An army of friendly faces awaits out-of-towners stepping off a plane at the Sunport or walking around Old Town.
The group of 85 volunteers works at the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau stations inside the airport and just off the plaza in Old Town, suggesting places for people to see in the city, helping them find their way around the airport, and sometimes even helping someone in distress.
The visitor centers contain pamphlets, cards and magazines about places to visit in New Mexico. There is also information about local hotels and restaurants.
Bureau visitor services manager Roxane Cisneros said what makes the program unique and successful is the personal touch each volunteer adds.
“We pride ourselves that we have great ambassadors to the city,” Cisneros said. “They represent how friendly Albuquerque is.”
Cisneros said the organization is looking for at least five more volunteers to work weekend shifts at both locations. They are also considering opening a Downtown location. Volunteers, she said, should have a good knowledge of the state and preferably some computer skills, but there are other things more important.
“As long as they have a love for the city and people,” she said. “And good customer service skills, we want them.”
Cisneros said according to a report published in 2012, visitors to Bernalillo County spend approximately $2 billion annually and that number is $5.5 billion statewide. The county has approximately 29,000 hospitality related jobs and the visitor centers help about 107,000 people a year.
JoAnn Colgan, 80, began volunteering with the visitors bureau in 1983 after seeing a blurb in the newspaper. Colgan was retired at the time and her husband suggested she find a hobby.
Colgan has a cheerful demeanor and said she enjoys meeting new people so thought working at one of the visitor centers would be a good fit. She said she called up and was asked only two questions, one of which she can’t remember today.
“They asked me if I had ever been to the petroglyph park,” she said. “I told them ‘I’ve been to the petroglyphs, but where is the park?'”
She’s been working in the airport since then and has met people from around the world. One of her most memorable interactions, she said, was with a woman who arrived at the airport not knowing a single word of English.
She only spoke an obscure dialect of Arabic. She had just arrived in the United States from somewhere in the Middle East, was lost and confused and her ride wasn’t there.
Colgan went to work trying to find someone who could speak the woman’s language. It finally took a call to the University of New Mexico and they were able to track down the woman’s son.
During her recent Wednesday morning shift, the requests for help ran the gamut. The center is located just across from the escalators and one traveler stepped off and came strolling toward her, suitcase rolling slightly behind him.
“Do you know where I can find a vending machine?” he asked.
Colgan wasn’t sure but she sent him to an airport employee in a yellow shirt who eventually located a vending machine. A few more people stopped by looking for a shuttle to their hotel. Attached to the desk is a list of local hotels, their phone numbers and whether they provide shuttle service.
Tom Long was visiting the city from San Francisco and wanted to explore Taos. Colgan provided him with a map and some suggestions.
Making a difference
In Old Town Thursday morning, 91-year-old Tom Grasser was busy helping several people visiting New Mexico from out of state.
Two of those people were Deb and Pete Doll, a Wisconsin couple traveling the country in their RV. It was their second visit to New Mexico and they stopped by the visitor center to ask about good local restaurants and nearby places to see.
Grasser immediately connected with the couple. He, too, is a native of Wisconsin and lived there until being drafted by the Army six days after his high school graduation.
He ended up driving an ambulance but had to learn to drive before being shipped overseas. He said his mother died in a terrible car accident when he was a young boy and his dad never drove again, not even to teach Grasser how to drive.
After the war ended, Grasser came to New Mexico to become an artist. He ended up working at Sears for decades.
He began volunteering in 2005 and said he likes the feeling that he’s making a difference, however small, in people’s lives. He makes a point to ask questions about their lives and if it feels right, he’ll hand them a guardian angel medallion blessed by a priest before they go on their way.
“It is very rewarding work,” he said. “I like meeting the people and doing this keeps me out of the pool hall.”