Flip the Switch Episode 38: Jon Graves

John Saunders
By John Saunders

SOPHIA: Today on Flip the Switch. The guys sit down with John Graves the senior marketing manager at the San Diego International Airport. John has been instrumental in rebranding the airport. We discuss his ideology around the campaign and what it took to turn his ideas into reality. From concessions and valet parking to bringing in new airlines and adhering to city ordinances, Joh wears many hats. Join us as we discuss the ins and outs of what it’s like to be San Diego International airport’s senior marketing manager.

Let’s get into it.

00:59 AUSTIN: Welcome to Flip the Switch presented by Power Digital Marketing. This is episode number 38.

01:04 PAT: 38. Our Gerald Ford episode.

01:07 AUSTIN: Gerald Ford. Great president. We’re out of athletes.

01:08 PAT: Great president. Gerry Ford. We are completely out of athletes.

01:11 AUSTIN: We figured out that we’re out of athletes so we’ve transitioned into presidents.

But enough about the presidential talk. Today is a very big episode. We have a very special guest with you today, coming from the San Diego airport. That’s right, The San Diego Airport. John Graves who is the senior marketing and public relations manager. He joined us. He’s been there for 15 years. He had the big rollout of their new logo and all the revamp they’ve done in terminal 2 if you fly out of there.

He was a huge part of that. So we walked through all that and it’s really exciting stuff.

01:41 PAT: Yeah, he was a super-insightful guy He knows more about airports than I have ever heard in one sitting before. The inner workings and everything. Like especially figuring out how to roll-out his branding platform. Was like, one of the most interesting parts of the entire thing.

01:55 AUSTIN: Absolutely. I think everybody’s going to like this one.

01:58 PAT: Yeah, let’s stop spoiling it. Let’s get into the interview.

02:03 AUSTIN: All right, with us today we have John Graves from the San Diego Airport. He is the senior marketing and public relations manager. We’re very excited to have you on. Thank you for joining us.

02:12 JOHN: Yeah, thanks for having me. Excited to be here.

02:14 AUSTIN: Absolutely. So I think let’s just start off and open it up. Get a little background on who you are, how you came to be the marketing manager, and all that great stuff. So tell us a little bit about yourself.

02:23 JOHN: About myself. So born and raised in LA, and grew up listening to Dodgers baseball. We talked about that earlier.

Former baseball player. Actually played for the Dodgers, and got hurt. Couldn’t play anymore. Had to figure out what to do. And started a small business called upandcomingart.com. This was in 1998. Learned a little bit about something called the “Intranet.” Forgive me, the Internet…

02:47 AUSTIN: We’ve heard about that around here.

02:49 JOHN: And just learned about online marketing and trying to get things out there. So grew a little bit of a business there. Didn’t work out. Dot-com crash in 2000. And I was actually living in Indiana at the time, which was number 50 on the top 1 through 50 states in raising money, so there was no money there.

03:07 AUSTIN: Yeah, you might have been the only guy in town who had an Internet business, right?

03:10 JOHN: That’s’ exactly right. So it didn’t work out. But I had learned quite a bit. So we moved back out here to San Diego. And just started to play around with the different concepts. Started business again. Met somebody called Jim Amos. He was the CEO for Mailboxes, Etc. Small business that used to be headquartered here.

And tried to push something entrepreneurial for a long time. That also didn’t work out. And I ended up having to figure out “what do I do with the rest of my life?”

And went to manpower and said, “Hey, do you guys have any marketing positions? I think this is probably what I’m good at.”

They said, “We have one. One at the airport. If you can go tomorrow, they’ve got an opening.”

03:52 PAT: Next day start? That’s tomorrow?

03:53 JOHN: That’s exactly right. And I have been there ever since. So now, like you said, I’m the head of marketing at the airport, and it’s a fascinating business.

03:59 AUSTIN: I bet. Yeah. What a phenomenal story and a great turn-around from what you really thought was going to happen with your life.

So talk us through a little bit of the responsibilities. The type of campaigns you do. What does a typical day look like for the marketing manager of the airport?

04:13 JOHN: It’s very busy. So we do a number of things. We have 3 basic pillars from the business aspect. We of course, push air service. So where we fly is a huge thing for us. For the community, obviously, and for the business. So that’s the number one thing.

Second thing, of course, is you’re in an airport and you need to eat as you’re traveling. So food, beverage, shopping. That’s the second pillar.

Third would be parking. When you come to the airport, how do you get there? Most people are either dropped off today–Uber is huge. But parking is a big part of our business as well.

So it’s 3 pillars from a business side.

The other side, though, is we’ve got an entire community… Let’s try that again… So we have an entire community that is dependent on what we do. And the noise that we make. And the policies that we have.

So we have the business side, and then this community-minded side, where we’re really trying to be a great partner for the community.

05:11 PAT: That’s really interesting. So I guess… that definitely sounds like it differs a lot from a conventional marketing job. Because you have internal and external factors to consider.

I mean, like, for us–if we’re working with our clients we’re really considering the external. We’re worried about their metrics. How they’re feeling about how everything is doing. Things like that.

But you kind of have to balance both. How is that as far as where your concentration lies throughout the day? Do you have entire days where you focus on those internal 3 pillars? And then… you know?

05:43 JOHN: I wish it were that easy. It’s never that way. So in the business… especially in the political. We’re a quasi-government agency. We have always fires that come up. So I go in each day and think, “I’m going to work on this,” and I may go sideways. I think that happens everywhere.

But yes, I mean it’s challenging. Every single day something comes up. For the most part, it’s a lot of fun. You meet a ton of different people.

Of course, everybody’s traveling too. And you can get out of the office and watch what happens. That’s where the action is. It’s so much fun just have to travel.

06:15 AUSTIN: Where’s your office at the airport? Are you guys pretty close to where the terminals are? Or how does that work?

06:20 JOHN: Yeah, so we have terminal 2, which we just built out…

06:22 AUSTIN: Just flew out of there the other day.

06:24 JOHN: Beautiful right?

We have terminal 1 which is less than beautiful sometimes, right? Very congested. Southwest.

And then we have what used to be the commuter terminal, which is the flights that we were going from here to LA. Those operations moved to terminal 2, and that became our sole-purpose administration building. So I’m on the 3rd floor. I get a chance to look at the airfield all day long, so it’s pretty cool.

06:48 PAT: That’s awesome. That’s… I think the coolest part about that job to me would just be getting to people watch. Stepping outside for my lunch break and just seeing what everybody is up to. What people are looking like? Who’s clearly in a rush? Who isn’t?

Another piece outside of those two that you kind of mentioned is that you handled the rebranding efforts for the airport. I would love to dive into that with you a little bit. Because actual tactical marketing a lot of times comes down to understanding what the brand identity already is and accentuating it in the right markets and verticals to have an impact.

But you had to almost backpedal at one point and help re-identify what the airport even is to its local community. Can you kind of talk through that process a little bit and what that campaign was like?

07:34 JOHN: Yeah, wow. How much time do we have? Because it was a lot of work.

07:37 PAT: No time limit.

07:38 JOHN: So like I said, we started out as an agency in 2003, and our sole purpose still, but then was to operate the airport. And with that came two new identities. One was the airport authority, and then there was a new brand identity for the airport. That was in place for quite a while. I want to say we did this back in 2014, 2015. So for 12 years at least, we had this one brand identity. And I think I can say that the CEO and leadership and most employees really didn’t like it.

It didn’t necessarily embody who we were…

08:17 PAT: In what way? Was it just a little antiquated?

08:20 JOHN: Very government oriented. Muted colors… I’m sorry if I’m throwing anybody under the bus, but it just didn’t embody who we were. And in 2012 we came out with the just rebuilt Terminal 2. Terminal 2 West. We call it the green build. So Leed Platinum. Only commercial airport Terminal that is Leed Platinum. So very modern approach to everything we did. Very sustainable.

And we looked back at what that brand identity actually is, or was at the time. It just wasn’t there. And so I had hired somebody from HP to come in and help with our web design. And in addition to those duties, she saw what we were trying to accomplish and had done some logo design, other brand element management if you will, up at HP.

And saw that we weren’t doing very well. To take a step back, we had PowerPoint presentations that had a number of different identities. It was old logos, it was new approaches to logos. It was Airport Authority brand identity plus the department…. It was all over the board. And the imagery was crazy.

So she took a look at that and said, “I think we could actually do this better.” So she started and said, “Can I try this? I know my job is the assistant web-master, but I’d love to try to do this.” I said, “Sure, let’s try it.”

So for 9 months she would bring me something that says… “Okay, this is one step. Can I take another step?”

“Yeah, let’s take a look at that.”

Like I said, over 9 months, it was a show-and-tell, show-and-tell, show-and-tell. This looks good, this looks good.

Now history on this was again the CEO from 2003 forward didn’t fall in love with the old identity.

10:03 AUSTIN: Right.

10:04 JOHN: And so there had been two agencies that we had on contract for all of this time, taking a stab at this new identity. So what does this look like? I think there were more than 500 designs presented to the CEO. Zero went through.

So her name is Lauren Wilson, she was still trying to push, “What can we do to make this better?”

So we had an inside approach to this. Where she understood as an incoming, new employee. “I see what you’re doing here. But I kind of understand where we’re going. And what I’m seeing out here, and what we’re designing–what we’re building–is very different.” So if we could factor in a design that includes the modern approach that we are now going for. Knowing that we’re also looking at building out Terminal 1. And we have some messaging that goes along with it. I think there’s going to be more platform for this.”

So we present it up, right? First it was to the director, and then it was to the VP and then it was finally to the CEO.

Everybody said yes. Which was great. Again, months of work. And then it was–and this is always the kicker–now let’s go present it to the rest of the team. So I think we’ve all been there. It’s challenging to do that when there’s many chefs in the kitchen. So CEO says yes, let’s take a look at this.

We present it back and the senior team–and this is comprised of 20 or so different directors–all weigh in. It only takes one. Right? One person to say something bad, and it’s done.

11:41 PAT: It’ll derail the entire thing.

11:43 AUSTIN: Mob mentality comes out

11:44 PAT: Yeah. Crowd-think or whatever. Group-think, Crowd-think. It’s early.

11:51 JOHN: Never a good thing, right? So we present this, and this is in front of the CEO. She’s already seen this, and she likes it, right? She likes this initial design.

One person–and it’s the first person, unfortunately–says, “That looks a lot like what we saw at 9/11.”

12:04 AUSTIN: Oh. Talk about a buzz kill.

12:08 PAT: Yeah.

12:07 JOHN: So of course, we’re in an airport. We have planes. And we’re one of the keys to us–especially here in San Diego–is we’re very efficient. And because we’re so close to downtown. So we brought the buildings of downtown, the towers if you will, into the design. So you’ve got a plane and you’ve got towers. Bam. That comes out.

And all of a sudden…

12:29 PAT: It’s all anybody could talk about, right?

12:33 JOHN: How could you talk about anything else at that point, right? So that one got crushed. So we went back to the drawing board. CEO’s still on board, but we gotta figure out how we get around that one. So we pushed it, and we continued to meet with these people. And, in essence, had to do kind of a roundabout. I went straight to this person–name was Steve. Nice guy.

So everybody else was onboard. “We’re going to make some modifications. If we make a slight modification here, you good with it?”

13:02 PAT: Yeah. Testing the waters a little bit.

13:05 JOHN: That’s exactly it. He ended up saying yes. And so we got that through. Now that was just internal team.

You guys all know from a brand perspective–it’s just a logo, right? Not the same thing as a brand. But from the brand perspective, all great brands start from within. So we wanted everybody internally to feel good about this. That was the first step.

Second step, we took it out to the community. So we walked it actually out into the airport terminals, and interviewed just random interview. Passengers. “What do you think about this? What do think about this? What does this say to you? How do you feel about this?”

I think we had 6 or 7 different concepts that we showed. And for the most part, I think there were 2 that came through. They were the same logo, just different colors.

And from then it was, “Okay, how do we modify?” And then we presented back to the same team and then finally back up to the CEO and she said yes.

The roll-out aspect–so that was a small victory…

13:58 PAT: Yeah, so that’s just getting everything in place. Talk about a quasi-government agency. 16 levels to go through for an approval.

14:05 AUSTIN: How do you keep your patience during this whole time frame? I’m assuming you know that it’s going to take a long time, but its still gotta be very frustrating to be waiting.

14:14 JOHN: There were tears. There were tears. So her name’s Lauren and what’s great about Lauren is she’s incredibly passionate. She’s going to hear this probably and hopefully be very happy that I’m saying this–she is so passionate about what she does. And that’s the real value.

The other side of that is because she’s passionate and take such ownership of it, it hurts when somebody’s critical. And so through this process, what she was hoping to be very quick. Again, 9 months of up and down, up and down. We think we have it. We don’t. We think we have it. We don’t. Right?

All of a sudden it just becomes emotional. So it was tough, really tough. But you have to stay the course. If you believe in something, you’ve gotta stay the course.

14:55 AUSTIN: Absolutely. So the logo design, it’s eventually okay. And they like it, and you’re going to roll it out.

How do you take the feeling that you’re trying to portray with the logo, and spread that through the company and outward? What were the steps you take to make people feel the way you were feeling about your creation?

15:12 JOHN: Yeah, that’s always the real challenge. Is getting other people to follow. So we have to come up with a way to at least educate people, “This is where we were. This is where we are now. How did we get here? And do you agree?”

Unfortunately, not everybody is going to agree. But you hope to get to a point where the majority of people say, “All right. I get it. Let’s get on board.”

With that I think is probably the most important thing, and probably–I think for everybody listening, and you guys know this better than anybody–do the work beforehand to understand what you’re trying to achieve. And what you’re trying to build. The emotion that you’re trying to get out of it.

So we had to come up with a platform–a brand platform–that identified who we were and what we were trying to evoke in people.

The 3 main… that’s the brand essence if you will. We are business driven, passenger centered, and community minded. So with that element–business-driven–I don’t know how you do that necessarily in the logo itself. That’s just more of a calling. And every single decision we make every day is going to be about that. Trying to get away from the bureaucracy right? And be more business-driven.

Passenger centered. That’s the key to all of our business. If we don’t have passengers, and we don’t deliver value to passengers, our business dies. So we always have to do that well. And we think that connecting that aspect with the community aspect–being community minded and knowing what we are. The economic driver if you will, to San Diego region. That was the most important thing, really, to put that out there.

So we have the modern aspect and the brand design with the locality of the airport, the plane… And I don’t know if we have it. If I could show it to you. If anybody’s going to look at this, the logo itself has a plane with in essence the skyline of San Diego. It’s not… what’s the right word? It’s an interpretive design.

17:17 AUSTIN: Yeah, it’s more modern.

17:18 PAT: Abstract.

17:19 AUSTIN: I just pulled it up right now and I’m looking at it. I think “Modern” is the best way to use it. It’s fast-forward, I guess you could say, away from I’m assuming where you guys were with more grayscale or bland or nothing really that invokes the qualities of San Diego. It’s a culturally diverse county. We’re very large and wide. And then the people that pass through here even more. Culturally diverse because we’re one of the largest places to visit in the world. One of the greatest places to just come and take your family and really enjoy.

So…

17:47 PAT: America’s finest city.

17:48 AUSTIN: That’s right. Absolutely. I love living here. But I definitely see what you’re going for. It’s just vibrant, more exciting. Makes you want to fly somewhere, right?

17:59 JOHN: Well, so the tagline with that is “Let’s go.” So “San Diego Airport. Let’s Go.” And Let’s Go really was the calling card, right? So from an internal perspective, Let’s Go make things happen. Let’s Go learn. All kinds of additions you can make to Let’s Go.

Within the community, it is Let’s Go make a difference.

Within the business community, it’s Let’s Go travel. Let’s Go make a deal.

Within the traveling community, of course, it’s Let’s Go see the world.

So all of that together had long legs. And that, at the end of the day, was exactly what the CEO then–we have a new CEO now–but what she was looking for was, “You have legs to this. This is not just a good looking mark. This actually has depth.”

18:45 PAT: And then, okay… so as far as branding goes too, I think we’re really familiar with consumer-centric brands. Like a B-to-C company that sells product at a certain price-point or whatever. And I’ve always kind of had the concept that airports are a little bit commoditized in a sense, because it’s where you go to get on an airline which you also had to choose. It’s almost just like the hub.

So how do you…? I guess what I’m asking is how do you create a brand identity for something that people may perceive as a commodity that you know isn’t one? How do you try to communicate that value to people in a way that they choose to fly out of San Diego rather than a LAX, Or a John Wayne or something else?

19:28 JOHN: So that’s… especially considering LAX. At the end of the day is what we were really trying to figure out. Just forward looking. This is nice on paper. It may be nice on website. What does it mean to anybody? And is there something else we could to create some sort of iconic gesture to the community? This is who we are. Be proud of our airport, because this is what we do for you.

LAX has their monument, right? LAX. It is iconic. It’s something I grew up looking at year-in, year-out, right? So can we bring something like that here?

We’re still working through how we do that? We’re going to build a new monument with this, and the coolest thing about this… this is going to be in the new, what we call the ADP–the Airport Development Plan–but it’s really just the new Terminal 1 that’s coming. So we’re going to have an entry monument sign with something like this. We worked with San Diego college and their students to look at what we could we do with a couple of things. And this is where we get into the roll-out of how do we build this brand locally?

Working with them and their students what could we do with this to make it even bigger, even better. And one of their students came up with this fantastic proposal to not just have this static, if you will, but explode it. Really build out something super-cool and super-iconic.

So that was one aspect. The other was on paper, right? How do we do this on paper and make it feel good? Not just to us, which was very important, because there are some that won’t adopt or are not necessarily happy about it. But also the community. And the political leaders that we engage with constantly.

21:09 AUSTIN: And what’s kind of the look and feel? I guess, the end goal for the airport? Do you guys want to stay a smaller-time airport, that’s more community oriented? Or do you want to become this international hub? Of course, you’re already an international airport, but more like an LAX or maybe an SFO. What’s kind of your desire for the look and feel of the airport?

21:29 JOHN: Well, for the feel itself. I think what we’re really trying to embrace is what does the local community want the airport to be? There was a vote in 2006 of do we move the airport from where it is downtown to Miramar. That was voted no. And so we, in essence… we’re told, “Okay, make this airport that we have as efficient and as optimal as you can.” And we’ve done that. And we’re just continuing to grow. Last year or the year before was 20 million, which was a record for passengers for the year.

This past year was 22. And we continue to see growth. And the number of people who are flying through San Diego, and into San Diego. We have new international service to Frankfurt, Germany, Zurich, Switzerland. Tokyo.

So we continue to grow new service, and really that’s something that this community is asking for. Specifically the business community.

22:22 AUSTIN: And how do you entice other airlines to start flying in here? How does that work with the airlines to make sure that they get enough flights here, or are they beating out a competitor? What does that look like?

22:32 JOHN: That’s a fascinating science actually. So our air service director, if you will, what he does is he goes and courts airlines. We compete. So the idea of do we compete with the John Wayne. Yes, in a way. No, in a way. We’re part of a national/international system. So in a way we supply service to the local regions, right?

However, when it comes to growth of a community–international service is huge. And we compete with a number of airports on bringing an airline into just one route. I think the impact is 280 million dollars just for one international service.

23:12 AUSTIN: That’s incredible.

23:13 JOHN: And that grows every single year. So, yes. We compete not just with Southern California airports, or even California airports, but nationally. Right now we are looking to bring in service–I don’t know if I can say this, but abroad. We’ll say abroad.

And we’re competing right now with Seattle–SeaTac airport–and Chicago. And so what can we do as the airport to make the airline understand there’s real value. The first is what’s the demand? Is there enough demand within the community to actually fly and provide service that’s going to be profitable for the airline? That’s the number one thing for them of course. Can they fill the front of the plane–which is business class, or 1st class? Can they fill the back of the plane?

So they make decisions based on that. Always numbers.

23:58 AUSTIN: What is the perception of San Diego airport to these airlines? Do they typically…? Is it a bit of a struggle to get them to bring a line in and start flying out of here? Or are they jumping on the opportunity? How does that go down?

24:10 JOHN: Well, there are a number of factors. And this is where it really starts to get competitive and really where we can start to build our brand within the industry. So from an airline’s perspective, is it easy to get in and out? Is it easy on their customers to get in and out? What’s the travel experience like getting into San Diego, getting out of San Diego?

If they’re coming from an international destination, what’s the customs facility like? Are they going to be there for 2 hours, maybe like they are at LAX, right? Or is it going to be quicker?

So the amenities that we can bring to make this brand experience better is what we try to anchor on all the time.

24:43 PAT: Right. And that’s kind of what you were talking about earlier too. With trying to make the experience as optimal as possible. It’s not necessarily just for the business community or the San Diego passenger community, but it’s for these other airlines too. To know that if they’re flying into San Diego, they’re not going to be subjecting their customers to long waits, holdups, delays, things like that. Is that kind of what you’re saying?

25:04 JOHN: Oh, yeah. And it’s… when you look at slots we have there’s only so much time in a day. And there’s only so much capacity that our airfield has. So there’s just so many factors that we have to take a look at. And that’s what the airlines look at.

Will they get the preferred time-slot within the day, to fly in and fly out?

We have a curfew here. We’re one of 2 airports that have a curfew in the United States.

25:27 AUSTIN: John Wayne and San Diego.

25:28 PAT: Why is that? Is it because of the fog?

25:30 AUSTIN: Local community.

25:31 JOHN: Well, so there was… yeah, it’s the local community. Noise is noisy.

25:39 PAT: Oh, that makes sense.

25:40 AUSTIN: And you guys are rolling out the… I don’t know if you’re paying for it, but installing new windows in homes that are within the distance. Is that a play to have more flights? Or how is that going to work?

25:50 JOHN: That’s not necessarily geared toward flights. The flights will always be noisy no matter what. The volume of that is going to continue to grow. So that’s just going to make the community more mad, if you will, that are impacted at least.

And so that program’s called the Quieter Home Program. So what we do is work with the FAA to make sure that anybody impacted by airport noise… I think there’s a, I wanna say a 65 decibel level. I could be wrong. You have to check on the website.

But where it’s noisiest is where we go into those communities and retro-fit all their homes with… I think it’s triple insulated windows? Really try to make their homes quiet and peaceful.

26:28 AUSTIN: That’s exciting. And then is… I’ve always been curious about this… is there a projection level that an airplane has to take because of the community around you? I know John Wayne they have to do a certain height angle to get up over the houses for noise. Is that in San Diego also, or how does that work?

26:43 JOHN: Yeah, that’s actually a federally mandated program. So the FAA works with… I think it’s called Traycon here… to make sure that all pilots. And really it’s just the FAA and the tower working directly with every single plane that comes in and out. They tell you exactly where to go, and when to deviate.

27:02 AUSTIN: And does it ever discourage an airline to flying in here because of the difficulty of the land, or the fog level? Is that something that maybe…?

27:10 PAT: Yeah, I thought I read somewhere that there’s only a certain percentage of commercial pilots that can fly into San Diego because of how close the skyline is. Is that true?

27:19 JOHN: What I hear at least is that it takes real skill first of all, to land a plane.

27:25 AUSTIN: (laughing) It is really impressive.

27:29 PAT: You’re one of those people that claps when they land the plane.

27:30 AUSTIN: Internally. I would never do it actually on the plane.

27:32 PAT: Worst person on Earth.

27:33 JOHN: But we’re in a bowl. So the contour of the landscape around the airport. You’ve got the skyline, like you said. Downtown. The buildings. And then on the other side you’ve got Point Loma. And the hills that are there. So you’ve gotta come in steep, you’ve gotta go out steep. And I think that’s kind of the challenge.

But I don’t think we’ve ever seen a problem.

27:51 PAT: That’s awesome. So let’s backtrack and get back to you a little bit here, because it’s awesome that you gave us all that insight on the airport and everything. But going back to something that you talked about earlier… So you were a professional baseball player at one point. Then you got hurt and you wanted to go into other ventures. And that kind of got me thinking too about obstacles that we all face in our ascension to where we end up.

Can you speak to that a little bit? What were some of the obstacles that you faced in that interim trying to figure out what you wanted to do? And what was what you felt to be the most effective way in dealing with them?

28:25 JOHN: Yeah, everybody’s got obstacles. Coming out of baseball and I think probably every athlete–and maybe every walk of life–when you dedicate your entire life to something and you get past college age. And you don’t start necessarily your career in business. But you start something else.

And then you can’t do that anymore. You have a moment where you realize, “Okay. What does life look like now? And what should I do?”

So there’s a lot of exploration that you have to dig into. You can go sideways. You can not do that. Or you can decide, “Okay, I gotta pick myself up and figure out how do I get to where I wanna go?”

I think everybody may realize they’re this type of person. I was an athlete, and so I’ve always been trained, if you will, just to go for it. And so that… it was just innate in me. Let’s identify what’s the next goal. It was almost immediate. And I will say that the next thing wasn’t necessarily business, it was golf.

29:26 PAT: Nice. That’s not a bad call at all. Lot of great baseball players turn into good golfers.

29:33 JOHN: They do. Pitchers especially. Hockey players too. And I can hit the ball farther than Tiger Woods. I can’t putt to save my life.

29:37 PAT: That’s what it always comes down to.

29:38 AUSTIN: What’s your favorite course in San Diego?

29:40 JOHN: Oh, Torrey Pines is fantastic.

29:42 AUSTIN: That was a dumb question.

29:43 PAT: I love hearing that. I was going more for Balboa’s $20 cart deal.

29:45 AUSTIN: Hey, I like Balboa.

29:47 JOHN: It’s also good.

29:48 AUSTIN: Balboa’s great.

29:49 JOHN: But after that it is… How do you do it? What is the goal? I think the first thing for me was identify what is the goal. For me at the time was, “I don’t want to work.” I’d never had a job before. So let’s identify something big, and then map out the steps. And I think that’s probably the process no matter what. Figure out what the goal is, and then backtrack from there how do I get to that point from here.

30:15 PAT: What did that process look… if you don’t mind me asking… what did that process look like in terms of determining what you knew you wanted your end goal to be? Was it self-reflection? Did you go find yourself in Thailand for 6 months? What did that look like?

30:30 JOHN: I was married and just had a kid. I didn’t have the time to go to Thailand.

30:31 PAT: So no. So that’s one option. That’s a no.

30:34 JOHN: It’s certainly an option.

What was the process? I guess it’s really not necessarily settling. I never have wanted to be the type of person that once it’s done, it’s done. And you kind of just languish in the doldrums. That’s just never been me, and so I was very quick, always, to figure out “Okay, what more can I do now?”

And it’s still that way. So first was learning, and what I would say to anybody is never stop learning. Always push as much as you can, because you’re never going to know everything. And the broader that you look across the spectrum, and learn from other people, the more rounded and the more value you’ll bring regardless. Any situation.

The next was, “Okay, once I learn, now I’m empowered to go do this.” And then you start meeting people. And you start talking to people. And ideas grow. And I think that is another big lesson that I learned.

You can’t keep it to yourself. If you have an idea, talk to somebody. They have other ideas too, and they can make that grow too.

31:42 AUSTIN: I’m thinking that these ideas that you’ve had have played a big part in you continuing to grow inside the company. Inside of the airport. Cause you’ve been there about 15 years, am I correct? Right around there?

31:53 JOHN: Yes. Yes. Amazing.

31:54 AUSTIN: You started as a digital marketing specialist and then now the head of the entire marketing department. So that’s absolutely incredible. Were there moments where you thought maybe, “This is where I’m going to be for a while?” Or was the goal always “I have the ability to run this place and I have all these great ideas, so I need to be heard?”

32:12 JOHN: So if Kim is listening, I still think that I could be the person at some point that runs everything. And I guess I’ll always think that way. But, yeah, it’s… you take one step and then you look across. You take another step and you look across. There was a time… and you talk about obstacles. So I lost my wife to cancer 10 years ago, and at the time my kids were 5 and 8.

And so that was a big blow. I was the digital marketing specialist. And frankly I had a foot out the door. Was always trying to find something else. Because I had never necessarily wanted to settle there.

And then that happens, and life is completely different. And I had to figure out, “Okay, how do I do this? And how do I now make sure that my kids are okay? And what does life look like for me?”

So that was a journey of 5, 6, 7 years, trying to figure out, “Okay, now I’m a single dad. And these 2 kids no longer have their mom. What does life look like for them? How do I get them through school?” So many things.

But through that process, you begin to identify… “Here’s what I can do. Here’s another thing that I can do. Still making sure that all this is taken care of, but I can still push. I can still learn. I can still try.

One of the things that came up for me and I had watched… and I think always one of the drivers for me as marketers, right? Is what is the problem out there and how do I solve it? Look across and what’s the big thing that is the issue for customers, and if I can solve that, there’s value there.

What I saw inside at the airport is we weren’t necessarily very good at having conversations. And conversations–I think as well know–they’re the anchor to everything we need to accomplish. Just in talking with people and then talking about accountability, or talking about “We need to get this job done.” Or the speed at which we get this done is not necessarily where it needs to be.

The conversations around those things weren’t necessarily wheat they needed to be. They needed to be a little stronger. With management or whatever.

And so one thing that I identified there was I can go get certified in this program called “FIERCE”–another endorsement here– but FIERCE conversations where you fully understand how to navigate people. And I think that was very instrumental, and I still bring it into every conversation I have. It’s never, never about me versus someone else. Or me against this issue. It’s simply an examination of the facts, and then walking the person shoulder-to-shoulder, instead of face-to-face, right? Through the problem. So that you can solve it together.

34:49 PAT: That’s a pretty objective way to look at conversating with people. I think a lot of people do look at it as an almost combative… “I need to be right” versus they’re trying to be right type situations. So that’s really interesting.

And so you said that you identified the need for those types of conversations to take place, and then you inserted yourself into the role that could help accomplish that. And that kind of kept you moving forward, and did that prompt you to continue looking at bigger problems that needed to be solved within the airport?

35:18 JOHN: Sure. And maybe it’s just me, but I’m constantly thinking… and I think this is just the marketer in me, and the problem-solver, and the creative thinker. Always looking at what’s not working. And trying to be more efficient. And driving for that.

That’s a huge thing for me.

35:34 AUSTIN: Absolutely, well you’re a tenacious individual. And the stories are incredible. Everything you’ve overcome, and then the patience and the drive to continue to grow inside an organization can be difficult. And everything you built. Incredibly exciting.

And we’re excited for Terminal 1. I think that’s going to be huge.

35:51 JOHN: It’s going to be amazing.

35:52 AUSTIN: Are you guys planning on putting more businesses in there? Like Stone or I know you guys have some awesome stuff in Terminal 2. How does that look? Got any big plans?

36:02 PAT: Another Starbucks might not hurt. Just…

36:03 JOHN: Many more.

36:06 AUSTIN: Pannikin also. Pannikin’s great too.

36:08 JOHN: Absolutely. I don’t necessarily know what the packages are coming. Those are something that are pitched after we get through building, and then we’re just looking at what the concept’s going to look like. It’s very exciting.

Art as well. So always anchoring on the customer experience first. And then from there, the sky’s the limit. Local businesses are huge for us. So when you have Stone, we have Phil’s Barbecue, you’ve got Saffron, you’ve got Ryan Brothers… all the way across the board. These local offerings are huge. We are not necessarily like an SFO or an LAX, in that we don’t have a ton of dwell time, and people are coming in to connect. This is an O&D–Origin and Destination–airport. So basically people are either coming in and staying here in San Diego. Or they live here in San Diego and are going out.

And because we’re so efficient, there’s not a whole lot of time that they spend in the airport just lingering. What we call dwell time.

So the local offerings, the sense of place that you’re here in San Diego is huge for us, and they’ve worked out well. I think that when you look at the concessions sales–and I see these every week–those are the people that are killing it.

37:17 PAT: Yeah. Absolutely. Well that’s going to be an exciting new addition to the airport, for sure. I know that we’re looking forward to it.

But last question, you’re a pitcher, what was you’re go-to pitch. Strikeout pitch, 0-2, game’s on the line. What do you go with?

37:31 JOHN: Oh man. So what I go with… I had a huge overhand curve ball. I threw 95 miles an hour, which was great, right?

37:39 PAT: Yeah, that’s fine.

37:40 JOHN: And I look at what guys are doing today. They throw 105 miles an hour. Somebody threw 105 miles an hour three pitches in a row last week. Which is nuts.

37:47 PAT: Yeah. What was that guy’s name?

37:50 AUSTIN: Wasn’t Chapman?

37:51 PAT: No, it wasn’t Chapman. It was somebody completely new.

37:52 AUSTIN: It’s going to be Shohei Ohtani soon.

37:53 PAT: We’ll see.

37:55 JOHN: I didn’t throw that hard. But yeah, ’02 I had a huge curveball. And so that was fun. But I will tell you that the very best pitch–everybody is going to say this–is when the guy knows it’s coming and you throw a fastball by him anyway.

38:10 AUSTIN: Yeah.

38:11 JOHN: The most fun.

38:12 PAT: I love it. Well, John, thank you so much for taking the time to speak with us today. Really appreciate all your insight and your experience.

38:20 JOHN: Thanks for having me.

38:22 AUSTIN: A big thank you to John Graves for coming on the show. Absolutely fascinating to hear about his job. Everything that he does on a day-to-day basis. I think my favorite part was just asking him the questions about how the airplane situation works. And the airlines.

I had no idea. You never think about the fact that they need to also entice airlines to land there and use their airport.

38:43 PAT: They have to lobby…

38:44 AUSTIN: That’s incredible. And all the various things that goes into that, the revenue it generates? Just from bringing one new airline in?

38:50 PAT: $280 million estimated annually. I thought that was super-interesting.

The coolest part to me was kind of talking to him about all the different roles that he’s had to play. And the different areas of concentration that he has to have for those roles. Especially with an airport behind like he describes it, as a “Quasi-government” agency. Like there’s so many layers, and so much bureaucracy and so much red-tape to navigate through. I think it takes an incredibly gifted marketer and business mind to know how to do that effectively. And I think that John was exactly that.

39:18 AUSTIN: And a relationship manager. That’s truly the biggest part of his job is definitely managing the relationships in his life and his business world to make it all function and keep growing.

39:31 PAT: Well you could even tell in the conversations he was having with us. He was extremely engaged, very purposeful with his words. Deliberate in his delivery. And when he said later on that he used conversational tactics, like tool. And class… FIERCE conversations. That all clicked to me, because that was one of the more engaged I think I’ve seen one of our guests before.

39:52 AUSTIN: I thought he was a great storyteller. Really enjoyed it. Maybe we’ll have him on again someday after they redo Terminal 1.

40:00 PAT: Yeah. After Terminal 1 we’ll have him back on for another episode.

But until then, this has been episode 38 of Flip the Switch presented by Power Digital Marketing. Thank you so much again to John Graves for coming on. Great interview.

Thank you to you all for tuning in. Check out our forum. We have a privately held forum page on Facebook that you can request access to. Where we’re always talking with you guys. Posting polls, questions. Asking you guys what we can cover for you on the next show.

So request that. Austin is sitting at his computer waiting to approve you. But until then, guys, this has been Pat Kriedler, Austin Mahaffy, John Saunders and Joe Hollerup signing off.

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John is the Director of Web Development at Power Digital and thrives on the balance between creative and strategy. Using his experience in CRO, John approaches website builds with the user in mind, combining psychological and technical aspects of design.