A Great New Resource for Travellers to Toronto: The Toronto Greeter Program – “TAP into TO”

I am a big proponent of Greeter Programs, i.e. programs that involve local volunteers who are coordinated by the city, then matched up with tourist who are looking for a personal tour of the city. Greeter Programs allow travellers to get to know the city through the eyes of a local resident and they are fabulous.

I have used Greeter Programs in New York City as well as in Chicago, and I recently found out that Toronto launched its own Greeter Program this summer. I had a chance to talk to Jamie Maxwell, Development Officer at the City of Toronto’s tourism department, who filled me in on all the new convenient resources for tourists visiting Toronto.

1. The City of Toronto has recently launched a Greeter Program called “TAP into TO”. Please tell us more about the program. What neighbourhoods are covered, what languages are offered? What is the format of a greeter tour?

TAP into TO! is a greeter program that is offered to visitors to Toronto free of charge. Visitors can either go online at www.toronto.ca/tapto or call us at 416-33-TAP-TO (338-2786) to register. Once they have given us their information (home address, Toronto address, preferred date, etc) we match the visitor with one of our greeters based on interests and neighbourhoods selected.

CN Tower

Our volunteer greeters will meet with the visitor in a public place to lead them on a 2 to 4 hour neighbourhood visit showing them “their” Toronto. The greeters are not commercial tour guides but rather, very enthusiastic individuals that love Toronto and want to show it off. We also want our visitors to feel good about our public transit system, so we provide them with round trip TTC fare while on a TAP into TO! program. People seem to really appreciate it and it does encourage them to use it for the rest of their stay.

We currently offer the program to visit 46 Toronto neighbourhoods in 13 different languages

2. Please tell us a bit about the history of this Greeter Program. How did it come about? Did you collaborate with any of the other existing greeter programs?

A few years ago, I was asked to look into similar programs to see what we could find out them. After a quick search on the internet and a few emails to some of the existing programs, I found that there were greeter programs in New York City, Melbourne, Australia, Chicago, and Adelaide, Australia. It was pretty clear to us that this is a dynamite program and one that we would love to offer to visitors to Toronto. Unfortunately, there just wasn’t any money available to launch such a program and the idea was shelved for a couple of years.

A grant from the Ontario Ministry of Tourism and Recreation was offered to us in 2004 to establish TAP into TO! along with a mobile information centre and the opportunity to have a Toronto specific staff person at the Province’s Visitor Information Centre.

The other greeter programs were very helpful when it came to answering our many questions. We even had Mike and Rita from Adelaide Greeters stop into our office while they were on their North American vacation! They spent a couple of hours with us giving us a presentation about their program in Australia.

3. What training to the TO Greeters receive?

Well after going through the process of applying, being interviewed on the phone, going through a personal interview and having us check their references, our greeters go through a 4 hour training session that involves their role as a volunteer, effective communication, ensuring a memorable experience and the actual TAP into TO! program itself. It is very interactive and believe me there is never an issue with people not getting involved. Our greeters are the most outgoing group of people that I have ever met. The 61 greeters have been selected from over 200 people who have volunteered. More will be needed as demand grows.

Old City Hall

4. The program is very new and has been in place officially since June of this year. Please tell us about your experience so far and the feedback that you have received from international travelers.

We have been delighted with the popularity of the program with both our greeters and visitors. I am also amazed at how many different people from so many different countries have found out about our program from their homes in the U.K., Australia, Peru, Germany, Israel, all over the U.S. and China to name a few.

I have also been very impressed with the feedback that we are getting from our visitors. Most express their disappointment that more cities do not offer this service (I am usually pretty quick to mention to them that including Toronto, they can find greeters willing to show them around in New York City, Chicago, Houston and Fairbanks in the United States, as well as Melbourne and Adelaide in Australia).

Some of the comments include:
“His in-depth knowledge, obvious love of, enthusiasm for, and interest in ‘his’ Toronto made our visit so much the richer….Once again, very many thanks for the wonderful introduction to Toronto, by your most affable ‘Greeter’ Ed.

“I think it’s a superb project. I really do. To meet a local who knows the neighbourhood and enjoy a stroll around downtown seems to me the ideal way to begin a stay in the city.”

“I would certainly recommend this program to anyone visiting for the first time. I was able to get a feel for the different neighborhoods and see places I would most likely not have found or ventured off to on my own.”

Probably the biggest challenge to date has been a request for a greeter from a woman and her 3 year old son. Sounds pretty average, until I discovered that the TAP into TO! experience was for the son, not the mother. Most requests are for the parents and the children get to tag along. Not this time. This time the parent got to tag along visiting some kid centered places off the beaten path. Apparently the three of them had a great time!

Toronto’s Eaton Centre

5. What makes this Greeter Program unique and different from other programs?

I’m not sure how our program is different than the others since we really learned much from them. I do know that we provide a package of information to the visitor for their use during the rest of their stay. This includes a map of Toronto’s underground PATH, a map of the TTC (our public transit system), a list of events occurring while they are in town, a list of professional tour companies, a general reference guide to Toronto (emergency numbers, tipping guidelines, getting around, etc), a list of attractions in the city, a map of Toronto, etc. I am unsure if the other programs do this.

6. How do I go about booking a Toronto greeter for my vacation?

People generally fill in the on-line application form that is found at our website, www.toronto.ca/tapto . However there have been a couple of people who have called in their request and even one gentleman who made his way to my office at City Hall. I was really pleased when I was able to take his information in the morning only to send him out that afternoon with a greeter. It doesn’t happen like that every time however as we usually need at least a week to find a greeter and the more lead time given, the better.

7. Please tell us about Toronto Mobile Ambassador Program (MAP).

MAP TO is another exciting initiative that we will be launching in the Summer of 2006. During the busier tourist months the MAP TO vehicle will be traveling to large festivals, street corners, special events (anywhere there is a large number of tourists) to provide brochures and other visitor information that is usually only available at tourist information centres in buildings or at Toronto hotels. We are hoping that this will encourage visitors to see what else there is to do while they are already making their way around town.

8. Please tell us more about the tourism resources located at the Atrium on Bay.

The Province of Ontario operates a number of Tourist Information Centres around the province. The Toronto location is located at the Atrium on Bay and is a great resource for all information relating to Ontario. Thanks to the grant provided to us we were able to hire 4 Toronto information staff to be on hand in this office during the summer months. It was a great success and has encouraged us to examine finding additional locations for the future.

Toronto Island

9. Toronto also has a new “wayfinding system” called InfoToGo and the newly developed pocket map. Please tell us more about this new resource for tourists.

InfoTOGo is a great new visitor wayfinding system. The unique design of the InfoTOgo pillar, inspired by the architecture of City Hall, includes wayfinding maps specifically designed for each area of the City that you will find the pillars. . Highlighted on each map are the key sites of interest, historical locations, public transit and area descriptions. A built in, coin operated system dispenses a pocket-sized, fold-out, full colour Toronto map. Many units also provide free information through a push-button audio system. Currently there are 24 information pillars in various Toronto neighbourhoods.

The maps are really handy as well. For $2.00 you get a pocket-sized, fold-out, full colour Toronto Map. One side of the map features an enlargement of the downtown core, while the reverse illustrates the City as a whole. Key attractions, transit routes and other useful information for visitors is also provided.

10. Please tell us about some of the major events coming up over the winter (e.g. Cavalcade of Lights, Winterlicious, etc.).

Beginning at the end of November, the City’s 39th annual Cavalcade of Lights will be launched at Toronto City Hall and throughout the city. At Nathan Phillips Square there will be skating, Saturday night fireworks, Toronto’s Official Christmas Tree, lighting displays, City TV’s traditional New Years Eve bash. Also going on in 14 Toronto neighbourhoods there are energy efficient lighting displays each designed to fit the theme of the neighbourhood. There is also a bus in operation to take you to the various neighbourhoods so you can shop during the day and visit the lights at night.

Of course there are many other events relating to the holidays happening all over the city. A really good source of what’s happening can be found at www.toronto.ca/special_events or by calling 416-338-0338.

And just as you are getting over the Cavalcade of Lights, you will find that at the end of January, you get to celebrate winter all over again with the Toronto WinterCity Festival and Winterlicious. For 14 days starting January 27, 2006, there is a series of world and North American premiere performances by internationally renowned theatre troupes to the streets of Toronto. The WinterCity passport offers discount admissions to over 40 Toronto attractions. Probably everybody’s favourite part to all of this is the Winterlicious culinary offer, where with fine cuisine and great value are offered at 120 of Toronto’s top dining establishments. But sign up early since it is a seasonal favourite. Again, going to www.toronto.ca/special_events or by calling 416-338-0338 will tell you all you need to know.

Thank you, Jamie, for sharing this information with us. I am sure out-of-town travellers will find this information very helpful.

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