Aarhus – you’re welcome
”May I help you?” is a question often heard in stores. In Aarhus though, tourists are also met with similar courtesy as they walk along the cobbled-stoned streets, thanks to the 1,900 locals who have joined VisitAarhus’ volunteer program to ensure visitors receive a proper welcome.
“When locals and tourists meet, it creates a positive energy. The locals want to give something back to the city, they know a lot, and they’re curious about what’s happening. They share all of these characteristics with the visitors, who in turn, gain a more authentic experience during their stay,” says Ulla Lund Svenningsen, Head of Engagement at VisitAarhus.
A friendly city
And it works – in the VisitDenmark survey City tourists in Aarhus, 69% of the visitors marked “friendliness of the locals” as a reason for visiting the city.
Wearing blue polos and “Ask me” badges, the volunteers – also called “ReThinkers” – stand out in the city. You could even say they make hospitality fashionable. However, a smile is the best way to gain visitors’ attention, if you ask Ulla Rasmussen and Lone Højgaard, who joined the program in 2017.
“We always say ‘hi’ and walk up to the visitors, so, they know we’re here to help. I wouldn’t have done something like that before, but I’ve become more open and attentive to others. Today, if I’m out walking and see someone with a map, I often try to help,” says Rasmussen.
As a consequence, she says she’s become more appreciative and prouder of Aarhus, its nature and its culture. The same goes for Lone Højgaard, who not only enjoys, but also takes great pride in introducing her hometown to others.
“I was about to retire and needed something fun and meaningful. To me, it’s important to engage with others. I’m no good at sitting at home, knitting and as a Rethinker, I meet people all the time. In this way, I’m part of something,” she says.
”I meet people all the time. In this way, I'm part of something.”
The thought process behind it is for the city to be like the perfect host at a party, just on a much grander scale. Aarhus is the only European city to have introduced such a scheme so far, but looks unlikely to be the last.
“We wanted to create a community for the citizens of Aarhus. The locals function as friendly hosts who are eager to help our visitors. By doing so, we can show the rest of the world that our city has the most hospitable inhabitants,” says Ulla Lund Svenningsen.
The volunteer program has been a success
The program began two years ago when Aarhus was European Capital of Culture. This initiative led to the creation of a wide variety of events across culture, tourism and businesses and to help with its implementation, the volunteer program was conceived. After the European Capital of Culture year had run its course, the program was maintained, and continues to be run by VisitAarhus, which uses it to attract events to the city. The success of the concept has convinced Lund Svenningsen that other cities would benefit from similar programs.
An excellent example of how the system works in action is the cathedral and surrounding squares in the heart of the city – an area that has witnessed the full extent of the city’s changes over the past 800 years. Today, it’s a must-see for tourists and a great location for ReThinkers. like Else Flytkjær who also joined the program in 2017.
“I’m very passionate about culture – everything from music to theater. As a ReThinker, I’m able to share my passion with the visitors and contribute to events in Aarhus. It makes me feel useful and active,” she says.
As a volunteer, in common with all the other Rethinker recruits, Flytkjær has learnt not only a lot about local history but also the social skills required to share this knowledge and her interests with others. They all agree they now feel a much stronger connection to the city as a result.
“The tourists notice the smallest things and attractions, I hadn’t even thought of in Aarhus. In turn, I’m more aware of what we – the locals – should value and preserve in our city,” says Rasmussen.
Published: September 13, 2019