Greeters Sweeten the Big Apple

New York volunteers are matched with tourists to serve as their contacts, coaches, guides

WHEN Sigrid Rolles and her son Roland planned a trip to the United States from Germany, they knew that their first stop would be New York City.

Having never been to New York, Mrs. Rolles decided to do some research ahead of time. Through an ad in her local newspaper in Saarbrucken, Germany, she learned of Big Apple Greeter, a visitor-welcoming program. She wrote the organization a letter.

When employees at Big Apple Greeter received her note, they sent the Rolleses a packet of information about New York. Meanwhile, they searched their files for a volunteer who could act as a contact, a coach, maybe even an informal tour guide for the German tourists-to-be.

The day after the Rolleses arrived, they met greeter Ed Botwin, who, not coincidently, speaks German.

Enjoyment is mutual

Mr. Botwin came to the Rolleses' hotel, answered initial questions they had about the city, and then guided them on a walking and public-bus tour of upper Manhattan.

``It's good, because we see parts of New York we wouldn't see on our own,'' Roland said, donning a backpack and smiling for his mother as she worked the family video camera near Central Park.

For Botwin, a real-estate broker and native New Yorker, ``showing people the city is something I enjoy.'' A world traveler himself, Botwin speaks several languages and has been a greeter for about a year.

Big Apple Greeter started two years ago under the compassionate eye of Lynn Brooks. She saw the need to polish New York's image and also provide a service for tourists to help make their New York experience enjoyable and manageable. Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messinger saw promise in Ms. Brooks's idea and provided office space, staff support, and other assistance. The service is free to visitors, though tax-exempt donations are encouraged. Greeters pay their own expenses.

Today, Big Apple Greeter connects visitors and greeters just about every day. The greeters are not travel experts or tour guides, but ``friends'' who help take the edge off the city.

So far, the program has sweetened the experiences of 5,000 visitors from 58 countries and 44 states. Most tourists learn of the service through media coverage, ads (many pro bono), and travel guides.

Funding for Big Apple Greeter comes from corporate, foundation, and private grants as well as in-kind giving and fund-raising events. The nonprofit corporation is governed by a volunteer board of directors and has a paid staff of six. Many of its corporate donors benefit from tourism (MasterCard International and American Express, for example), but not directly, says Catherine Brashich, associate director of Big Apple Greeter.

The organization's 500 volunteers have different reasons for being greeters, but for the most part their attitude is ``I love making sure people enjoy my city,'' Ms. Brashich says.

Some 40 languages are represented in the volunteer corps. All greeters are screened and trained before being accepted.

Recently, Big Apple Greeter launched a program designed to market greeters to travelers with disabilities.

Big Apple Greeter's offices are busy: Inquiries dribble in every few minutes. ``What can I do with my teenagers in New York?'' ``Where can I find some antiques?'' ``Can I meet up with someone for a tour of the financial district?'' ``I'll be in town for the marathon. What's going on music-wise?''

``We get all kinds of questions,'' says Beth Woodward, a greeter and volunteer office helper. When greeters take visitors on tours, they try to avoid the sites that tourists can see by themselves, Ms. Woodward notes.

If visitors mention the Empire State Building or Rockefeller Center, a greeter might advise them to see those sites on their own and then suggest touring a neighborhood such as Brooklyn or Harlem. (Mr. Botwin showed the Rolleses Columbia University, Grant's Tomb, Morningside Drive, a view of Harlem, and more.)

Brashich unearths a stack of feedback forms. A typical response: ``We now have the confidence to see very much more ourselves.''

A tourist from England writes: ``We had been given to understand New York City was an unsafe area for tourists. The Greeters gave us confidence to dispel this theory. We had never expected such a greeting....''

A visitor from South Africa writes: ``It was fantastic speaking to a local who loved New York and knew so much about the city and its history. I would have never ridden on a subway....''

Humanizing New York

``We try to help [visitors] make informed decisions,'' says Brashich, who adds that ``It's hard to fulfill all dreams and expectations. We coach them.''

Director and founder Brooks points to the program's ripple effect: ``Big Apple Greeter helps humanize the image of New York by connecting visitors with knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers. When we began, we didn't know if we would have more visitors or volunteers,'' she says with an enthusiastic smile.

People volunteer because they love the city and love showing it off, Brooks continues, or they love meeting people from around the world; or they are frustrated with the poor image of New York and want to try to change it. They may say ``the city has been good to me, and I want to give back'' or ``people have been good to me when I've traveled, and I want to give back.''

``I'd say those are all good reasons,'' she concludes.

* Big Apple Greeter, 1 Centre St., New York, NY 10007.

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