By Jorge Casuso
August 21, 2009 -- As a kid from a small town in the Connecticut countryside, Steve Brookes often wished he’d had someone to point the way when he visited bustling New York City.
“I grew up in the country, so when you went to a big city it was overwhelming,” Brookes says. “I always wished there was someone I could ask directions.”
Some two decades later, as operations manager for the Downtown Santa Monica Ambassador Program, Brookes, along with his team of two dozen ambassadors, are that “someone” you can ask.
They’re easy to spot. Dressed in distinctive shirts and straw hats, and armed with walkie-talkies to report problems, latex gloves to pick up trash and black shoulder bags filled with maps and brochures, the ambassadors comb the Downtown every day and night.
They’re on the Third Street Promenade at 8 a.m. to open the bathrooms in the parking structures and stay until 12:30 a.m. every day except Friday and Saturday, when they’re on the beat until 2:30 a.m. Although they’re concentrated on the Promenade with its 10 million visitors a year, they cover the entire Downtown District, using segways to patrol the outlying areas.
“We give visitors a friendly greeting and a warm smile,” says Brookes, who works for Block by Block, the company hired by the Bayside District Corporation to run the $1.2 million ambassador program.
Need to find the nearest restroom, or a store that sells souvenirs or a restaurant that serves sushi? The ambassadors can point the way. They also can walk you to your car late at night, help find a wayward child and advise smokers of local outdoor smoking laws.
“We’re an extra set of eyes and ears,” Brookes says. “If we see something wrong, we call for help.”
Something wrong could mean anything from a transient illegally sleeping in a Downtown doorway to the recent case of a man who was “fake-kicking” visitors as they walked by.
The ambassadors also help to make sure visitors are aware of the local laws that may be unfamiliar. Despite the signs warning that smoking, skateboarding and biking are illegal on the Promenade, unaware visitors continue to light up, while others continue to zoom through the Promenade on bicycles, skateboards and rollerblades.
“We keep up on the laws,” says Brookes, noting that although the ambassadors can’t enforce the law, they keep in touch with the police officers who can.
But mostly the ambassadors go out of their way to offer visitors a helping hand.
“We aim to exceed a visitors expectations, make them remember,” Brookes says. “ In Santa Monica, the red carpet gets rolled out for everyone.”
Still, the ambassadors have to be careful not to seem too eager to help.
“Not everyone is looking for information,” Brookes says. “There’s a lot of solicitors on the Promenade, and some people mistake us for one of them.”
That’s why Becky Dishmon, one of the Downtown Santa Monica Ambassadors, is keeping her eyes out on the large directories that flank every block of the Promenade. When she spots four young Asian tourists, she approaches and flashes a smile.
They’re from Taiwan, and they’re looking for H&M, and a place to buy a souvenir, and J. Crew. Dishmon points to the shops on the directory, pulls out a map and traces the route they can take to hit all three destinations.
“A lot of people will ask for the restrooms, or where there are happy hour specials,” Brookes says. “We get a lot of questions about the bus system. ‘How do I get to Hollywood, or Pasadena or Downtown LA.’”
He notes that ambassadors give shoppers options without plugging a particular shop or restaurant. “We’ll give them a list of four or five places to go,” Brookes says.
His shift over, Brookes heads for the “command post” in a public parking structure on 4th Street. Inside, an ambassador is taking a break, while Derreck Pickett, regional vice president of Block by Block, is behind a laptop making sure things are running smoothly.
“There’s a large number of guests that come to Santa Monica,” Pickett says. “We want to maximize their expectations.”