What Associations Can Learn from America's No. 1 Airport

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As originally seen in Associations Now


A people-first strategy is more important now than ever.

As cities reopen and in-person events begin again, attendees are anxiously wondering when it will be safe to resume travel—and what it will look like when they do. In the future, travelers will be looking for reassuring cues that environments they visit prioritize their safety and wellbeing.

Organizations that emphasize extraordinary attention to weary travelers’ needs will win their business. And that doesn’t just mean prominently displaying the latest UV cleaners or air filters: It means putting people’s comfort first in a holistic way. And it’s a strategy that drives results.

Led by this philosophy, Indianapolis International Airport consistently earns Conde Nast Traveler’s recognition as America’s No. 1 airport. Here’s what associations can learn from the airport’s approach, both during the pandemic and into a transformed future.


1. Focus on the fundamentals, but embrace experimentation.

While much is being made about new and high-tech gimmicks, these potentially budget-busting and minimally tested products are not required to create a safe environment—and they might even be a distraction if they replace, instead of augment, the fundamentals.

Instead, Indianapolis International maintains its current focus on time-tested and science-backed technologies proven to work. “Very high-grade disinfectants work just as well as newer and unproven technologies”, explains Mario Rodriguez, executive director of the Indianapolis Airport Authority. And they have had decades of refinement. He notes that the airport is “hospital-grade clean.”

“We continue to make improvements for the customers and maintain our facilities, but we’re also testing new products,” he says. “Right now, the penalty for failure is low.”

For example, consider the airport’s approach to valet parking. With travelers now leery of the idea of other people in their cars, Indy has created a modified station, where travelers self park, hand the keys to the valet, and pick up a selection of breakfast items on the go.

He suggests businesses subscribe to dual philosophies for success under pressure: Stick to the basics, but “never waste a good emergency to make meaningful change.”


2. Know your indispensable attributes - and promote them.

Certainly, these are difficult times across the travel, hospitality, and events sectors. “But unless Elon Musk figures out a way to beam us across the world,” Rodriguez suggests, these related industries have a robust future. “It’s the underpinning of our economy.”

Indianapolis, specifically, is a central hub for travel and events, with more than 2 million people in the metropolitan area. It’s also the biggest airport in the state. “It’s vibrant,” he says. “It has Eli Lilly, one of the largest pharmaceutical firms on the planet. It has GE, Rolls Royce, Roche Diagnostics. Indy is the capital of the race world with the Indy 500. It has Fortune 500 companies and manufacturing. And they’re still there.”

The region is very accessible by car. “Indy is within a day’s drive of more than half of the nation’s population, making it one of America’s most drivable cities,” noted Rodriguez who also expects that people who can drive in will continue to do so—but not just because of the pandemic. “COVID did not kill the short hop,” he says. “9-11 killed the short hop. If you’re within driving distance of Indiana, you’re going to drive instead of flying.” But Indy remains a draw for its unique attributes and offerings.


3. Create the expectation of hospitality - and fulfill it. 

Many travelers have come to expect little from an airport experience except for long lines and overpriced concessions. But when you can exceed the expectations of your attendees or other constituents, you can stand out from the pack no matter your business.

“Not only do we have superior customer service that focuses directly on them and their needs, we also want to make sure that they feel like every customer feels like they got value at the airport,” Rodriguez explains. Prices are kept low, and extras are everywhere: free water bottles can even be picked up in the parking garage.

That may sound over the top by typical domestic airport standards, but Rodriguez explains, “Think about it logically: We reside in the public sector. The only way we are able to transfer value to the actual owners of the airport is through public value.”

The takeaway for association executives? Understand how you can wow your stakeholders and build a culture of kindness when people are feeling vulnerable and will be most inclined to acknowledge and appreciate those attentive gestures.


4. Embrace change with optimism. 

Rodriguez rejects the overused phrase “new normal,” preferring to view this period as “transformative normal.” That is to say, it’s a time for hospitality businesses to take stock and make improvements, even using this time to experiment and grow. But it’s not a time to panic.

“COVID sped up the evolution of all our industries, and we are evolving during this transformation,” he says. “But there’s going to be light at the end of the tunnel, no matter how long you believe that tunnel is.” In order to make travelers and attendees feel comfortable venturing out again, “Everybody’s got to get together,” Rodriguez says of the travel and hospitality industries.

And what should be the sector’s guiding philosophy? “People are first,” he says. “How well can we treat our customers? How well can we treat our people? It’s never a financial equation. It’s always a human equation.”

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