ExchangeZones is one of the mid-size home exchange networks (just over 10,000 house swap listings). But they fly below the radar in terms of press and publicity. This is a unique network because they also offer vacation rentals, B&B lodging and paid Homestays. The rental lodging makes up 25% of listings. Also interesting is that ExchangeZones is one of the most hands off networks I’ve encountered. They facilitate contact between people interested in swapping but after that people make the arrangements outside of the website.
I was intrigued by what appeared to be a low tech network with little social media presence but with a relatively large number of members so I reached out to Jan Koncewicz, one of the two owners of ExchangeZones. He agreed to do an interview with me via e-mail and was quick to respond to my many follow up questions.
ShareTraveler: Tell me about the origin of ExchangeZones. Why did you start a house swap network?
Jan: We heard that teachers were going on sabbaticals, traveling and exchanging houses for free. This idea sounded good to us. So we decided to build a platform for people who want to travel using the idea of free accommodation. The accommodation cost is often the biggest obstacle for some people to be able to travel.
ST: I believe ExchangeZones was founded in 2004. At that time, did you look at other home swap networks before deciding to build your own? If so, what did ExchangeZones offer that was different?
Jan: We looked at HomeExchange.com. At that time they had about 6,000 listings and they offered paid service. We decided to build a free portal that, in addition to home exchange, would offer other options such as vacation rentals, bed & breakfast and homestay.
ST: What is your background? Do you do the technical work for the network?
Jan: At that time I used to do International Trade and my partner Teresa Szefler was in the publishing business. We hired a company to build the portal for us. In the near future we are going partner with an IT company. That will allow us to speed up the process of future developments.
Rentals, B&Bs and Homestays
ST: Your network is unique in that it allows people to list rental properties in addition to home exchanges. Can you tell me how that works?
Jan: We wanted to accommodate different type of travelers. Those who want to exchange houses but also those who either want to rent their place out while they are away, or who wouldn’t mind to pay for a vacation rental home while traveling rather than staying at a hotel. We we started our portal about 20 years ago when vacation rental sites like AirBnb or HomeAway didn’t even exist yet. As a result, some of our members advertise both in the home exchange category as well as in the vacation rentals category.
ST: Do you make money off the rental listings or is that just part of the services members get for their fee?
Jan: Our service was free for about 10 years, and then we introduced payments for listings in any category.
ST: What percentage of listings are exchange vs. rental?
Jan: Home Exchange 75%; Vacation Rentals 17%; B&B and Homestay 8%
ST: Do some people list only vacation rentals or B&Bs or homestays, or are they all also offering home exchanges?
Jan: Most people list in only one category (i.e. either home exchange, or vacation rentals, or homestay). They extremely rarely list in more than one category.
The ExchangeZones membership
ST: What is the geographic distribution of your membership?
Jan: Worldwide, but mostly North America, Europe and Australia. We have over 11.5 thousand home exchange members.
ST: Are all the 11.5 thousand members now paying members?
Jan: No. I suspect that there are still a number of members who registered when the service was free but I am not able to say what percentage of members that is.
ST: Browsing the home exchange listings in San Francisco (one of the more popular destinations in the U.S.) I found only a single listing that had a review. Also, half the SF listings did not have pictures. Is this surprising to you?
Jan: If a listing has no pictures then it was posted when the service was free and we did not require that. We do not keep a track who is exchanging with whom. We only provide for our members the opportunity to contact each other, but once they establish a connection then there is no need for them to use the website any more. Reviews are not required. Only some people post a review when they want to, but we don’t make a push for that. Since after connecting with each other the members communicate directly among themselves then there is not much incentive for them to come back to the site and post a review.
ST: Do you deactivate or hide free listings that have been inactive for a year or more (or whatever period of time you think makes sense)?
Jan: Yes, the free listings are expiring after 5 years from the date of registration.
ST: Has the ExchangeZones membership gone up in the past few years?
Jan: For many years our service was free but with rising cost of hosting etc., in 2014 we were forced to introduced very reasonable membership fees (annual subscription $58). The other reason for introducing payments for the service was that we wanted to improve the quality of the listings. When the service was totally free people did not care much about the quality of their listings.
At the highest point we had over 13 thousand home exchange listings. Now we have 11579. So the home exchange membership has diminished. However with more and more free listings being deactivated, the overall quality of our membership database is improving as free listings often were of a low quality.
ST: What is ExchangeZones’ relationship with HomeExchange24?
Jan: We decided that we we want to have another website dedicated only to home exchange, that is why we are presently working on this new project www.HomeExchange24.com. We were offered to buy HomeExchange24.com and we just decided to buy it on a whim without thinking too much about it as it was coming with a database of a few thousand members. The HomeExchange24.com members are separate from ExchangeZones.com members.
ST: Why build HomeExchange24 when there are already so many networks out there devoted to house swapping? What makes HomeExchange24 different?
Jan: We wanted to have a portal devoted exclusively to Home Exchange but we did not want to just abandon the other categories at ExchangeZones.
ST: Right now HomeExchange24 is free, will it remain free in the future?
Jan: Most likely not.
ST: Have you ever considered offering points-based swapping?
Jan: No, it’s too complicated, and too centralized. We want to keep it simple and let our members freely connect with each other and arrange their exchanges without the need to abide to some rules of a centralized system of points.
ST: Where do you hope to see ExchangeZones in 5 years?
Jan: Maybe arranging exchanges between the Moon and the Mars. 🙂