At first glance, the drive from Temple Square in Salt Lake City, Utah, to the Salt Lake City International Airport is fairly routine, filled with the usual road signs and speeding cars found on every highway. However, the scenery located along the twenty-minute journey encompasses a great deal of Utah's landmarks and history. Each day, two 12-passenger vans make multiple trips on this drive as they transport airline passengers to the city and back, showing visitors some of these prominent sites along the way. Unlike a regular airport shuttle, the service is free and also assists with the introduction of the Church to many visitors. It is the Temple Square Airport Van Tour and it is one of the Church's great missionary tools.
Established in 1996, the Temple Square Airport Van Tour is a function of the Visitor Activities Office, a Church department that works to entertain visitors at Temple Square. The shuttle service helps in physically getting visitors there. This year-round operation gives travelers with layovers of two or more hours something to do rather than waiting at the airport. It runs every 30 minutes from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. and takes travelers from the airport to Temple Square where they then receive a tour from sister missionaries.
"It's the neatest little mission in the Church," tour director Dale Sansom said. Service missionary couples drive the tour vans, he added, noting that they do much more than simply drive from destination to destination. "They are really ambassadors of the Church and to the city. … Our drivers will let [visitors] know a little bit about the city and the settling of the valley and what they can see on Temple Square."
When Don Slagowski, a service missionary and driver for the van tour, picks visitors up from the airport, he inquires if they've ever been to Utah before. Many have not and, in turn, he asks if they would like to learn more about the place. Most passengers agree to the inquiry so Brother Slagowski tells them all he knows about Utah's nearest attractions starting with the Kennecott Copper Mine, which is visible from the road. Many other attractions are mentioned, such as the Conference Center, Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the Great Salt Lake, the Beehive House, Energy Solutions Arena and the Family History Library, among other things, including an abridged history of the state. Seventeen service missionary couples who are currently serving go through a similar process in providing as much information as they can.
"When you work out here you need to have some information that you can give to people, especially something that isn't what everybody knows about," driver Max Hill said. Missionaries also answer any questions that passengers might have.
Though the van tour missionaries do not specifically proselytize, they bring many people to Temple Square, giving them an opportunity to be introduced to the gospel. A service of "friendshipping" as Brother Slagowski called it.
Sister Dona Hill explained that many visitors return to the van much more knowledgeable about the religion and culture. "Ninety-nine percent come back really happy and really surprised with what they learn and how they feel. A lot of them can feel, when they go through the gates, the Spirit, and that's nice," she said.
As of June 2011, the tour has brought more than 100,000 people to Salt Lake City via the vans since its start 16 years ago, said Brother Slagowski. Each year the vans bring between 8,000 and 9,000 people on average, said Brother Sansom. Most people who visit with the van tour are very pleased with the experience. After their tour, van passengers are asked to fill out a comment card where they may leave their opinions. In his 16 years of service with the airport shuttle, Brother Slagowski has seen only one negative comment written.
Recently, visitors from Alberta, Canada, who rode the airport shuttle said, "Our van drivers were so very friendly. [They] went above and beyond telling us history about Salt Lake City and Utah. We were most impressed from the moment we stepped in the van. Our experience was short but meaningful and certainly interesting and educational. [We] would like to come back."
Travelers from the Netherlands called the services "wonderful," with a "friendly and cozy environment."
The visitors aren't the only ones who enjoy themselves. The missionaries are also very fond of their service.
"We love meeting people from everywhere," Sister Hill said. "There's all kinds of benefits from serving no matter how you're serving, but it's just so nice to make people happy."
Brother Sansom said that the enjoyable time the missionaries have is apparent by the number of missionaries who continue to serve. There are even a few couples on a list waiting for their turn to work with the shuttle tours. "It's a great service to the community and to the Church," he said.
Though the shuttle runs every day, all year long, hours differ in the winter, spring and fall seasons when tourism slows down. The hours of operation are often shorter as winter shuttles run from 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., and there is only one van driving between the two locations.
"We just want people to know that it's there for them and their friends," Sister Hill said.