Airport shoeshine stands feeling impact of business travel slowdown

Perhaps a sign of the times at the airport: You may soon have fewer places to shine your shoes.

Monday, the Metropolitan Airports Commission moved forward with the process that would reduce the number of shoe-shining vendors at Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport from two to one.

“Due to the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, business travel has declined significantly, which constitutes a majority of the shoeshine customer base,” the MAC explained.

The contracts for the two shoeshine operators at MSP — DG Express Professional Shoe Shine, LLC and Royal Zeno Shoe Shine — both expire June 30.

This week, the MAC Operations, Finance and Administration Committee agreed to begin the request for proposals process. Simply put, vendors who wish to shine shoes at the airport will soon have to make their bids in a competition to get the lone contract.

The MAC says rent will be a small part of their consideration when deciding on a vendor, adding that “customer experience and the management and operation of the shoeshine” will be its key focuses.

Royal Zeno Shoe Shine, a longtime shoe-shining stand at MSP, has gone through this before and says it’ll be putting a bid.

“I’m going to give it my best shot,” Rosemary Zeno, owner of Royal Zeno Shoe Shine, said.

This is more than a job for Zeno; it’s a passion and family tradition. Her father, Royal, founded the company and they’ve been shining shoes at the airport for decades.  

Zeno said recent times have been tough. Before the pandemic, a good day for her three stands at MSP would shine 20-25 shoes each during the busy times of the day (morning and evening), but now there are days when they won’t shine a single shoe.

“I’ve never seen the world like this before, I mean, I guess nobody has,” Zeno said while tearing up. “I just pray and hope that people want to travel again and come out into the world.”

MSP reports that travel is ramping up: March had eight of the 10 busiest days for the airport since the pandemic began.

But business trips are bouncing back much slower than trips of leisure.

While business travel expert with Travel Leaders Carrie Hanrahan said they expect a busier corporate travel year in 2022, the way in which business professionals travel has changed.

“How many business travelers need to have their shoes shined?” Hanrahan said about the more casual business attire that is more accepted now.

“We’re looking at a whole different generation of what they’re wearing, right?” Hanrahan added. “Maybe they don’t need to be wearing a suit.”

The next step for the MAC surrounding shoe-shining operations at MSP will happen April 18, when the full commission will vote on whether to approve the issuance of the request for proposals.