Connect with Locals to Experience the Authentic Character of Your Next Destination with International Greeter Association
Are you a traveler who likes to connect with local people? Do you want to feel like you are experiencing the “real” character of the destinations you visit? If that’s your cup of tea, then you need to know about the International Greeter Association (IGA)!
The International Greeter Association (IGA) is a network of hundreds of volunteers around the world who show visitors their city for free.
IGA now operates in more than 150 cities and traces its roots to the founding of Big Apple Greeter in 1992 by Lynn Brooks. The first “welcome visitor” program of its kind in the United States, the initiative was based on one simple idea: putting people together, face-to-face, with people from other cultures.
On her extensive travels around the world, Lynn realized that almost everyone she met wanted to visit New York City, but some were a little intimidated. She wanted the world to know York City as she did: a great big small town with diverse neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who go out of their way to help a visitor feel welcome. Lynn died suddenly in May 2013, the day after Big Apple Greeter’s 21st anniversary, but her legacy lives on, touching the lives of thousands annually.
History of the International Greeter Association & Power of One Person to Make a Difference
Gail Morse, Director of Programs & Volunteers for Big Apple Greeter, and a long-time friend and colleague of Lynn’s, recalls her with great respect and affection.
“Lynn was a force of nature: a person of strong beliefs and passions who had a great love for New York City,” Gail said. “She was focused, a world traveler, an optimist whose favorite word was “wonderful.” If she believed in an idea, she didn’t take ‘no’ for an answer. She also had a strong background in volunteer engagement and nonprofit management.
Gail explained that the International Greeter Association started in 2005; by that time, local greeter programs had started in Melbourne, Australia; Chicago, Illinois; and Buenos Aires, Argentina. In addition, Houston, Texas; Fairbanks, Alaska; and Toronto, Canada, were in the process of starting programs.
“Lynn and Katie Law in Chicago had talked a few times about starting an association, specifically to encourage new programs, and protect and market a “greeter” brand,” Gail recalled. “Interest in the greeter concept was growing.
Gail explained that in 2005, IPW, a huge tourism marketing conference and marketplace, was held in New York City. Some of the destinations interested in starting a greeter program would be in New York City anyway, so those interested in forming a network took advantage of the timing and location to hold a meeting.
“Lynn’s passions and experiences, and her willingness to stand and debate her viewpoints definitely influenced the development of the IGA’s Six Core Principles,” Gail said. “She believed in peoples’ ability to do good, that we can all make a difference in the world, and that we should never give up on our beliefs, that persistence is the key to success.”
Lynn Brooks (upper left-hand corner) and Gail Morse (lower right hand corner) at an international networking event in Pas-de-Calais. Photos: Diana Hounslow
Come as a Guest, Leave as a Friend
“I’ve always thought that the greeter concept is a great example of one person making a difference, whether it was Lynn Brooks starting Big Apple Greeter, a small group starting IGA, or visitors going home to tell friends and family that the stranger they met in another country is now a new friend for life;” Gail said. “We are only half-joking when we talk about world peace, one visitor at a time. I love the IGA tagline: Come as a guest, leave as a friend. The spirit of IGA is friendship and respect for all people and cultures.”
“We must manage our visitors’ expectations: greeters are new friends, not professional tour guides,” she continued. “We don’t want to compete with professional tour guides, so we don’t want to misrepresent ourselves as tour guides. While it may be easier to call us guides and what we do a tour, at Big Apple Greeter, we say greeter or volunteer for the person, and visit or walk for the activity.”
“There is a certain type of visitor who wants to meet a greeter, just as there is a certain type of person who wants to become a greeter: someone who is naturally curious and respectful, people who want to dive deep into a destination and understand more about the lives of the people who live there,” Gail continued. “IGA members are definitely grassroots ambassadors. If only the greeter philosophy could influence international relations on a government level!
Gail said the most frequent requests International Greeter Association in New York hears from visitors are “We want to see where New Yorkers live and work.” “We want to go to the less touristic places.” “We want to see the places only New Yorkers know about.”
“We are seeing more and more visitors staying in apartments, rather than hotels, and staying way outside midtown Manhattan in the in boroughs of the Bronx, Brooklyn, Queens and Staten Island” Gail observed. “And we see visitors changing accommodations once or even twice during their stay, experience life in different parts of the city. All of this speaks to visitors wanting to experience New York City like a resident.”
“Greeter programs, by definition, are experiential travel,” Gail noted. “This is an interactive, not a passive, experience. Visitors are connecting with greeters as new friends. Greeters are recommending their favorite local restaurants and small shops, coffee shops and small parks. Why would anyone want to travel any other way?”
“People in Chicago were familiar with the Big Apple Greeter service and wanted to create a volunteer opportunity for Chicago citizens who always offered to help at any big citywide event,” said Katie Law, now chairman of International Greeter Association and Manager of Greeter services for Choose Chicago. “In 2001, when I was a program coordinator for the city of Chicago’s Office of Tourism, which was located within the Cultural Affairs dept., it was decided the Chicago would offer a free visitor service modeled after Big Apple Greeter. I and the head of Chicago’s office of Tourism traveled to NY to take a greeter visit and also meet with Lynn Brooks. Chicago then launched its Greeter service in April 2002. After that followed Toronto and Houston, who had heard about the concept of using locals to highlight their city from NY and Chicago, showing visitors what they loved about where they lived and they established their own services.”
“In 2005, Lynn and I decided it was time in the infancy of the greeter concept to begin to meet as a loose network,” Katie said. “We shared accomplishments, ideas, concerns and thoughts on how we could grow and protect what we had, a free non-commercial visitor program using citizens to highlight what they loved about their cities for visitors. We continued to meet every year after that with each meeting adding new destinations. By our meeting in 2009 in The Hague we had grown to 14 cities. At the Hague meeting it was decided we would form a International Greeter Association board and committees, the most important being the membership committee to help new destinations navigate the process of establishing greeter services.
“We have now grown to over 150 destinations around the world,” she continued. ”Bringing together locals and visitors in small groups (usually on average two-three visitors) for free, enables a conversation between world inhabitants that is so needed at this point in history. This service is not only welcoming but the sharing part of it is so special. Lynn Brooks had a wonderful idea over 20 years ago that continues to flourish!”
Meet some of International Greeter Association’s greeters for yourself and hear why they love sharing their city with visitors—and what they consider to be it’s best-hidden gems!
Mary Williams, Chicago Greeter
I love living in Chicago after living in the suburbs for many years. And I love learning new things, meeting new people and being active. In recent years, I’ve also realized that in another life, I might have made a pretty good concierge. The greeter program allows me to act in that capacity for my visitors.
Probably what appeals to me most about the program is that there is no script. Each visit can be unique. And if there is a new neighborhood or attraction that I want to add to my repertoire, I can research and design a tour around that.
Most of my visits are unique and rewarding, because of the people. After spending a few hours together, we get to know each other and become “friends.” I love the feeling of connection that develops over the course of a visit. I would like to add that I have also experienced this from the standpoint of a visitor. I had a Greeter during my time in Bangkok, Thailand this year. It was a highlight of the trip, not so much because of what we saw, but because of having a chance to get to know a local person and hear about ordinary life.
I love taking visitors into the Chicago Athletic Association Hotel. The athletic association opened in the 1890s as an exclusive men’s club. When the organization moved out of the building it was restored and re-purposed as a hotel. It has a rooftop restaurant with unparalleled views of Millennium Park and the lakefront. It also has a gorgeous lobby and a game room. People often don’t realize that the building is open to the public. And even if all they want to do is go up to the rooftop and take pictures from the terrace, they can do so.
Ushio Nagashima, Tokyo Greeter
We have a vision to increase the oversea people who love Japan. We want them to visit our city to understand our culture and history. The concept of International Greeter Association met our goal. We decided to join International Greeter Association.
I had a visitor from Switzerland. He was a famous collector of the three wise monkeys. The three wise monkeys are a pictorial maxim, embodying the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. The three monkeys are Mizaru, covering his eyes, who sees no evil; Kikazaru, covering his ears, who hears no evil; and Iwazaru, covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.
There are various meanings ascribed to the monkeys and the proverb including associations with being of good mind, speech and action. In the Western world, the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye.
I walked around my neighborhood with this collector to look for ones. It is not until I met him that there are a lot of the three wise monkeys around my neighborhood. According to him, it is said that Japan might be the origin of it. I could get new knowledge through greeter activity.
Asakusa is one of the famous sightseeing spots in Tokyo. Asakusa is the area, famous for the Senso-ji. It is the oldest temple in Tokyo and visited by pilgrims from all over the country. The origins of Senso-ji date back to the 7th century. The Kaminarimon Gate, “thunder gate”, stands in front of the road to Senso-ji. It has a big lantern from the ceiling which is a landmark of Asakusa. You can see “Nakamise” between Kaminarimon Gate and Senso-ji which is one of the oldest markets in Japan. You can enjoy shopping such as Japanese sweets, traditional toys and souvenir. The area is known as entertainment from the old days.
Many tourists visit Sensoji temple. They leave there after visiting the temple. But there are several interesting spots backside of it. There is a small shrine known as happy marriage ties, the miniature of Mt. Fuji and an old temple hole with a ceiling painted a dragon. Few oversea visitors walk around there. The route is good as an off the beaten track.
Jean-Claude Bonnard, Paris Greeter
I became an International Greeter in order to meet people from other countries, to introduce them to areas of Paris off the “beaten track” and not in their travel guides and also, to exchange views on our ways of life.
A unique experience is when you learn something from your visitors. This happened with some Americans who asked me to incorporate in our scheduled visit the attending of the ceremony of the Veneration of the Crown in Notre-Dame. I had never heard of the ceremony before and learned that it takes place each first Friday of the Month at 3:00 p.m. I attended the ceremony with them, for which they were very grateful as I could guide them how to easily enter the church and where the best place to sit was for visibility.
I like to show the visitors old sites like the passages and courtyards of Faubourg St Antoine, and locations where workers lived and worked in the last century so they can understand their way of life and compare it to their own country.
Mike Dawson, Adelaide Greeter
As someone who had travelled fairly extensively, and experienced guided tours in other cities, the concept of being “A friend in the city” to visitors was appealing. Being an International Greeter gives me the opportunity to share the uniqueness of my city with visitors. It also provides the opportunity to meet people from other countries and cultures and share personal experiences—something that does not happen when you are part of a tour group with a paid guide.
The most rewarding experience I’ve had was showing two visitors who were speech and hearing impaired. The first challenge was finding a volunteer who spoke BSL (British Sign Language), and then getting used to conversing through an interpreter. It was meaningful to me to know that at the end of our time together, they had been able to learn about our city in comfort.
The Adelaide Arcade is an iconic part of the city. Built-in 1885 it still remains much in its original form. Just wandering through the Arcade you could easily miss the ‘almost hidden’ stairs that take you up to a small museum, which outlines the history of the Arcade and lets you listen to the Polka that was written for the opening, and has displays showing the kind of wares that could be purchased in the early days of the Arcade. All the shops are individual and unique and do not belong to any franchise.
Annie Walgraef Provoyeur, Pas-de-Calais Greeter
When one travels and visits places one does not know I personally, it’s most agreeable to experience tourism with a ‘local’. When arriving in a foreign town, the first thing I usually do is visit the tourist office to find local information, on what to do and see. But being met by a local, see where the locals go, do and eat is so much nicer, makes you discover sites in a different way. This does not mean visiting historical sites with a qualified tourist guide is not to put on one’s program. Visiting with a greeter is different; one takes a walk around the town or countryside and we discuss our interests. I learned about International Greeter Association after reading an article in the local press and found the concept very interesting indeed. I was very happy to be accepted as a greeter in the Pas-de-Calais (France) and love welcoming visitors from all over the world: Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, Ireland, Holland, Belgium, France, Switzerland, Germany, Austria, Russia and China and U.S. All the visitors I have been lucky to greet have loved their experience, and found it lovely having their personal greeter to make them appreciate the country and area they have chosen for their holiday.
I greeted British ladies and one wanted to go to a wool shop, I was happy to please her, she was thrilled with her shopping. The Russian students were very impressed with the various shops: butchers, chemists, historical buildings, and they loved the bakeries. They found the choice of pastries awesome, so I bought them our local Calais cake which we ate in the nearby park, they loved it. The majority of tourists are very impressed with the Cap Blanc Nez with an altitude of 134m, from where one can see the ‘White Cliffs of Dover’ in the distance, about 33kms away, across the Strait of Dover. From there one can see how busy the Strait is with the many ships passing and the Ferries crossing from Calais to Dover.
I live in Coquelles, where the Channel Tunnel was built between the Continent and England, so I do like to show the history of the Tunnel. For visitors who like to hike in the country and along the sea I do a walk over the ‘Noir Mottes’ from Coquelles or Sangatte and finally, arrive at the Cap Blanc Nez. I also like to share the Notre Dame Church in Calais, which was badly damaged in the 2nd WW) and is where General de Gaulle married Yvonne Vendroux and the International Lace Museum, as Calais is well-known for its lace. From the Calais Town Hall with its ‘Beffroi’ 75m high, visitors can see all around and admire the harbor, the lighthouse (271 steps to the top), the Arts Museum, the various parks and much more. In front of the town hall the statue of the ‘Six Bourgeois’ statue made by August Rodin in memory the inhabitants when Calais was taken over by the British. A walk in the streets of Calais offers views of the architecture, which is superb. The fishing harbor “Courgain Maritime” and our local ‘Pecheur à Pied’ Myriam who goes out daily, no matter the time of day or weather, in order to supply us with freshly picked black mussels so we can enjoy a traditional ‘Moules Frites’.
Arina Vorobeva, St. Petersburg Greeter
They say, sometimes life gives you exactly what you are looking for, but in a totally unexpected way: that was the case with the Greeter movement: I was studying translation and interpretation at the university and was looking for a way to practice spoken English. And once I came across a post about International Greeters on ‘Vkontakte’, Russian social network, and decided to join it at once. But for me, it is not only a wonderful chance to practice languages and get to know cool people from all around the world, but also a unique way to build bridges between cultures and countries on a personal level. That was my ambition when I decided to study translation, but it was also fulfilled when I became a greeter.
The attitude of tourists to our walk and to our beautiful city is always kind, sincere and positive! Once I walked with three families from Great Britain – all of them much older than me. I guess they had never had an experience with greeters before, and at first they behaved in a rather formal and reserved way. However, by the end of our long walk (we visited lots of beautiful locations in the city center that day) there was a miraculous change – they talked and laughed and felt totally at ease! That’s what is so cool about the greeters: getting informal and building trust between greeters and the tourists. Another thing I remember was when – long after our walk – a family from France wrote a message of condolences to me when the tragic explosion in Saint-Petersburg underground happened. That was something truly valuable for me.
Everyone knows about the beautiful city center, but very few tourists know about the attractions that lie a little bit further. I really love showing the parks in the north of the city: the Elagin island and Krestovsky island. It seems that these parks combine everything: charming landscapes, the snow-white Elagin palace, a lake with black and white swans, some VERY inquisitive squirrels, lovely Soviet-times statues, the huge super-innovative stadium like a giant flying saucer and even a superb amusement park with terrific roller-coasters! Intrigued? Come to Saint-Petersburg and I will be happy to show all this—and much, much more!
Corinne Ben Sasson, Tel Aviv Greeter
I became to be a greeter after having a greeter myself Paris! I did not know about this program and was very happy to learn that we have greeters at Tel Aviv. I love the way you can meet a local person and see through his eyes the way he loves its town. You can see places you never see as a normal tourist. That’s the charm of greeters; they show you places that are not even written about in the books!
Once I started a visit that was planned for one hour and we didn’t finish for seven hours! My tourists did not want to stop! I often walk for several hours, because I stop at every place and tell funny stories about the places we see. I like to show places that the tourist will never see by themselves or even with a group. I also like to show and taste Israeli and Arab food. People love that!
Jaffa is the first port of Israel and was surrounded with walls. Now it is one of the most beautiful place of Tel Aviv. You can hear lot of stories about Jaffa and spend at least three hours in its small streets that have Zodiac signs for names. The legend says that if you find your Zodiac sign, you have to run three times in the street, make a wish and hope that it will works! You can also visit the flea market and have a good fish meal at the ancient port.
I also like to show and taste Israeli and Arab food. People love that! At Jaffa there is a shop called Abulafia that sell all the specialties of Arab sweets: Baklawa, Kanafeh, a sweet pastry made from kadaif noodles and goat cheese, pita with Zaatar (bread with special spices). I like to show and try all the specialties of Israeli food: Falafel, Humus, Tahini, Tabule.
I enjoy “showing off” to visitors the unique galleries at Jaffa, including Frank Meisler’s works, and the museum of the Yemenite’s culture. The Yemenite Museum represents those people who left their villages and walked for several months to come and live in Israel. They brought with them their culture and beautiful ceremonies that you can only see at their weddings. It is a unique museum and must be seen by everyone. Their jewelry is beautiful and very special.
A program as extensive as International Greeter Association doesn’t run itself. Gail Morse offered a behind-the-scenes look at some of the issues involved with operating such a massive volunteer initiative.
“When the member programs meet at International Greeter Association meetings, we talk about our common problems,” Gail explained. “Funding is usually the biggest issue for members that are NGOs. Tourism is a huge economic generator, but it is usually taken for granted and underfunded, with no money for a small grant left over for the greeter NGO. We may be volunteer-run, but there are still bills to pay: web development/hosting, insurance, office supplies, etc. Big Apple Greeter has a paid staff of two people.”
“Marketing is another issue among all the greeter programs, NGOs as well as those that are government-tourism office based,” she continued. “How do we get the word out? Advertising is no good: no one has the money to do that, and, when your audience is the whole world, where would you advertise? Many of the members would love to have more visitors.”
“In terms of governance, International Greeter Association is an umbrella organization over 150 independent programs – not 150 chapters of the one organization,” Gail said. For a long time, we have been an informal association and are now about to become a legal entity. This is a wonderful, huge, important step toward the future!
“To find out if a city has a Greeter service when you are traveling, log onto International Greeter’s website. You can use the map to see where in the world services are located and then click on the city and you are taken to the individual website of the destination. Once you have submitted a visit request you will be contacted by the destination in information about your greeter and date and time of your scheduled visit.