If you look it up today, you will find that Tamara Vrooman became CEO at YVR on Canada Day in 2020.
But it wasn’t the YVR we knew.
And she couldn’t be the CEO we knew, even the CEO that she knew.
Airport traffic had plummeted, social and economic uncertainty reigned, restrictions seized our conditions of life and particularly those of our travelling life.
If you look her up today, and ask when she thinks she actually started in the role, she’ll say about six months ago.
Traffic has been returning, uncertainty (at least of a pandemic ilk) has been subsiding, restrictions have relented – even if we can say there is no resumption of the way things were. But for a leader known for her openness and accessibility, the arrival at the helm of a widely praised airport was bracing, especially on championing the connective tissue of the workplace that had earned her wide praise.
“I did struggle at first to be candid around how to do that when I was the only person in the office for days and days and days on end. And nobody was taking meetings, and nobody was going anywhere.”
Optimally, an airport is a little like a daily newspaper or newscast. It has a permanent structure in place with people ready to operate it, but each day gathers a unique community for a common experience – its own form of what we call the daily miracle – then starts from scratch all over the next day.
When that community wasn’t gathering at the deepest part of the pandemic, it put Vrooman to the test of a lifetime: The leader who had to assure its workforce of 26,000 and the wider world it served that it was embarking on a new chapter, not conveying the end of the story.
“It was hard for me to just sit here and look into a camera, get no feedback on a screen of people who were afraid to turn on their cameras, and talk to them about who I am,” she recounts. “I’m their new CEO. They’ve never laid eyes on me. We’re in a tough, tough spot, historically difficult as an industry – tonnes of uncertainty, both around people’s personal health and fear around having to come into work as essential workers, as well as the future of our business. So I think I had to learn to do what I had done in person this way and lean into it.”
Her team called it Live TV, as in Live Tamara Vrooman – at first daily and then weekly sessions “for me to connect with people and hear from them directly, so they get it affirmed that communication and transparency is the way that you understand what’s really going on in your business.” Still, everyone “had to adjust the toolkit significantly.”
Vrooman, 54, a former provincial deputy finance minister and CEO at Vancity, today holds three roles, any one of which would be tilt for most of us: Chancellor at Simon Fraser University, chair of the Canada Infrastructure Bank and that lil’ ol’ airport thing. If it’s a sweat, she doesn’t show it, and that must pay off in any room she now holds forth.
The community of the airport is reconvening from and for most all destinations: 86 per cent of what it was three years ago, 109 per cent domestically, all but the routes between here and China largely reconstituted, and the largest increase in passengers in the airport’s 90-year history.
But, in the same way 9/11 altered the intrinsic nature of air travel, the pandemic has painted a new picture. The business traveller, for instance, is more often now taking a staycation of sorts.
“People are not traveling to Toronto for that two-hour business meeting and flying home. They may be going for two or three business meetings over three or four days. Sometimes they’re taking their family with them and blending leisure and business travel, so we’re seeing a different travel pattern. We’re not seeing a reduction in travel so much as a shift … the way we live and the way we work are changing.”
The first two-plus years have given YVR and its leader time to reflect on its many systems, refine a few, and prepare for new contexts dictated by different imperatives: Smaller aircraft, constant career training to retain employees and of course reconciliation.
YVR sits on Sea Island, traditional Musqueam territory, and the two have a 30-year partnership. But “an agreement is just an agreement. And words, while important, if they’re not backed up by actions, are not very meaningful.” At a recent presentation to the Greater Vancouver Board of Trade, Vrooman gave the greatest example possible of those meaningful actions.
She galvanized the room with a moving tribute to Musqueam elders who took it upon themselves to welcome refugees in flights from Afghanistan and Ukraine. She said it was important for the business community to learn the story to hint at what reconciliation offers us.
“Remember, these are people who come here by circumstance, not by choice, and so highly vulnerable, traumatized, tired beyond belief and thrown out, really forced to leave their homes, sometimes their homes of many generations. And the fact that Musqueam elders instantly understood the importance of welcoming these people to their territory in a meaningful way, in the dead of night, in sleet, snow, rain.
Whenever these charter flights came in, we had elders standing at the gate and welcoming each and every person that came up. It’s something the likes of which I’ve never seen.
“And we heard from those refugees and the people supporting them that, in many cases, it was the first time in their lives that they have felt welcomed. Think about what that does, to a region and to the success of those people … where they feel they actually are welcomed and belong by the First People – truly remarkable, did it without ceremony, without issuing a press release, without pomp. Just did it because it’s the right thing to do.”
She once asked Chief Robert Joseph if it wasn’t odd to have a conversation about reconciliation at an airport, and what he told her has stuck: “Not at all. When you think about it, an airport is where humanity meets.”
Kirk LaPointe is publisher and editor-in-chief of BIV and vice-president, editorial, of Glacier Media.