This week I spoke with Shay Gleeson, the founder of HelpStay.com, about the website he recently launched, his vision for the future of couch surfing, and his take on meaningful traveling on a limited budget.
In a review of peer to peer rental lodging I mentioned briefly the opportunity to trade labor for lodging. There are a few great choices like WWOOFing (working on an organic farm) in this arena that have been around for a long time. Travelers now have some new options for work/lodging trades, including HelpStay, which offer opportunities to enjoy new experiences and explore the world by paying in labor instead of money.
A New Way to Experience Travel
ShareTraveler: What inspired you to start HelpStay?
HelpStay: I took a 6 month sabbatical from my IT desk job to travel around the world. During my travels I met a lot of backpackers who were supplementing their travel costs by swapping their skills and help for a stay. In Australia and New Zealand it’s common to find travelers working in backpacker hostels and farms in exchange for room and board. Many are travelling on a limited budget and want to travel as long and as far as possible.
I thought about creating HelpStay™ as a new way to experience the world and learn new skills. A good UK friend of mine who is a surfing fanatic spent the whole summer in Australia helping in a surf lodge and surfing in his spare time. He did it all on a very tight budget.
To me travel is all about sharing, learning, and growing, and I think HelpStay™ facilitates the traveller to share their skills, learn new ones and grow as an individual. In addition, the traveller is living among locals, creating meaningful social connections and travelling with a purpose.
I guess we are the next evolution of Couch Surfing – you can crash on the couch but you will need to pull your weight about the place.
Building Trust is Key to Success
ST: How do you differentiate from the site staydu.com which offers hosted lodging in exchange for work as well as other traveler services?
HS: We verify all hosts on our system. That’s our main selling point. Hosts are only accepted on the platform once I have visited and interviewed them. I am also in the process of photographing all the hosts’ properties. This way the helper will know what to expect. It’s a big ask for someone to travel half way across the world, they need to know what to expect. I want to ensure that each host property and stay is as expected. Trust and security play a massive part and it’s something that is at the forefront of this venture. After all, trust is the currency of the new economy.
ST: Is it practical for you to travel to every single host and verify them personally? Won’t this be expensive and difficult to scale?
HS: Yes but I think it’s necessary to build trust into the system at the start. Down the line, I will look at seeing can we verify hosts via other means such as telephone or online. For now, I like the personal touch and I do like getting on the road and meeting people, it excites me. I see this project as a new way of travelling, built by a intrepid traveller for other travellers. I want to get it right, so people will use it.
I really think this can be something on the size of couch surfing where you can do it all over the world. but my big concerns are about safety and trust so people can have an enjoyable stay.
First Ireland, then the World
ST: Do you hope to expand your services beyond Ireland at some point?
HS: The hosts are all Irish at the moment but the people coming are mainly from Western Europe, countries like France, Spain and Germany. We have low cost airlines to make this possible so that the whole trip can be very cheap. Accommodation and food is the second biggest expense when traveling. A lot of people who will be using this will be very cost conscious.
I strongly believe if I can get the business model to work in Ireland, it will work anywhere. Ireland is a good test market as it’s small, accessible and a beautiful place to visit and live. The plan is to build it to 10 hosts in Ireland and then do the same in the UK, Europe and Worldwide. I am spending a lot of time enrolling a varied mixture of hosts who can provide diverse and different experiences.
The long term goal is to enable the traveller to travel perpetually around the world on a limited budget. With HelpStay™, I want to start 1000+ journeys. I want to entice people to start travelling and exploring the world. I want to empower the current generations to leave the safety of the couch and start a new journey. In the future, I would love to have hosts in a diverse range of countries and regions. How cool would it be to spend a month living and learning fabric weaving in Ireland or on a ranch learning horsemanship skills in Mongolia?
ST: Your site currently only has a few listings, no surprise since you just launched this year. How do you plan to spread the word and build up hosts and helpers?
HS: Launching a new way of travelling or doing something different is always difficult. People find it hard to get their heads around new ideas. I am spreading the word around by promoting it online and offline. My marketing budget is tight so I am hoping that word of mouth will play a big part. I am also hoping that the press will take an interest in my project and see what I am trying to achieve.
We are adding two hosts a week at the moment. And we are looking at our next area to focus on, possibly in Canada.
ST: If you could leap ahead a few years, where do you see HelpStay going?
HS: Long term, I see this business growing to the same level as Airbnb. To do this I will need to get outside funding. If I can build and show a small working model, I believe others will buy into the concept and come on board with the necessary support.
My website has no music or video content yet, so I’ll end this interview by including the cute advertising video from HelpStay.