Lessons in Customer Experience (CX) from the Denver Blizzard of 2016


It’s been years since I have dealt with weather delays of this scale.  And, the first time I have been in any airport that officially closed.

A thousand flights were cancelled.  The inbound road to DIA was impassable in both directions – the airport was a frozen island full of travelers who didn’t want to be there. Flight crews were stranded just a mile from the airport due to road conditions.  And, the fuel farm lost power, which meant that before the airport closed, nearly every gated plane, was fuel-less.  Restaurants had 2 hours waits, fast food chains had lines in excess of 100 people.  And the customer service desk lines behind security; I counted as many as 300 in line.

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsI walked the airport and observed people doing what people do in these situations:  complaining, meeting new people, comparing stories, calling their friends and family sharing their unique situation and most of all, needing help. There wasn’t a person in DIA that didn’t need help in someway.  Some needed sustenance, others needed alternative travel.  Most needed power and many needed somewhere to lay their head that night. I witnessed the spectrum of customer experience, from over the top human to human support & empathy to territorial meanness that showed the nasty side of fear and anger in men and women, kids and the elderly. But what I personally experienced was the realization (perhaps again) that customer experience can shine, or fail miserably, in the face of challenging circumstances.  Heightened (if not emotional) situations generate opportunities for brands to stand out – positively, and negatively. In fact by not being proactive a brand nearly ensures a backwards slip in perception and experience.


Here are a few callouts from the Denver Blizzard of 2016.

Making your customers feel valued: United Airlines, customer service (gate and phone)

After getting to the airport early to avoid road conditions (even early for me) and utilizing the UA Club Lounge to get some work done, I headed to the gate.  The local flight crew was delayed due to road conditions on Peña Boulevard, the transfer road to and from the airport.  Then the fuel farm lost power meaning they couldn’t fill up trucks to come load fuel on the planes. Two hours later we get the news – the flight is cancelled.  I was fortunate that my flight was one of the first.  And my phone call into the UA call center must have been been an early ring to what I am sure was a nonstop wave. I had prepared myself for a long process of weighing alternative options to get to Boston, the second half of my week.  While I was talking to the CSR, my mobile buzzed, a text message.  United had auto-re-scheduled me.  Awesome. I spent a few more minutes with my United Rep and ultimately chose to book on a flight the next day (my spidey senses were telling me this day was going to be a doozy).  Realizing that I now needed somewhere to stay, she offered to patch me into the United Desk at Hotels.com to have them help me leverage the two company’s relationship to my advantage, to not get gouged in this less than ideal situation. Hotels.com was helpful and polite, but ultimately they couldn’t wedge me into the Westin, which is the only on property hotel at DIA.  I decided to work with Marriott, I had to call them anyhow since my room in Boston, was going to be vacant.

Giving your customers the benefit of the doubt: Marriott, phone and hotel service

Per my itinerary I was to be in Boston, a relatively safe endeavor, from Denver.  I had booked a room with Marriott and optioned for prepayment to get some savings.  Of course, this was now problematic.  Calling the customer service line, I explained my situation and asked what could be done.  My CSR called the hotel, asked for consideration in light of the circumstances and they forgave my nights stay with no penalty as well as ensuring my second evening was confirmed.  And of course, I needed a hotel for my evening in Denver.  I didn’t even have to ask, they knew and booked me quickly to a nearby hotel.  Which upon my hotel I quickly realized was at or over capacity.

Winning the hearts of those who you may serve in the future: Westin Hotels

In hour 8 of this adventure I grew bored of the airport.  I strapped on the bags, put the conference call on mute and traipsed across 30 yards of blizzard wind and snow to the Westin – the hotel I could not secure a room at.  I entered the hotel, tried the bar (it was full) and ended up exploring down to the conference center level.  People were commandeering hallways and outlets. Windows and foyers.  I was fortunate to find a pillar with an open plug, and claimed it as my own.  The hotel management was understanding and polite.  They did not demand proof of residency.  They did not escort us nomads out of the building.  They allowed their lobby to become a hostile of sorts and for those of us who wanted a different experience (perhaps just the Westin smell) to make their brick and mortar a respite rather than the airport.  The moment I witnessed the culture of empowerment and customer service come to the surface was when they began wheeling out conference tables, chairs and extension cords into the common areas of the building to allow people to sit, plug in and feel normal.  I’ve been a Marriott loyalist for years – and they too understand CX – but Westin won points that day and I won’t forget it soon.

Living and breathing your brand: Uber

I sat in DIA for 11 hours before I was able to get an UBER driver to bite on my request.  For hours and hours the Uber network was absent of drivers – for understandable reasons.  In the end, the driver I had, took two hours to get from his location to the airport.  I tracked him (what else was I to do) and saw him zig zag on back roads to and fro, to get to the airport.  When he arrived, he was with passengers (smart driver in my mind) and we had a bit of a challenge.  The passengers would not get out of the car.  Their flight was cancelled, and they, like I, were looking to this one driver, to get them out of a desolate situation. Ultimately the Uber driver found a way to meet the needs of both – he arranged for a rental car for his current passengers thus allowing him to take me and mine, to our hotels.  His perseverance and commitment was/is admirable.  For me it meant the difference between my 14-hour day in DIA, and perhaps spending the night.  (page 2)