CORPORATE CASE STUDY: Port of Seattle flourishes despite multiple demands

As terror alerts continue across the US, the Port of Seattle's public affairs team strives to keep passengers and cargo moving smoothly through its air and seaports.

As terror alerts continue across the US, the Port of Seattle's public affairs team strives to keep passengers and cargo moving smoothly through its air and seaports.

While the nation's weeks-long orange alert last month intensified interest in how US ports cope during emergencies, one of the biggest took it in stride. At the thriving Port of Seattle, which includes the Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (Sea-Tac) and the Seattle Seaport, it was seemingly business as usual, thanks to its 19-member public affairs staff. Behind the well-constructed facade, however, the inner workings at Port of Seattle are slightly less seamless. The routine of keeping more than 70,000 passengers moving efficiently and calmly through Sea-Tac every day - that's more than 26 million a year in an airport designed to serve 25 million - involves two-hour processing procedures, fingerprint scanning, digital mug photos, and getting the right stamps on passengers' passports. Frequent security alerts since 9/11 have added to the confusion by raising the sensitivity level of passengers and compounding normal fears of flying. More than 400,000 metric tons of air cargo move through Sea-Tac every year. A major gateway to the Far East and beyond, the 30-year-old airport may be a tempting target for terrorists. Separately, the airport, which is the 15th largest in the US, is involved in a $4.2 billion capital improvement that will add the capacity needed to serve a growing region where the economy is increasingly intertwined with international markets. A $125 million terminal expansion is also under way. Lynn Lampe, public affairs director for the port, says, "Our primary challenges are to maintain ongoing, smooth movement of passengers and cargo in the face of security alerts, and to provide accurate, up-to-the-minute travel and business information to our customers and the general public." There have been scares, says Terri-Ann Betancourt, Lampe's assistant public affairs director for Sea-Tac, "but we have not had any real threats." Goals and challenges The public affairs department needs to keep air travelers calm and reassured about their safety, while instilling patience and confidence in the facility and its management. It also must cope with concessionaires and others who face increasing operation costs. One recent development, for example, will require airlines to pay a larger share of the airport's budget at the same time that port officials are counting on non-airline revenue from parking, food, books, and gifts. "One of the big, major things for us at the airport," says Betancourt, "is providing accurate, up-to-date, valuable traveler information. We spend a good deal of money doing that every year through bulletins and information on our website [portseattle.org] and in the media." The site is a veritable tourist center for anyone who cares to navigate its myriad pathways. In November, the Seattle Port Commission, the port's policy arm, adopted a $740 million capital investment plan to improve the port. In recent weeks, the airport revised its agreement with airlines and gave port managers more control over nearly all airport operations. J. Martin McOmber, a reporter for The Seattle Times, says, "The new contract culminates years of planning and reflects a nationwide power shift between major airports and the once-dominant airlines." The shift in thinking, says McOmber, underpins many changes at Sea-Tac. The terminal expansion, now nearing completion, includes improvements to the parking garage. Public affairs has wasted no time asking for more reliable signs to show which floors in the garage, which accounts for one-fifth of the airport's income, have empty spots. "As the industry has continued to change, it has become more and more clear that the dependence airports had on airlines absolutely needed to be broken," says Gina Marie Lindsey, Sea-Tac's managing director, the Times reported. The seaport's challenges are different from Sea-Tac's and are compounded by the recently instated Maritime Transportation Security Act, by which ports that fail to meet guidelines from port directors and other officials, including the captains of 10,000 ships that use US ports, could be shut down. Seattle's cruise ship traffic is booming. The port projects a 40% jump for its cruise business this year to more than 400,000 passengers, including 250,000 passengers for weeklong trips to Alaska. It will handle 140 sailings this year, up from 95 in 2003. To accommodate that increase, the port has just launched a $1.2 million construction project to fix pilings, add canopies to shelter passengers from the rain and sun, and improve the 9-month-old cruise ship terminal's security. David Schaefer, Lampe's assistant public affairs director for the seaport, attributes the rise in the port's cruise business to the investments made in recent years to its marine terminals, and road and railway infrastructure. He also cites the efficiency of operations and strong relationships with shippers. "The cruise business here, which is primarily through the inner passage to Alaska, is only about 5 years old," adds Shaefer, who says, "It's the second or third most popular cruise destination in the world." The 92-year-old port also handles thousands of cargo containers that ship in and out every day. Schaefer says, "We have intense competition from Los Angeles, Long Beach, Oakland, Tacoma, and Vancouver, especially for the growing Asian ports. So we're continually trying to become more efficient." Moving ahead Despite these challenges and considerations, more than 1,200 shippers surveyed by Marine Digest last year ranked Port of Seattle number one in service among the US' 361 ports. To help achieve that level of performance, says Lampe, "We have a budget process that starts in August by which we target our major projects for the ensuing year, along with budget proposals, which I then take to the port's administration office for funding. In January, we refine those goals and agendas, and then throughout the year, we have a monthly review of our progress towards meeting those goals. We also start each week with a review and look ahead" toward any unexpected events. "One very recent example," recalls Lampe, "was how to deal with the ban on meat export. We created a media plan, focused on the messages we needed to get out, tried to anticipate likely questions, selected a spokesperson, and determined what vehicles to use to get the information out." Lampe says her department's communications objective was "to explain the impact of the mad cow disease on beef exports at the Port of Seattle. Our audience was the local media, and through them, the general public. Our strategy was to be responsive rather than proactive. We delivered our messages and responded to media inquiries." To ensure the entire port is kept up to speed during times of potential crisis, like the mad cow incident, and also during day-to-day operations, the public affairs staff maintains regular contact with the Port's top brass. Lampe meets every week with CEO Mic Dinsmore, while Betancourt and David Schaefer, assistant director of public affairs for the seaport, meet with the managing directors of their respective divisions. The Port of Seattle's top-to-bottom upgrade, which began four-and-a-half years ago, is scheduled for completion in 2010. Based on its performance to date, the public affairs staff seems ready. ----- PR contacts Director of public affairs Lynn Lampe Assistant director, aviation Terri-Ann Betancourt Assistant director, seaport David Schaefer Media contact, Sea-Tac Airport Bob Parker Media contact, Seaport/International Mick Shultz

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