Big Apple Greeter: New York City’s Fabulous Free Way of Welcoming Visitors and Showing Them Around
Several cities now have “Greeter” or “Ambassador” programs, where local volunteers provide out-of-town travelers with their time and knowledge of their city. I have used these greeter services twice, once in 2003 in Chicago, and just recently this May in New York City.
Greeter services are a fabulous – and free – way of exploring a city through the eyes of an insider, a local resident who shows you around. They are also a great way to make a local human connection and to find an instant friend in a new city. Gail Morse, Director of Marketing and Public Relations of the Big Apple Greeter organization, will tell us more now about the Greeter program in New York City.
1. What are “Big Apple Greeters”? What does a visit with a Big Apple Greeter entail? What makes this experience so special?
The mission of the organization is to enhance the worldwide image of New York City by connecting visitors with enthusiastic volunteers. What we do is match visitors with New Yorkers who volunteer to show some of New York City’s many neighborhoods. Visits are 2 to 4 hours long, and Greeters meet no more than a total of 6 visitors at one time. We do not match up visitors who don’t know each other, so if one person asks for a Greeter, that visitor has his or her own Greeter.
2. Please tell us how the Big Apple Greeter organization creates a unique and customized experience for each visit, based on the visitors’ interests. Do you have some Greeters that offer their services in foreign languages?
Visitors are matched by neighborhoods requested, language the visitor speaks, and, when possible, interests. We don’t take visitors to the major tourist attractions since visitor’s can easily do that on their own. Greeters take visitors to places that are generally off the beaten tourist path, giving personal recommendations for places to eat and shop, and other things to see and do. Greeters also help visitors use the subway and busses. Visitors get to see New York City through the eyes of a New Yorker and get to make an instant friend. This makes the city seem more manageable and less daunting. Greeters are not licensed, professional tour guides. There are no set itineraries, theme tours or pre-set start times; each Greeter visit is unique. Greeters can welcome visitors in 22 languages.
3. Having a greeter program in any large city is a fabulous resource for visitors. Who came up with the idea and when? How has the Big Apple Greeter Program evolved since its inception?
Big Apple Greeter is the first Greeter service of its kind. Founder Lynn Brooks came up with the idea during the 1980s while she was traveling through Europe on vacation. Lynn found that, while most people wanted to visit New York City, most felt the city was too overwhelming, dangerous and expensive. Lynn decided that everyone needed to know what she knew – that New York City is just a great big small town. Since Lynn couldn’t personally show every visitor the New York City she knew, she thought the best way to change peoples’ minds was to have visitors get to know New York City through the eyes of a New Yorker. Big Apple Greeter started as an initiative of the Office of the Manhattan Borough President and became an independent non-profit organization in 1992.
4. How many Greeters are there today? What does it take to become a Big Apple Greeter?
There are about 350 Greeters today. Greeters are not licensed, professional tour guides, but volunteers who are enthusiastic, love to meet people, love New York City and want to give something back. To become a Greeter, an applicant fills out a long questionnaire, has a personal interview and, if selected, attends a 3-hour orientation. We look for enthusiasm, communication and people skills.
5. Who can take advantage of a Big Apple Greeter? How is the Greeter matched up with the visitor?
Big Apple Greeter’s services are for visitors to New York City. Visitors must stay within the five boroughs of New York City for at least 2 nights. Visitors and Greeters are matched by the language spoken by the visitors, the neighborhoods the visitors would like to see, and, if possible, the visitors’ interests.
6. The Big Apple Greeter experience is free for the traveler. How is that possible? Please also comment on your no-tipping policy.
The 350 Greeters are all volunteers, and there are about 30 volunteers in the office who administer the program or work in other areas of the organization, such as fundraising, computer network maintenance, and public relations. There are 8 paid staff. Funds are raised through grants from corporations and foundations, and donations from individuals.
Big Apple Greeter is a free service, and Greeters don’t accept tips. The Greeter service is based on a love of New York City, a willingness to share that love with a visitor, and the human connection created between people – New Yorker and visitor. If a visitor would like to show appreciation for the service and generous spirit of a Greeter, the visitor might like to make a donation to Big Apple Greeter through our website, www.bigapplegreeter.org.
7. In addition to being free, a visit with a Big Apple Greeter also offers some additional free benefits. Please tell us a bit more about that.
Each visitor gets a $4 (2-ride) Metro Card to be used during a Greeter visit. Greeters help visitors become oriented to the busses and subways of New York City, showing them how easy and quickly they can get all over the city.
8. What is the procedure for requesting to meet a greeter? How far in advance should the request be made? What is the likelihood of getting to meet a Greeter?
Visitors fill in the Visit Request Form found on our website, www.bigapplegreeter.org , at least one month prior to arrival in New York City. Before submitting the Form, please have travel dates and accommodations confirmed for at least 2 nights within New York City. During the busiest months we may run out of available volunteer Greeters and disappoint some visitors.
9. New York City was one of the first North American city to develop a greeter program. Since then this popular initiative has spawned other greeter programs in other cities across the US, Canada and internationally. Please tell us a bit about how the NYC Big Apple Greeters helped other cities to develop their own greeters program.
The first off-shoot was Melbourne Greeter Service in Melbourne, Australia, in 1999, started in anticipation of the increased tourism expected due to the Sydney Olympics in 2000. Big Apple Greeter was asked to act as consultants on the project. Big Apple Greeter next consulted on Chicago Greeter in 2002. There are now Greeter programs in Adelaide, Australia; Fairbanks, Alaska; Houston, Texas; and Toronto, Ontario, Canada. Whether we consulted on a project or helped out with friendly support and encouragement, all these programs are excellent. Each is a little different, reflecting the differences in each city, but the principles are the same: extending a volunteer’s welcoming hand to a visitor, showing hometown pride, offering a free service to the public and a great volunteer opportunity to a local resident.
Thank you for your time, Gail, and for informing us about this unique organization.