“It’s all about the love”: How DIA’s shoe shiners are staying afloat as the pandemic changes air travel
Executive Shine has built a devoted customer base over the years through human connection. Now, it’s running teambuilding workshops to help people connect in a remote world.
Denver International Airport CEO Phil Washington said at a recent press conference that if you really want to understand the airport, talk to the shoeshiners. So we did.
Jill Wright opened Executive Shine at DIA in 1996. She got her start shining shoes at a Hyatt in Denver a few years before, and when she was 20, she beat out 30 others for a shoe shining contract at Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport in D.C. and Dulles International in Virginia.
“I had to succeed, there was no failing,” she said. “That wasn’t an option. Here I am, a single girl in Washington, D.C., I have no money, I have to start this business.”
And succeed she did. A few years later, she won a contract in Denver. She’s shined the shoes of CEOs, senators and a notorious televangelist, expanded Executive Shine to Charlotte-Douglas International Airport and employed around 100 people.
Wright has also watched the world change through her spot at the shoe shining chair. She’s seen DIA grow, shoe styles fall in and out of fashion and travel habits change over time. She’s watched gender norms shift, as more women entered the business world and came for shoe shines, and seen how 9/11 changed air travel.
Most recently, she’s weathered a pandemic, and is now finding ways to adapt her business after COVID-19 fundamentally changed the shoes we wear and the way we travel.
Wright attributes her success to the care she and her team give to every person who sits in their chairs. Her motto is “It’s all about the love.”
“I just started talking to people and just asking advice and listening to them,” she said. “I just realized, ‘Wow, you’re a Supreme Court justice, but you need caring too, you need somewhere to go where people just want to know you as a human being.'”
(The late Justice Byron White used to be a regular customer in D.C.)
Wright says that if she were to hang up a sign advertising “love available here,” people would walk right by. “But if we just cover it up and call it ‘shoe shine,’ that’s the real secret to business,” she said. “We just provide a safe place for people to be human.”
Executive Shine’s reviews back this up, with scores of people praising not just the shine but also the connection with the person shining their shoes and the company’s pay-what-you-wish policy.
Wright often gets interrupted by hugs from people across the airport while she works. Over the years, she has built long lasting relationships with her customers, including United Airlines CEO Scott Kirby, who has brought his family by just to say hi. Customers often invite staff to family dinners and Denver Broncos games. Long-time patrons sometimes drop off full bags of shoes on their flights out of town to pick up on their way home.
One time, an Executive Shine staff member let a customer keep a company pillow that read “love you more” after the customer shared that their recently deceased mother often used the same phrase. Another time, a customer told a staff member that it was a conversation he had while getting his shoes shined that stopped him from committing suicide.
“You don’t go to the airport expecting to build the relationship, you go just expecting to get on your plane,” Wright said. “They just think, ‘Oh, this is just a shoeshine person, they’re not a person.’ … When you add that human connection piece, I think that really changes things.”
But when the pandemic hit, things shut down. Now, business has started to come back, but it looks different.
Executive Shine closed for three months in March 2020. When it opened back up, it served a very limited customer base, predominantly pilots and other airport staff.
Travel has since rebounded, and DIA is on track to beat pre-pandemic numbers. But the pandemic has fundamentally changed air travel and business. Much of the returning travel numbers are due to leisure travel. Business travel, a big part of Executive Shine’s customer base, has not returned in the same way as many companies opt for remote meetings, leading to decreased travel.
Plus, fashion trends have changed. With the rise of athleisure and more comfortable work clothes, sneakers have become more acceptable in the office. Wright estimates she’s getting about 30 to 35% of the business she got before the pandemic.
“It worries me,” she said.
Some customers’ demeanors have changed as well.
Jonathan Soto has worked as a shoe shiner at DIA since he was 15, after his father got a job with Wright while working part-time for United. Soto said his stutter led to him initially struggling to connect with customers the way Executive Shine is known for.
The job helped him overcome his stutter, and more than 20 years later, he’s shined the shoes of comedian George Lopez (who cracked jokes about all the shoe shiners), and now-President Joe Biden.
“Biden was Biden,” was all Soto said about that experience.
But Soto says customers have changed in the past few years, and that he has to work harder to make people feel at ease. “I think they have trust issues,” he said. “They’re more uptight now.”
Some people did open up. When Executive Shine first reopened during the pandemic, primarily serving essential workers, Soto said he got a unique look into how COVID-19 affected people on the front lines.
“Doctors and nurses used to come and cry to us because there was a bad situation out there,” he said. “I think a lot of people don’t understand how bad the situation was when COVID happened. I just know because we talk to them a lot.”
With fewer customers, Executive Shine has found another source of revenue: running team building workshops for companies, where staff teach businesspeople how to shine each other’s shoes.
Wright said the idea came from CEOs she’s served, who asked her to run programs at their companies to help people connect and build relationships after so much time remote during the pandemic.
“This experience is going to be about you serving each other, bringing the beauty out in each other, and building relationship and connection,” Wright tells people during the Shine Experience. “It’s just been amazing.”
At the workshops, Soto instructs people to partner up with coworkers they either do not know or have had conflict with, and often sees new connections formed or apologies made. “When they’re out of the program, I see people cry,” he said.
“We end up taking away a lot more when we’re actually giving, and when that works both ways, it just would make the world a better place,” said one customer in a video Wright made about the program.
Outside the board room, DIA’s shoe shiners keep serving up love and shiny shoes at the airport every day.
Soto’s wife, Tara, after seeing how happy the work made her husband, left her corporate job writing proposals 10 years ago to work at Executive Shine.
“People really accept you, and look at you, and looked at me for who I was,” she said. “The best part about what we do is that it doesn’t matter what the title is, when somebody sits in the chair, we love them.”
Over the years, Tara has kept an eye on the trends. Right now, tennis shoes with white soles and leather paired with jeans and a blazer are in, a more casual business look that rose during the pandemic.
“The Governor’s sneakers is what we’re seeing every single day, so he’s definitely trendy right now,” she said, referring to Governor Jared Polis, who is known for his casual footwear.
The secret, Tara says, is that more expensive shoes do not necessarily shine better than cheaper ones.
Her favorite shoes to shine are the dirtiest. She loves when customers come in after the annual National Western Stock Show in January.
“We have cowboys that come straight from the rodeo nationals… it looks like they literally played in a pigpen,” she said.
“Bring it on. Give me the dirtiest pair.”
Editor’s note: This article has been updated with the correct year Executive Shine opened at DIA.