I came across the BeLocal Exchange home exchange network this year after their twitter account started following mine. Focused on Latin America, BeLocal is one of the few new house swap networks I’ve heard of in the past two years. I immediately went to the BeLocal website and started looking around. I had a few questions, and on the website chat function I met Andrea Aguiar, the founder of BeLocal. We got to chatting about home exchange in general, and her inspiration for BeLocal. And those discussions led to this interview.
ShareTraveler: What inspired you to create a home exchange network focused specifically on Latin America?
Andrea Aguiar: My own experience as a traveler. When I started doing home exchanges, more than 15 years ago, it was completely unheard of in Latin America, people were very curious about it but found it very strange. I was sometimes introduced like: “This is my friend Andrea, remember? I told you how she travels exchanging her home with strangers.”
Well, I fell in love with the concept and with receiving all those unexpected exchange proposals from places what were not on my bucket list, but were surprisingly interesting. However, I spent 15 years travelling only overseas, never in Brazil or Latin America and we live in an amazing region with so much to see and discover. I also wanted to take smaller trips, not just a couple of long intercontinental trips per year. It was almost impossible to find an exchange in other Latin American countries or in Brazil where we could go for a few days on extended holidays, school breaks, etc. Offers were always at least 9 hours away by plane. So BeLocal was totally inspired by my own need as a home exchanger.
ST: If people who live in other parts of the world want to travel to Latin America, can they join your network?
Andrea: Yes, they are more than welcome to join. We want to be a hub for people who would like to travel in Latin America. For this reason, Belocal is in English and French also, and not only Portuguese and Spanish, the local languages. I see some regional exchange clubs are only in their native languages. We want to be as open and accessible as possible to people from other countries who are looking for exchanges in Latin America. We have an automatic translation feature both in the profile and the message pages.
We are not marketing ourselves outside of Latin America, but we are starting to attract people who would like to exchange in the region and we think it is great because it provides more travel opportunities to our members. We are not looking to be a club where an American would exchange with a French, but where people from all countries would come to look for exchanges in Latin America. We are also open to partnerships. We always think collaboration is the best way to go.
ST: Your pricing model allows people to join for free and only pay once they’ve agreed to an exchange. Free networks sometimes end up with lots of members who are inactive (many who were never active). Do you have a plan to address this problem?
Andrea: Yes, I totally agree with you, this is a huge challenge for free websites. People are not as responsive. We acknowledge this problem and we are actually following-up very closely, sending reminders to people that do not respond and even calling some of them to check if they are still interested in being part of BeLocal and eventually even deleting listings if they remain non-responsive after several trials. I think you touched a crucial point, because I don´t see any advantage in having a huge number of members if they are not really interested in exchanging. Maybe for marketing purposes, but for the members it is very discouraging when they do not get any responses.
However, in Latin America, because the concept is still new, we felt the need to let people experience the club before they paid. Many people need to actually see how it works, how people exchange messages and agree on all the details before they exchange, how we check identities, how they can see pictures, ask questions, etc. We are working very close to our members, some people are more independent and familiar with other sharing websites, others still need to be guided and taken by the hand, and we are happy to do this. We feel this is a culture change that is still taking place in Latin America.
Also because many people are unfamiliar with home exchange they are afraid it is a scam to take their money so we need to earn their trust, take the time to show them how exchanges work. And being a new club, we did not want people to pay and not have enough opportunities to exchange. So, for all these reasons, we believe that for us it was the right choice.
But BeLocal is not free, once exchanges are agreed, members have to pay. We work hard to help our members to find exchange matches. We are not just a database and a search engine, we offer a valuable service we feel our members are willing to pay for.
ST: Belocal allows members to pay to promote their rental property to the network. Do you require these members to all offer a home for exchange, or is this for anyone who wants to market rental property?
Andrea: We are essentially a home exchanging website, in order to use it for rental you have to make your home available for home exchange as well. We do not take part in rental deals and we receive zero commission for this. We also do not offer any of the typical features of rental websites, we feel there are already many websites out there doing a great job. The only purpose of allowing rentals on BeLocal is that we noticed that a lot of our exchange homes are also rentals, so if paying members would like to close a rental deal through BeLocal negotiating directly with other members, it is fine with us. We are not promoting it, but we are not prohibiting it either, as long as they are also making their home available for exchange.
ST: You have an option for points-based exchanges in your listings. How does this work?
Andrea: We feel that the point system has to be simple and its purpose should be only to provide a little more flexibility. So one night is one point no matter how big or how well located your home is. I think we should not overcomplicate things in trying to be fair. It is up to each member to decide what is good for them.
ST: For a new network you’ve had some good membership growth over the past year. How have you recruited new members since launching in 2016?
Andrea: We believe two things were very important on this first year: we had some media attention in Brazil at the beginning because we were the first Brazilian home exchange network and we also worked very close to our members from the start, always making ourselves available through a variety of communication channels, such as WhatsApp, messenger, email, social networks so they feel they can count on us for support. It was this very personal service that differentiated us and helped us to grow. I think Latin Americans prefer a more personal approach. It is very time demanding, but it has been also good for our business as we have grown a lot from recommendations, we have members recommending our services to their sisters, their friends, and it is growing like this, especially in Brazil.
ST: Where do you hope to be with Belocal in 5 years?
Andrea: We hope to grow and make home exchange a viable option to travel in Latin America. Our goal is to grow not only in the ‘top five touristic destinations in Latin America’, but also to be able to offer options in less explored areas of the continent to encourage people to experience new destinations in a more sustainable way.