There are a number of variations on peer to peer lodging for travelers: home exchange, rental lodging and couchsurfing are the most common options. But there’s also a growing movement of opportunities to swap your labor for lodging (and sometimes food too). Small businesses and individuals who need some extra help can now advertise these opportunities on websites like HelpStay. And travelers can easily find opportunities all around the world suited to a wide range of skills.
I last talked to the founder of HelpStay, Shay Gleeson, three years ago when this labor for lodging swap website was just getting started. Back then they had only a handful of listings in Ireland. HelpStay has grown dramatically in the past three years and I was excited to have the chance to catch up with Shay and learn about the new developments.
ShareTraveler: When we last talked in 2014 you had only a handful of hosting opportunities in Ireland. Now I see you have more than 550 hosts in 90 countries. How did you manage to expand so much in just three years?
Shay: From the outset, we wanted a great selection of hosts and compelling projects, and in as many far flung regions as possible. We cater for a niche market, usually independent travellers who are not interested in going with the flow. They want more from travel. Our ambition always has been to facilitate a traveller, to travel the world at a low cost while in the process learning, sharing and growing.
We’re pretty well published on-line, so a lot of our hosts come directly to us. They find us on-line, through social media or via word of mouth.
ST: Are you still visiting every host to verify and interview them now that you have so many more hosts?
Shay: We’d love to verify every host individually, but unfortunately it’s no longer possible in a practical sense. However, HelpStay is a community that is committed to providing a safe & secure environment for helpers and hosts. We’re selective with our host community; every host is screened and approved by our team. We require all hosts to provide a detailed profile about themselves, describing their organisation, tasks and help required, fees (if applicable), expected hours of help, along with details on the accommodation and living arrangements offered. We recently introduced our review section. Feedback and reviews are especially important to us – both hosts and helpers review their experience.
ST: What is the average length of stay that hosts expect from a volunteer?
Shay: Hosts like volunteer helpers to stay a minimum of 14 days. That way a volunteer has enough time to contribute to the project in a meaningful way.
ST: How many hosted stays has your site facilitated over the past 12 months?
Shay: The months of May, June and July are the most active months for hosted stays. During this period, all our hosted stays in Europe would be at full capacity.
ST: And how many hosts do you have in Europe?
Shay: We currently have a 165 hosts. Europe is the most popular destination, and the big cities are very popular. Usually, if we publish a listing, for example, a hostel volunteering position in Berlin – we’d fill such an opportunity immediately.
ST: Since the founding of HelpStay we’ve seen some other similar businesses get involved in this same labor-for-lodging space. How does HelpStay distinguish itself from the others?
Shay: There are a lot of players in the market, and a few have come and gone since we started. The challenge is to generate a sustainable business model. To run a good service requires a lot of investment. For the model to work, it has to reach a critical mass, and this is a challenge.
We distinguish ourselves from other players by gearing ourselves more as a volunteering abroad platform. We create a means for travellers to combine travel with giving back. A lot of our current opportunities are in third world countries. Often, these hosts need skills, such as Teachers with language skills. They do not have the means to pay for them. We offer them an alternative, that works for both the volunteer and the host. The host gets access to valuable skills, while the volunteer gets a low cost genuine volunteering experience – they get to make a real difference.