Intervac is one of the oldest home exchange networks, founded in 1953. And they are very well respected in the house swap community. I had the opportunity to talk with Lucien Mazik, Honorary President of Intervac. Lucien has a long history with the company. And fortunately for me, this French man speaks excellent English.
Of particular interest in this interview: I learned that Intervac actually undercounts their listings! They only count as active those members who are currently looking for a home exchange. Members who have paid for the year and already secured swaps, and so make their listing invisible until they are ready to search for the next year, are not counted. As a result of this information, I have updated my spreadsheet to reflect paid membership in Intervac, as I consider all of those folks to be active members.
ST: Your title is Honorary President. What does this mean?
Lucien: No real definition at all. The history makes it itself, day after day. When I officially retired in 2000, after devoting nearly all my professional life to Intervac as Organizer or President, my colleagues decided to give me this title simply as a recognizance, without expecting any obligation from me. I thought that I will simply have opportunities to act in the social life of our organization. This happens regularly but, most unexpected for someone retiring, I became a kind of consultant on a voluntary basis. I am frequently invited to take part to the important debates, express my opinion, give advice, suggest solutions. But being Honorary President is overall, for me, the infinite pleasure to stay among my colleagues, protecting and enjoying the friendly atmosphere of our meetings!
ShareTraveler: What is your history working for Intervac prior to being made Honorary President?
Lucien: I started in Intervac in 1968. I was a teacher at that time, still young. And I had the idea that it’s stupid that people are leaving the house empty when they go on holiday. I decided to create something and then I discovered that a baby Intervac was already born in England and the Netherlands and Switzerland. [Before discovering Intervac] I put ads in professional teachers newspapers in England, Germany and Spain. From that I got a response from Hazel Nayar in England, already organizing a few home exchanges (under another name than Intervac) saying they wanted to work with me.
The Intervac history: teachers, paper listings and growth
ST: After the Swiss and Dutch Teachers Unions got together to set up Intervac as a home exchange network for teachers, how did the network grow?
Lucien: The Swiss and Dutch Teachers started home exchanges between each other and they found it so interesting that they decided to suggest to their teacher colleagues to do the same. It started slowly, opening more destinations and opportunities inside these two countries. The enthusiasm and the success were so great that the wish to expand to nearby countries came quickly. This is how we progressively extended to other countries such as the UK and Germany, immediately followed by France. Then, came more European countries: Italy, Spain, Belgium, quickly followed by Ireland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Hungary, Greece, Portugal, Poland, etc.
Meantime, European horizons became too small, members wished further destinations: Intervac extended to other continents: USA, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil, Israel, and some Asian countries, to quickly cover over more than 50 countries. This extension still continues today, adding new countries, new destinations, at each opportunity. I was and I am still in charge of screening and selecting new destinations and installing new physical representations.
Intervac, which was primarily a service for teachers, became available to other professions about 10 or 15 years after it started, but the Intervac ethic and spirit remained the selective guideline.
ST: Intervac has been around since the 1950s. That means years of paper catalogues before the Internet! When did Intervac switch over to web-based services? Was it a challenging transition?
Lucien: Yes, a long story: years of paper catalogues. Even before catalogues, we produced, in each country, simple pages to print the offers that we simply put together and assembled with staples and distributed to our members. Then came the unique bound yearly catalogue, then several catalogues per year, in black or sepia and white. Photos were inserted progressively. Finally we reached the time to produce very nice, thick and heavy color catalogues, fully illustrated: up to 7 catalogues editions per year! We thought that we were at our top.
But the Internet came without telling us exactly where and how far it will drive us and made its revolution, opening exciting perspectives. Internet use started in a workshop at the Intervac AGM 1994 in Reykjavik. At this time, Intervac members were demanding more and more catalogues. The Internet appeared as a miraculous solution, enabling us to give access to our members to the whole content of offers.
Our first Website was setup in 1997 by our Norwegian organizer, Ivar Solli, with the help of one of his members. And we never stopped developing, adjusting and re-thinking our living website!
The Intervac philosophy
ST: How would you describe the Intervac philosophy?
Lucien: Intervac home exchanging holiday means: Making affordable many destinations in the world, or simply close to you; Traveling differently, in a more responsible and ecological way: exchanging rather than buying and owning; The authentic approach to living, lifestyle or culture developing friendship and saving; The presence of physical representations in members’ countries.
We always help our members in case they have difficulties. 99% of exchanges are smooth, no problem. But this week we had a problem with a cancellation between a Russian member (with a house in Greece) exchanging his house with a Spanish member. The Russian member got in a car accident and he could not be up again at the time of the exchange, and so he had to cancel. He bought travel insurance so he will be reimbursed for his ticket, a car accident being a valid reason. The Spanish member also had insurance coverage, but an accident to his swap partner was not acceptable as a cancellation reason. Following our Russian agent’s advice, the Russian member started to look for another house. And finally the Russian member decided that he would stay in a somewhere else in Greece so that the Spanish member could still stay in his house, as originally agreed. So it worked out as a happy end. I think it’s very important that we have agents everywhere in the world where we have members. And in the countries where there is no agent, I am the person for people to contact.
We also have a system where people volunteer in case there is a problem with someone in their neighborhood. They can note in their profile if they are willing to help in the case of any problem. This is a very helpful thing. Our particularity is that we are human, and close to our members, not only electronic.
ST: What is the total membership of this network?
Lucien: As of February 2019: 4874 active members, all presently interested to get contacts. Active members who already made an Exchange Agreement and are not seeking for more offers in the close future make their listings invisible or even deactivated. Such listings are not counted here. They are stored in the database (40,000 members) and can be reactivated and become visible any time by active members themselves.
ST: This is an interesting way to count active members. Can you also share how many paying members there are in Intervac?
Lucien: The average total of paying members is about 9,500 – 10,500. It’s a rough calculation fluctuating every day, and it’s difficult to get a quite exact global number at the top because: members may apply at any time and most organizers collect their funds themselves with payment systems which are not linked to our main system. But I consider this is a quite realistic figure.
ST: Has the number of members grown over the past few years?
Lucien: No, it has decreased (up to 40% depending on the countries and the periods). Europe keeps the highest concentration of our members.
ST: Why do you think membership is decreasing? Overall it seems home exchange is growing in popularity.
Lucien: I think it’s a mathematic reason only. New kinds of holidays are starting with companies like Airbnb and other systems. Many families, especially young families jump on this system. We’ve started to lose members in North America and then our European members did not find enough partners in the USA and as a consequence we lost also in Europe. It’s not a question of quality of service.
ST: Intervac allows members to list their homes for rent, in addition to exchanging. Can you tell me more about this option?
Lucien: It’s a very small section which was introduced to enlarge the accommodation choices but mainly to allow members to visit countries where they did not find exchange partners easily, and to allow members who travel without making an exchange to make their house available to other members for a rather low price.
ST: How many rental listings are there?
Lucien: Very few, I would say maybe 1 or 2%. Offers to rent must be at a low price. If you want to make money by renting with Intervac just forget it. But it is one of the options for people to select.
ST: Does Intervac have any plans to introduce a points-based swap option for members?
Lucien: Intervac wishes to keep and to protect its original philosophy of the pure home exchange spirit based on good will, honesty and friendship.
ST: Are there any new developments on the horizon for Intervac?
Lucien: Intervac will keep its initial cape to accept new members and welcome back the faithful members who were tempted and disappointed by the new accommodation styles. And we will increase the Intervac physical presence in members countries.
ST: Where do you hope to see Intervac in five years?
Lucien: Expanding again and stronger than ever, proud of its 3rd generation of members and their genetic experience. Genetic I mean because it’s the third generation. When they were babies they learned from their parents that their holidays would be home exchange. I can see that we have members that can not imagine taking holidays any other way. When we started Intervac, and met to work on Intervac developments and coordination, we were staying with each others homes from time to time and our children were playing together, discovering young foreigners of their age. It even happened, many years later, that two of them got married. Several other similar experiences were related by Intervac members. Intervac leads to friendship and more over many generations.
ST: Do you have anything else you want to share?
Lucien: Something new: we are now offering cancellation insurance in case there is a problem with the partner. The insurance company, for now, offers it only for Europe. So we are looking for another company to cover at least North America and hopefully the rest of the world.