Brussels Greeters offer free visits

Have you ever wanted to visit Brussels differently ?  The Brussels Greeters  is a collective of local volunteers who take tourists through the streets of Brussels. Each volunteer within the network is called a Greeter. This nickname comes from the verb to greet which is literally the purpose of the whole campaign.

Lynn Brooks started this concept in New York in the early nineties. Since then, the Greeters movement has expanded globally. Belgium is host to six Greeter Groups. The latest community was erected eight months ago in Antwerp. Marie Paule Eskenazy, manager of the non-profit organization Tourisme Autrementintroduced the concept to the Belgians in 2010. She wanted to promote Brussels and the Belgian heritage by founding a Greeter club in Brussels. More than five years after its launch, the organization continues to broaden its network of Greeters and tourists.

In full expansion

The movement counts 108 Greeters who voluntarily take tourists to the most remote places of Brussels. The group of guides welcomes every week new members to its crew. Belgians and even expatriates from Germany, Ecuador, Hungary and Spain apply to be ambassadors of Brussels.

Product expert at the Brussels Greeters, Philippine Nicaise argues that Brussels is not all about Manneken-Pis and The Grand-Place. The Belgian capital is an explosion of different cultures and beliefs who give birth to an amazing city. That is what the Brussels Greeters stands for. The aim of the club is to create a fun and friendly environment in which tourists and guides can interact and share their mutual love of traveling. ‘Our function is not educative. We are not here to bring an historical insight into the development of Brussels. But we allow travellers to discover new places in Brussels,’ Philippine remarked.

Non-commercial guides

The Greeters are the exact antithesis of professional guides. They are neither licensed nor trained cicerones. But those amateur guides have developed a certain love and interest for the capital of Europe. ‘Our Greeters have become skilled orators. They are a reference when it comes to street art, historical buildings or gastronomy in Brussels,’ says Philippine. The Greeter organizer assures that the collective does not interfere in other guide’s business. ‘There is no competition whatsoever. We only provide unexperienced volunteers who want to popularize local merchants,’ explains Philippine.

Tailor-made tours

The organization offers daily tours from eight to ten p.m. Every tour is free of charge. Therefore, the Greeters are not allowed to accept any money. So tourists got creative and found different ways to show their gratitude. They usually treat the volunteers to a drink or a meal. The company reduced the maximum capacity to six individuals per group. This measure was taken to encourage excursionists to fully participate in the tour.

Each visit is tailored to the expectations of travellers. Philippine matches the interests of the visitors with an available Greeter. ‘Our programme is made for tourists who want to explore Brussels from a different angle. The organization stimulates sightseers to mix with the locals and embrace the Belgian culture,’ says Philippine.

Phillipine Nicaise is also responsible for the recruitment of non-professional guides. She has to evaluate the incoming candidates based on their ability to adapt and their availability. Knowledge of languages is a real asset in this project. ‘All entrants need to be bilingual. They should master French, English, Spanish, German or Dutch,’ says Philippine. She places great emphasis on their knowledge of Brussels and the reasons for taking part in this initiative. The recruiter has to make sure that the applicants are not con artists. This process is meticulously executed by Philippine from A to Z.

Infamous Brussels

The Brussels Greeters have observed a major decline of tourists wanting to visit Brussels. The main cause according to organization are the attacks and the bad reputation the city has earned. The recent terrorist attacks severely altered the tourists’ view of Brussels. But Greeters unite forces to boost the imago of their beloved city. Philippine affirms that the volunteers want to rebuild a peaceful atmosphere in Brussels. She highlights that the amateur guides hope to restore strong relationships with international visitors

Meet a Greeter

Luc Jacobs is one of the many Greeters of the network. The Belgian beer and chocolate connoisseur has always lived in Brussels. Jacobs, known as the advocate of the Belgian capital, enrolled at the Brussels Greeters in 2014. He decided to join the tourism movement after having had a positive experience with a Greeter in New York City. ‘I really enjoyed meeting a friendly face in the Big Apple. It was an intellectually and humanely rewarding activity,’ says Luc.

The former European Commissioner knows Brussels like the back of his hand. He loves to show his guests around the European Quarter where he reached the summit of his career. Luc avoids all tourist attractions. He rather shows the hidden gems of Brussels. ‘I personally prefer to invite visitors to take a look at architectural buildings like the hotel Métropole which is an example of the belle epoque period in Brussels,’ explains Luc.

This innovative form of tourism has charmed many travellers. The company is a success story that continues to attract visitors to the city of beer. The Brussels Greeters plans to widen the Greeter community to different Belgian cities. If you want to try this concept out, you just need to fill in a form on the club’s website.

Text and pictures  ©Morgan Mc Kenzie