This past weekend, my husband Steve and I travelled to Chicago for the first time. We had a fabulous visit but one experience stands out from the rest. We took a tour of Millennium Park with a Chicago Greeter. When it comes to communicating the character and history of a city, this volunteer-based program can’t be beat.
Tourists can book a time and location/neighbourhood with a passionate and knowledgeable volunteer to get to know the city through a local resident. It’s totally free. We did a 3-hour tour of Brooklyn in New York through the same program a couple of years ago and it rocked too.
What makes it great are the stories these volunteers tell. They not only show you the significant landmarks and tell you the “official” history of the area but they make these places come alive by telling you of their own personal experiences of the neighbourhood. They’ll tell you about things such as how they played stick ball as a kid on a particular street and about the day the corner store burned down as well as stories about particular friends and neighbours. They present as uncensored ambassadors for the city they live in and love.
These two experiences demonstrated to me just how powerful stories are in communication. I probably won’t remember the historical dates or even the street names I visited but I’ll remember the stories these volunteers told and the real sense of what it’s like to live in these two great American cities. I’ll also remember the passion these volunteers exuded on these tours. These are people (often retired) who care enough about where they live to share what they love about the place with others.
I’m not sure what the infrastructure costs of these programs are but I’m sure the department of tourism offices that sponsor them get a great return on investment. This is a truly great PR program.