For United’s premier customers, sometimes the most important details are the ones that no one sees
Author Jennifer Dohm
Up a discreetly marked elevator, tucked away in a modest hallway in Terminal 7 of Los Angeles International Airport is United’s Global First Lounge. It’s a travel oasis for United’s International First Class, and other special guests. The lounge is the go-to retreat for globetrotting elite business travelers, bicoastal celebrities and entertainment executives, and Shelley Schrader is their go-to gal.
Schrader, United Global Services and lounge manager, oversees more than 40 co-workers and more than 22,000 square-feet of real estate. Her job isn’t easy, but she’ll tell you it’s the best job in the world.
“There is no typical day for me and my team,” she says. “I make sure we’re ready and can anticipate our customers’ needs before they arrive.” In fact, Schrader’s team waits planeside to personally greet and escort customers to the lounge. Sometimes that trek through the terminal can prove a bit difficult. Discretion, Schrader says, is one of the most important factors of United’s service. “Most aren’t your average customers; they receive a lot of attention—much of it unwanted. So we have to use our best judgment, and I have a few tricks up my sleeve to make sure we usher them through the airport as discreetly as possible.”
She could tell you which Oscar-winning actress can’t go a day without Oreos, what famed musician once slept for three hours on the leather couch in the corner of the lounge or, even, which company’s top executive prefers to travel in flip flops. But she won’t. “Our job is to know their needs and deliver. Not share them,” she says. “Our lounge is an escape—a place for relaxation, comfort and a bit of solitude. Their daily lives are hectic, to put it lightly. Living out of hotels, suitcases, moving on from one project and one city to the next. If we can give them at least one point in their journey that’s peaceful, and offer them some moments to themselves, then we’ve succeeded.”
Schrader says sometimes requests are a bit unusual, but for good reason. “We once had an actor request that we have some umbrellas available when he got off his plane,” she said. “We rarely see rain in southern California, so it seemed a bit odd until we realized he had wanted them to shield his children from the paparazzi upon leaving the airport. Our co-workers were ready with umbrellas in hand, right when they got off the plane.”
Her team is also in tune with sensitive topics that might make headlines, especially if one of their customers is involved. “A pretty controversial scandal had recently broken about one of our customers—it was literally on every news channel. When we knew that customer would be flying through that afternoon, we made sure our TV channels were turned to decorating programs instead of the news, so as not to upset our customer upon arrival.”
Schrader’s team prides itself on the finer details like food allergies or wine preferences. For a birthday or an anniversary, she’s ready with a cake or a bottle of champagne to make the occasion special. And with most of her customers being lifelong flyers on United, Schrader has gotten to know them very well. “One auto industry executive flies almost every week with us,” she says. “I know what kind of day he is having just by where he sits in the lounge. If he’s by the window, I know it’s a good day, and he wants to relax and watch the planes come in. If it’s a rough day and he’s pacing in the corner, that’s when I know to offer him a glass of his favorite merlot.”
Many of the customers Schrader hosts are prominent, award-winning members of the entertainment industry. But just ask any of her co-workers and they’ll say that she, too, deserves an award. “Details are the number-one way we show how much we care about our customers, and Shelley gets those details right every time,” says Jim Hanselmann, United’s managing director at LAX who oversees operations at the airline’s Los Angeles hub. “When you look up great customer service in the dictionary, you’ll absolutely see Shelley’s picture. She’s perfection.”