Big Apple Greeter: We’re All About the Human Connection

Lynn Brooks

by Lynn Brooks

My story is one of overcoming the odds and never giving up. Almost everyone’s life is a roller coaster ride of ups and downs. But the most important thing I’ve learned is to believe in yourself and never give up – even when everyone says your idea won’t work.

I founded Big Apple Greeter in 1992 as the first “Welcome Visitor” program of its kind in the country. It is a non-profit organization that pairs visitors to NYC with volunteer “Greeters” who explore the city together, free of charge. Today we are more successful than I ever dreamed possible. But if you think my journey was an easy one – it wasn’t!

Before Big Apple Greeter, I left an eight-year job I wasn’t enjoying. People thought I was foolish since I was 59, and they worried I’d never be hired again. I figured if I didn’t have the courage to leave, I’d never have another chance to do work I enjoyed.

It took over 6 months, but I finally found a job, then I was let go in six weeks because of cutbacks! I was depressed staying home and doing nothing, so I decided to start my own venture.

This turned out to be harder than I expected. Over the course of a year, I wrote letter after letter to The Movers and Shakers in New York. I’d tell them about my idea to match volunteers with visitors and ask for advice. (People will usually see you if you don’t ask for a job or money.)

So I met with everyone from the Mayor on down, and here’s what they said: “Lynn, it’s a great idea, but it won’t work. My advice is don’t do it.” Every time I heard this, I’d write another letter, but I was so bad at typing, it took me forever. 

Eventually I found my way to Manhattan Borough President Ruth Messenger, who loved the idea. She couldn’t pay a salary, but she gave me a desk and office services. She also gave me a computer, which I didn’t know how to use, so I kept calling a friend for help!

What made all this even harder was that everyone in the tourism industry felt threatened by my idea. They were worried I’d take business away. Even the people in Ruth’s office thought I was taking her time away from them. I was knee-deep in setbacks, but kept saying to myself, “You can either keep trying or go back to job hunting.”  I refused to give up or stop believing in myself.

So now I had to find funding! Even with the backing of the Borough President’s office, I continued to be turned down.  When the publisher of Newsday showed interest in supporting Big Apple Greeter, my original timetable and budget went out the window! The publisher offered me six weeks of funding, but only if I launched the program in six weeks, in time for the conference he was hosting.  Funding would end when the conference was over.

With the strength of my conviction and belief in my idea, I was able to persuade two wonderful people to take short-term jobs, believing that we’d find the funding to continue.

I was just as persistent when it came to finding donors. Later, with the help of our first Board Chair, Joel Epstein, EVP of Chase Manhattan Bank, we managed to attract enough financial support to launch.

The idea for Big Apple Greeter started during the 1980’s when I’d talk to people on my vacation travels. At that time NYC had a terrible image problem: almost everyone I spoke to thought we were unfriendly and dangerous.

I wanted the world to know my city as I did: a great big small town with a huge variety of neighborhoods, mom-and-pop stores, fun places to dine, and friendly residents who were warm and welcoming to out-of-town visitors. I believed the best way to get to know NYC was to get to know a New Yorker.

Because I’d worked with volunteers most of my career, I thought they should be a central part of the program. My hunch was that many New Yorkers were so passionate about their city, they’d jump at the chance to “give back.” We launched on May 3, 1992, and soon after a notice appeared in The New York Times asking for volunteer “Greeters” to help visitors feel more welcome. I was shocked at the response! Within hours the phones were flooded with hundreds of calls.

Today we have more than 300 Greeters – most are over 55, more than 50% work, many are multi-lingual, some are blind or use wheelchairs. They are ready, rain or shine, to spend two to four hours with visitors, showing them our people, culture and diversity, as well as how to use subways so they can get around easily. They share their loving visions of the city as only native New Yorkers can, from buildings steeped in history to museums that are modern masterpieces; from the sparkling Diamond District to the Whispering Bench in Central Park.

 This year as we celebrate our 20th anniversary, I realize I have learned many lessons: to surround myself with a remarkable staff, incredible volunteers, amazing benefactors, and board members who are generous with their time and talents. Without them, Big Apple Greeter wouldn’t have survived. I am grateful to all of them, and I always let them know it. I simply couldn’t have done this by myself.

 I have also learned how important it is to listen – and to understand. When the tourism industry was upset about Big Apple Greeter, Ruth Messenger and I sat down with an industry representative and worked together to create a program that would help – not hurt – tourism. Since then, the tourism industry has been well-represented on our Board.

In terms of success, our cup runneth over. We’ve had more than 120,000 visitors since we started. We’ve generated over two billion positive, world-wide media impressions about New York City. 95% of our visitors give us “extraordinary” evaluations. Our volunteer retention rate is incredibly high. We’ve been called the most cost-effective public relations arm in the city. We’ve been widely recognized, starting in our early years, with awards that run the gamut from corporations to city government, and in January we will receive the prestigious 2012 Hotel Excellence Lifetime Achievement Award.

In 2005, the Global Greeter Network was founded, which has grown to 36 programs on six continents. Each separate program is based on the Big Apple Greeter model of welcoming visitors as a way to promote understanding among cultures.

We have fulfilled our mission many times over: to enhance New York City’s worldwide image and enrich the New York City experience by connecting visitors with knowledgeable and enthusiastic volunteers.

Perhaps the greatest measure of Big Apple Greeter’s success is in terms of the human connection. 

On September 11th, 2001, just nine years after we started, our office was overwhelmed with emails and faxes from visitors all over the world expressing their concern for the safety of their Greeter friends. For these caring people, Big Apple Greeter will always be the heart of New York City. 

One Response to Big Apple Greeter: We’re All About the Human Connection

  1. Elizabeth Erlandson says:

    Congratulations, Lynn. As much as I would have loved to win the contest for Licorice International, I must say your story is wonderfully inspiring. Every big city needs greeters like you provide. Although I now live in Lincoln, NE, I am originally from Philadelphia and I still love that city and would enjoy sharing it with visitors. I hope your story inspires others to begin programs in their own town. Best wishes and again, congratulations on being a winner all around.