Wouldn’t it be great if during your visit to another city, you could safely approach someone on the street who you were confident would have the answers to your tourist questions? Sure, there are Tourist Info offices sparsely located here or there, but they’re not always conveniently nearby. The City of Helsinki solves this problem with something called the Helsinki Helpers. By sending out a small army of young representatives, they are there, well, everywhere on the streets, to greet you and to answer your touristy questions. Knowing that the Helpers are your friends before you have even stepped foot from your home, there’s no need to approach some random stranger for help. In this post, let’s see what they’re all about!
I recently contacted the Helsinki Help Project Supervisors, Anni Lehtonen & Petteri Paavilainen, for a quick interview to learn more about the Helsinki Helper program. I thought it would be interesting to shed some light on the program and to know how it works to benefit you, the visitor. This excellent program is definitely a resource you should take advantage of during your visit to Helsinki. Give the interview a read through and I’m sure you will find it interesting and useful. By the way, it’s FREE!
Note: There are a couple of questions which are very long. I merged some questions together as their reply basically answered all these questions in one paragraph.
Ken: Can you give me a little background on the Helsinki Helpers program? How did it get started and how many years has it been running? How many Helpers are there and what are the criteria for their selection? Do they have to be a citizen of Finland? Are they required to speak multiple languages?
Anni & Petteri: The Helsinki Help tourist information project started 22 years ago as a program for providing work for unemployed youths. Throughout the years the project has changed a lot, and nowadays our Helsinki Helpers are mainly young students (18-27 years old) who can speak at least four different languages (most of them actually speak a lot more). This year, for example, we have 22 Helsinki Helpers who speak 14 different languages altogether (Finnish, Swedish, English, German, Russian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, Italian, Danish, Polish, Korean, Japanese and Mandarin Chinese). They do not necessarily need to be Finnish citizens, but they do need to speak fluent Finnish. As I mentioned earlier, Helsinki Helpers are mainly students: most major in tourism or modern languages at university level.
Ken: Many of my readers are Baltic cruise passengers visiting Helsinki for the day, many for the first time. Where can they expect to find the Helpers?
Anni & Petteri: Helsinki Helpers patrol the inner city of Helsinki, as well as the international cruise harbors. We are also present at the Helsinki Railway Station, and we also have an “info-container” located at Keskuskatu (next to the National Gallery Ateneum). Helsinki’s main tourist information center (run by our regular staff all year round) is located next to the Market Square. Best places to spot Helsinki Helpers on the street are Esplanade Park, Senate Square, Market Square, Aleksanterinkatu and the statue of Three Smiths on the main street Mannerheimintie. You can easily recognize them by their colorful and uniform attire as well as a light green info-vest. Helpers also carry backpacks where they have brochures and maps to give out for tourists and locals alike. In their hands, they carry a folder filled with information we supervisors have compiled (e.g. lists of hotels, saunas, swimming places, markets, museums, restaurants, shops selling Finnish Design, transportation, ATM’s, hospitals and pharmacies etc.).
Ken: Do the Helpers receive any specific training once they are selected? How long is the training program?
Anni & Petteri: The project starts at the beginning of every summer with a two-week training period. During this period, they learn about Helsinki’s tourist infrastructure (major hotels, transportation hubs, sights etc.), tourism services (e.g. sightseeing trips) and get to know our sponsors (these are mainly museums, restaurants and travel agencies). Effectively, since we are a company run by the city of Helsinki, our financial resources are not plentiful – which is why sponsors are key for the project’s survival and functioning. This year, the Helsinki Help training period began May 31, and the Helpers began their actual work (patrolling the streets, providing tourist information) on June 12, the unofficial birthday of the city of Helsinki. You can spot them between June 12 to August 26.
Ken: What can the Helpers assist with – what kind of information can my readers ask? Is it only directions? Do they have information only for the Helsinki core or can they answer questions for further afield, like for example, how to reach Porvoo and what to do there? What is the protocol if the Helper is not able to answer someone’s question or do not speak their language?
Anni & Petteri: The core-idea is that Helsinki Helpers try to provide all kinds of tourist information – mainly about Helsinki, but sometimes they also face questions like where to go for a day trip from Helsinki (so yes, exactly questions like how to get to Porvoo, keeping in mind that they don´t need to know all the attractions and restaurants of other cities). A big part of the job is to give directions to different places and sights, but a lot of the work does consist of what to do and where to eat in Helsinki. Our principal policy is that we ALWAYS try to find the answer no matter how tricky the question. Helpers work in pairs, and each pair carries a smart phone with which they can look up information form the Internet or make calls with (usually to us or the main tourist information center).
Ken: What are some of the most interesting/odd questions the Helpers have received?
Anni & Petteri: Some of the funniest/quirkiest questions they have faced so far have been along the lines of “What time is Lapland open?”, “Can I pay by European Dollars here?” or “Where are the best spots for catching Pokémon?”. One day, our Helpers also suddenly found themselves singing the Finnish National Anthem to some French tourists by their request. Funny questions and encounters happen nearly every day.
Ken: Do the Helpers get paid or receive any type of compensation at all?
Anni & Petteri: Helsinki Helpers are employed for the summer and receive a monthly salary (i.e. they are not volunteers).
Ken: If one of my readers interacted with a Helper that he thinks did an incredible job, how should they go about commending that Helper for recognition? For example, do they have a “boss” they report to that my readers can email?
Anni& Petteri: Feedback about the Helpers can be send to email@example.com, or directly to us (during the summer season, May-August) at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ken: Will the Helpers be back for the summer of 2017?
Anni & Petteri: Next year, Visit Helsinki – Helsinki Marketing Ltd (who provides the tourist information) is going to experience big changes in its service structure, so we are not sure yet in which form the Helsinki Help project will continue. Most definitely in some way we are going to continue providing this kind of “mobile tourist information” in the future as well.
I really want to thank both Anni Lehtonen & Petteri Paavilainen for taking the time to answer my questions for this blog post. Under their current guidance, Helsinki has a program that has been running successfully for over 20 years, functioning in lock step with the rise in the city’s tourism numbers. As Helsinki grows to become a more household name in the travel industry, the Helsinki Helpers program can surely be seen as a differentiating factor. Let’s hope the project continues for many more years to come as it’s been so useful to all their visitors.
If you do run across any of the Helsinki Helpers, do at least say “Hei” (Hello in Finnish) and take advantage of this free service. Let them know you learned about them here on kensaysgotravel.com and specifically this interview. As well, if they have been extremely helpful in making your visit better, please write down their names and when you get back home, send a good word back to Anni and Petteri.
Please revisit this article and I’d love it if you would share your experience with the Helsinki Helpers in the comments below.