Jayne and Frank Spinney wanted to see the sights when they returned to Boston for the first time in more than four decades, but they weren’t interested in the regular tourist haunts. The California couple, both Boston natives, wanted to visit their childhood homes and the churches they attended growing up.
Enter Aaron Friar, a 40-year-old elementary school teacher and church administrator from Brighton, who drove the Spinneys to their old neighborhoods in Allston and Roxbury and led them on a tour of Boston churches. Standing in Copley Square, he motioned toward Old South Church and prepared to launch into his spiel about architecture.
“We don’t care about architecture,” interjected Jayne Spinney, 78.
“So I’ll scrap that,” said Friar, who shepherded the couple to his 2002 Toyota Corolla and headed for the Allston triple-decker where Jayne Spinney grew up.
The Spinneys’ customized tour came courtesy of HipHost, a Salem company that connects visitors with local guides in more than 100 cities around the world. But these aren’t professionals: They are chemists and food bloggers and hotel concierges who like showing people around their cities, sharing their knowledge, and making some extra money while they’re at it.
In Boston, the tours range from bargain shopping to pub crawls to an eight-mile run starting in Copley Square.
Friar, who charged the Spinneys $120, normally offers a religious heritage tour, including sites such as Trinity Church in the Back Bay. But as his abbreviated dissertation on architecture shows, he’s happy to modify the itinerary.
“If we were on one of those tours with 30 people,” Frank Spinney, 79, said later, “they would look at you and smile and say, ‘This is our tour, not yours.’ ”
HipHost was dreamed up by Mario Ricciardelli, a Marblehead resident who started a travel company as a Babson College student in the 1980s and sees HipHost as part of the new “sharing economy,” in which people rent cars or spare bedrooms to tourists with the help of peer-to-peer marketplaces on the Internet.
Private professional guides are expensive and group tours can be a drag, said Ricciardelli, 45. So why not find a way to enable locals to show visitors around, like when a friend comes to visit?
That’s how Brian Valentin felt when he and his wife signed up for a HipHost wine tour of the North End. The Valentins, who are from New York, connected with Ed Jennings, a buyer for an Andover electronics distributor.
Jennings took them to Strega and Artu and Tresca for sangria, and then, when he learned they also liked beer, expanded the itinerary to include Bukowski Tavern in the Back Bay and the Lansdowne Pub, near Fenway Park. The $50 tour was supposed to last two hours but stretched into five as they joked and talked about jobs, Jennings’s military service, and, of course, New York vs. Boston.
“After a while, he wasn’t a tour guide. We were actually hanging out with somebody,” said Valentin, 41, adding that he might call Jennings the next time he comes to Boston. “Like a rent-a-friend.”
Anyone can submit tour ideas to HipHost, which reviews each proposal before posting tours online. Guides tell HipHost what they want to earn — usually about $20 an hour — and HipHost tacks on a small administrative fee. The site offers about 1,000 tours in 100 cities.
In Massachusetts, about 80 people have signed up to be guides, the majority of whom had not given tours before.
Matt Doyle, 23, is an abstract painter and bike messenger, and his tours center on those two worlds.
One is a trip through the Museum of Fine Arts and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum; the other is a dive bar tour by bike.
Doyle scouts locations while riding around Boston, covering about 30 miles a day as he delivers blood samples to hospitals and paperwork to law firms. He likes taking visitors to places they would not normally see on a tour, like the Midway Cafe in Jamaica Plain.
“I’m always showing friends from out of town around anyway,” he said, “so it just seems kind of normal.”
Everett native Evmorphia Stratis, an artist and teacher, has led about a dozen HipHost tours, including a museum jaunt, Harvard Square and Charlestown outings, and a trip down the HarborWalk. Stratis, 60, will also drive people wherever they want to go; they can choose “polite” or “real Boston,” which comes complete with horn-honking, yelling, and maybe a few profanities.
Stratis filters history through her experiences. In Harvard Square, for instance, she talks about civil rights demonstrations and Vietnam War protests she attended in the 1960s, and about how the once-funky square gave way to upscale stores.
“This is a real tour by a real person who lived here,” she said. “It’s all my local perspective. I’m not Miss Factoid.”
That presents a problem to some. HipHost guides aren’t trained; the company doesn’t control or critique information they present. Once HipHost connects them and processes the payment, guests and guides are on their own.
This lack of oversight means guides could give out inaccurate information, said Bob Schwartz, marketing director for Boston Duck Tours.
“You don’t really know who these people are, and you don’t know what their background is and if they’ve really been educated in the topics they’re discussing with you,” he said. “So it’s sort of a crapshoot.”
But Micky Robinson, visiting from London, did not mind that Stratis wasn’t spouting historical trivia during her HarborWalk tour. Robinson was more interested in the Italian restaurant on Rowes Wharf that she wouldn’t have found on her own and the Harvard Square cafe Stratis drove her to when she tired of walking.
“I’ve traveled all around the world,” Robinson said, “and the best times I’ve ever had are when I met a local and they showed me a true taste of their lives.”
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Correction: An earlier version of this story had the incorrect neighborhood where Frank Spinney grew up.