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Friendly faces make exploring new cities more intimate

Paul Margolis for Big Apple Greeter

Greeter Todd Cherches in New York's Chinatown with visitors from England.

The most luxurious hotel, the friendliest city and most seamlessly planned vacation can often be impersonal without some familiar touches of home.

But the Global Greeter Network, an association of programs around the world that pairs local residents with travelers, aims to change that. Greeters informally share favorite local haunts and undiscovered neighborhoods, much like they would for friends or family members.

Where did such homespun hospitality start? In New York City, of all places.

“When I traveled, people would often say ‘Oh, we’d never go to New York.’ They felt it was too dangerous, too unfriendly,” too overwhelming, said Lynn Brooks, a native New Yorker, who founded Big Apple Greeter as a way to soften the city’s image problem.

That was almost 20 years ago. The group has welcomed more than 100,000 visitors over the years. In 2011, the group welcomed about 7,000 visitors.

“I like to think of New York as a great, big small town” said Gail Morse, director of programs and volunteers for Big Apple Greeter. “Every neighborhood is a little world,” with great food, unique mom-and-pop stores, and friendly residents.

Globally, there are almost 30 programs from Argentina to the Serb Republic. Melbourne, Australia, was the first city to form a similar program, Brooks said, before the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. France has eight programs. In the United States, in addition to New York, there are programs in Houston and Chicago.

Greeters sometimes prove more than hospitable faces for a city. Morse recalled that a New York greeter once helped locate a beautiful backdrop for a couple from Toronto so they would not have to marry in an impersonal space. And after 9/11, a greeter took some French firefighters to meet firefighters at her local firehouse. “It was a great big love fest,” she said.

Some volunteers are invited to visit tourists’ hometowns. One greeter spent part of 9/11 in New York with a German visitor. The two have stayed in touch, and reunited in the city recently to spend the tragedy’s 10th anniversary together. 

Laurie Kiernicki, a hospice nurse from the Atlanta-area, has explored several cities with greeters. This past summer, a greeter in Paris shared her neighborhood on the edges of the city, showing Kiernicki and her family an old train track that had been made into a park, and a lovely, small farmers’ market. “It was off the beaten path,” Kiernicki said, “and not full of tourists,” like many Parisian neighborhoods in August.

On a “girls getaway” to Chicago earlier this month, Kiernicki and her traveling companion took in the restaurants, boutiques and Victorian architecture of the Wicker Park neighborhood. “It was tailored to us,” said Kiernicki. She had been to Chicago before, but enjoyed connecting with a local “because we had some of the inside scoop.”

What makes a good volunteer?

“We look for people who are friendly, outgoing, who can draw visitors out, with a natural curiosity and a wealth of stories to tell,” said Morse. “If they speak another language, that’s a plus.”

For greeters, volunteering provides an opportunity to give back to their city, can help with public speaking, offers practice speaking a foreign language, and is an excellent way to remain engaged if unemployed. The programs attract all ages, and retired as well as working people, the organizers said.

Milan Stevanovich, a retired IT professional, has shared Chicago with visitors for about five years, three to five times a month, and enjoys discovering new things and neighborhoods in a city where he has lived since the early 1950s. 

“I specialize in bike tours,” he said, but once, on a particularly cold day, did an entire tour without going outside, by focusing on the city’s underground walkway system, with its stores and restaurants. He takes pride in the fact that a former visitor from Florida actually moved to Chicago. “She now lives in a neighborhood I showed her,” Stevanovich said. 

“People love to show off the city they love. They act as ambassadors,” said Katie Law, manager of greeter and volunteer services for the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture. And “visitors have said it is so comforting to know someone is waiting.”

Each city handles logistics a bit differently, Law said. Through Chicago Greeter, for example, visitors can choose from 40 different interest areas to explore, ranging from architectural history and ethnic Chicago to culinary hot spots and family-friendly destinations.

The program, which welcomed more than 5,500 visitors in 2011, a 26 percent increase from 2010, also offers specialized InstaGreeter programs, free one-hour walks that do not require pre-registration during select times year, like in Pilsen, the Mexican American neighborhood; Hyde Park, President Obama’s former stomping ground; and a Magnificent Mile program focused on holiday shopping.

But for all cities, the programs are free, are composed of groups of up to six people who know each other, and require pre-registration online a few weeks in advance. Greeters frequently get in touch before hand in order to personalize visits.

What happens when the greeter becomes the greeted? “They are treated like royalty,” when they visit other cities in the Global Greeter Network, said Morse of Big Apple Greeter. “We make the planet earth a smaller place.”

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