In 2015 Drew Myers and his team launched the Horizon app to facilitate hospitality lodging exchange. They are building a new model of peer-to-peer lodging, helping people find places to stay through their networks, while facilitating donations to charities instead of payments for lodging. One of the interesting functions of Horizon is as a metasearch across all communities that a person belongs to. As Drew explained to me, users can search through all their networks in one place, whether it’s public groups like Couchsurfing and Servas or more private personal networks. He makes a compelling case for why this model will ultimately succeed, though it might be a long road to success.
In March I had the chance to interview Drew and get some more details about this unique sharing economy business.
ShareTraveler: Can you tell me what inspired you to build the Horizon app? How is it different from existing options for hospitality exchange like Couchsurfing and BeWelcome?
Drew: I don’t happen to believe the industry rhetoric that the two reasons most people don’t travel are time and money. I believe the true reason is lack of community. If you have a community to welcome you to a new city/country, travel with you, share trusted travel advice, and ensure you aren’t alone – you’ll prioritize travel and overcome the money and time obstacles in a way you otherwise wouldn’t. Thus, that’s what we’re aiming to address. If I had to trace the origins of Horizon way back to the beginning, it was my own frustration finding microfinance advocates while traveling — and specifically while living in Santorini for 10 weeks.
If you really think about it, everyone on the planet (who travels) couchsurfs — 30-40% of all trips worldwide are some sort of friends/family stay. Most people just happen to surf with existing trusted connections rather than seek strangers to stay with. The core difference between Horizon and other options is we’re integrating hospitality exchange into existing communities, rather than building a standalone network. We aim to take the technology question/obstacle off the table for anyone seeking to build a hospitality exchange network.
ST: Your “payment” model, encouraging people to make a donation through Kiva or another charity rather than supplying a gift to their host, is quite unique. What’s been the response to this new approach?
Drew: Conceptually, we’ve gotten great feedback. That said, we’ve certainly learned a lot of pieces have to align to make those transactions occur. The host either needs to be insanely passionate about the cause (Kiva and Pencils of Promise are the organizations we currently allow donations to) or a strong mutual affinity by both the host and traveler for the same organization needs to exist. On top of that, it needs to be insanely convenient to leave $10 or $20. Until we get to a point where it’s a Lyft or Uber like experience, I don’t anticipate we’ll see a big jump in donations. For Horizon, that means using the app to find someone in the city you’re traveling to, requesting a stay, conversing back and forth to arrange logistics, staying at their house, and then prompting the guest for a donation after the completion of their stay – and don’t allow people to use the app anymore until they take action. We’re simply not there yet product wise.
ST: Since launch in March 2015, how many users have joined your platform? And how many people have found lodging through Horizon?
Drew: We’re north of 6,450 users. Truth be told, we don’t actually know how many stays we’ve facilitated. We have in-app messaging across iOS, web, and our new Android (we’re in alpha stage) – but still have a number of hosts who have not upgraded or logged in following the addition of in-app messaging. That means many of the conversations started on Horizon end up in email, which of course is a black box from an analytics perspective.
ST: In the Horizon app people can join communities so that they can host and stay with folks they trust. Some of the public communities are for people in other hospitality networks (like CouchSurfing). Why would members of those networks use Horizon instead for hospitality exchanges?
Drew: The end consumer win is one place to search trusted connections across all the communities they belong to, for example, across two or three hospitality exchange networks. Horizon also enables you to filter to only show your friends or friends of friends, which would almost always be preferred over someone in one of the hospitality networks they may belong to.
The reality is very few communities in the world are large or strong enough to warrant using a standalone app or website to find a place to stay. On a long enough time span, the consumer always wins when it comes to technology — and consumers certainly don’t want 8 different apps/websites to interact with the 8 different communities they belong to.
ST: You recently wrote a Horizon blog post about “the age old hospitality exchange conundrum”. In there you talk about the difficulty acquiring hosts. Is Horizon willing to stick around for the many years you speculate it takes to build up a host community?
Drew: Absolutely. The mission of increasing travel opportunities by bringing transparency to trusted communities matters. The world needs empathy more than anything else right now, and I fundamentally don’t believe lasting empathy comes from anything other than in person experiences, friendships, and understanding. Enough trust exists in the world to facilitate a massive increase in hospitality exchange, but requires locations of trusted connections be brought to light.
ST: Can you talk about some of your ideas to address this problem?
Drew: We just recently added support for sublets, a scenario with clear financial incentives on both sides of the market. It shocks most people when they find out 20% of AirBnB’s business comes from stays of 30+ days, yet their user experience, brand, and business model are not built for that scenario. We’re also starting to focus on conferences/events, with the goal of community managers asking their members in a specific location for help hosting out of town travelers coming to town for a specific event.