By Margarita Abramova
Where do I go to rent a car? What's the best way for me to get to the beach? Are there any hotels close to Busch Gardens?
These are the types of questions passengers pose to Volunteer Ambassadors who staff Tampa International Airport's Visitor Information Centers.
The program reached a milestone in February, when volunteers assisted the 100,000th passenger and tallied 112,000 questions answered.
TPA created the program in partnership with the St. Petersburg/Clearwater Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and Tampa Bay & Company to provide assistance to passengers in the baggage claim area.
"When arriving passengers come in, volunteers welcome them and give them helpful information," said Brenda Geoghagan, TPA director of guest services.
The volunteer program started in July and currently has 131 active volunteers doing four and a half hour shifts at least once a week. The volunteers staff four Visitor Information Centers at baggage claim, with two on the red side and two on the blue side.
They answer questions on local hotels, restaurants, tourist attractions, flight/airline information, baggage and shuttle services, but passengers most often ask about ground transportation.
"Well over half of all questions involve ground transportation," said Scott Erickson, who oversees the Volunteer Ambassador Program. "And of those, it's pretty much split between various shuttle services and rental cars."
Other frequently asked questions relate to flights, baggage, and hotels.
Carl and Chris Hinchey volunteer at a Visitor Information Center together every Thursday morning. Chris said the prospect of volunteering at TPA "sounded kind of exciting."
Carl and his wife lived in Sicily, Italy for a few years when Carl worked for the U.S. government. From Sicily they often traveled to Rome, Germany and many other European destinations with little knowledge of Italian. Carl said they usually wandered and relied on the kindness of the locals to assist them.
"So when we had people come through TPA and do not speak our language really well, we kind of empathize with them because we've had the same experience," he said.
Carl said out of all the organizations where he and his wife volunteers, he finds his time at TPA to be most interesting.
"We get to help people out," he said. "We get to brighten their day. We bring candy."
Carl said many passengers walk past their kiosk but catch the candy out of the corner of their eyes. Sometimes they come back just for the candy, and an interaction begins.
"It puts a smile on their face," Chris said. "You get people who are tired from traveling, and that little candy bar gives them a little boost."
Gretchen and Jack Fiery are another couple who volunteer every Tuesday morning because they find it "rewarding to help people." Jack loves planes and flew helicopters during his 30-year career in the Navy, so both of them decided to volunteer at TPA after they retired last year.
Gretchen recalled a recent incident when a female passenger lost her cell phone on her plane before landing at TPA, where her sister from Clearwater was supposed to pick her up, along with a cousin flying in with a different airline. The passenger didn't have her sister's or cousin's phone number memorized and couldn't reach them.
The woman was worried and confused, but Gretchen came to her rescue. She assisted the woman in tracking down the right phone number and making contact with her sister.
For their time and service, the volunteers get free parking when they fly out of town via Tampa International Airport. They also get to go on all-expenses-paid monthly trips to various local destinations such as museums, cultural and historical landmarks and The Florida Aquarium, to familiarize them with local attractions and better prepare them to answer visitor questions.
Their next trip is a full day at Lowry Park Zoo.