When Lisa Grace was on maternity leave from her marketing job in Barcelona, her employer fired her. The British expat could have returned home to take advantage of the more woman-friendly employment laws in the UK. But not only did she stay–she figured out a way to make her adopted city even better. Three hundred plus tours later, her Hidden City Tours has found success and made an impact in the lives of some of Barcelona’s most marginalized citizens.
As opposed to typical tours, where large groups of people follow a hapless leader who continually counts off to make sure someone hasn’t been lost, Hidden City Tours average just four people at a time, so the experience is more intimate.
And there is another marked differences. At Hidden City, which launched in 2013, the walk is led by a formerly or currently homeless person. They will show visitors the Gaudis, Las Ramblas, and the other sites that make Barcelona one of the most visited cities in the world. But beyond the attractions, they share real stories about real lives. They are human faces to the economic crisis that swept Europe and crippled Spain financially. “Our guides have much life experience, empathy, and I’d say almost a sixth sense from years of living on the street,” says Grace, who currently employs five people.
Some may hasten to call her business a charity. After all, she is bringing money and opportunity to a population in need, as Barcelona currently has more than three thousand homeless. But Grace is adamant in pointing out that Hidden Tours is in no way a charity, it is a social enterprise. “A charity is a body that receives donations and grants. We are a company that offers a service, a quality service,” she says about the business that was initially self-funded and now supports itself via tour profits. “We receive no funding or donations. A social enterprise must be economically viable, otherwise it just causes more problems for society.”
The means Grace uses to solve society’s problems are as simple as they are impressive. First, she recruits the guides, which she calls the most challenging part of her business. To find the men and women to lead tours, Grace initially worked with a local homeless charity, yet today she finds that she is the best filter. “I recruit via social services, some selected local charities and soup kitchens. I am constantly expanding my network to try and find new sources for potential guides,” she says. Each guide, aside from having to be drug and alcohol free, must also speak French, English, or German as well as their native Spanish and Catalan. A local historian has also worked with the company to help the guides brush up on local knowledge.
Grace has also structured a work environment that thrives on team building and creating a sense of camaraderie. The guides earn 50% of the cost of their tours and keep 100% of tips. “But the income is just one side of the story. Social exclusion resulting from homelessness and poverty is a much deeper issue,” says Grace, who adds that most guides re-evaluate their life’s objectives and reconnect with family after they join Hidden City. “Being with people and meeting new people on tours is good for the guides. Talking about their time on the streets is also therapy.”
This, of course, means more work for Grace. As tour leaders gain skills and become more employable in Spain’s shaky economy, they leave. “If we still have the same guides three years from now, then we’re doing something wrong,” she says. “In this case employee turnover is a good thing!”