to gates or help with reading signage or other airport procedures – while passing through SAT and many other participating airports across the world.”

Erin Rodriguez graduated from the University of Florida with a degree in Telecommunication News in 1998. She worked as a TV Producer in several newsrooms across Florida and most recently as the multi-platform (digital/TV) producer at KENS 5 in San Antonio. She joined SAAS (which includes SAT and Stinson Municipal Airport, the second oldest continually operating general aviation airport in the U.S.) as the Senior Public Information Officer in April 2022.

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