As many readers know, HomeExchange.com and GuesttoGuest recently merged into one (very large) house swap network, now called HomeExchange. The integration was far from smooth. And some members of the old HomeExchange.com network have serious concerns about the changes. This week I talked about the integration with Emmanuel Arnaud, the CEO of HomeExchange and one of the founders of GuesttoGuest.
Over two hours on Skype, and a few follow up emails, I asked questions I’m hearing from folks concerned about the merger. I think there’s a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation out there so I hope this will clear up some things. But I also understand that some of the dissatisfaction with the merger is rooted in deeper disagreements with the HomeExchange approach. Especially related to the concept behind points-based home swaps. Some people may prefer to join a network that only offers traditional home exchanges. I have more to say on where I see things going with the home exchange community more broadly, but I will save that for another post.
In the coming months I plan to publish interviews with a number of home swap networks. I hope this will give everyone a chance to better understand the goals, spirit, and specifics of each network and figure out which one is the best fit for you.
Challenges with the merger
ShareTraveler: It’s been a rough two weeks, what do you want to say to the members of HomeExchange.com who are now part of the new HomeExchange network?
Emmanuel Arnaud: The first message I’d like to tell our members is that we are listening to them. Some have been expressing a sense of anger, anxiety or not being heard. I think it’s important they know that we are very carefully listening to what they are saying, reading and documenting every single Facebook post, and every single email. We’re getting so many emails you can’t even imagine. I know there’s some frustration around the fact that chat and phone calls aren’t available. The reason we are doing that is that it is so much more efficient that we do things over email for the time being. We’ll turn on chat and calls as soon as the volume of incoming requests dies down. I would like to reassure people that we are listening to them and we are going to fix what needs to be fixed and improve what needs to be improved.
Second, I’d like also to reassure them that the worst is behind us. The timing of the merger meant that the bugs which happened had all hands on deck to solve them, requiring people to work during vacation. I think the bug solving is going to go faster. The cause of most bugs has already been identified, we are testing solutions and expect to be solving many bugs in the two weeks to come.
Third, Thank you. This might seem weird, but there are different categories of people I want to thank. The overwhelming majority of people are very patient and are asking questions in a kind way. And we’re receiving a lot of very positive messages about the changes. I would like to thank these members for their continuing support. Some members have expressed more intense feelings and by far Facebook groups give us a different vibe. I’d like to thank them also. What we’re seeing is that a lot of people really care a lot about home exchange and that’s been very very impressive. I see that just bringing change has created a sense of people saying “Hey I really really care about this, don’t change the spirit of this community.” I hope we’re going to be able to deserve the love of those members in the near future by improving the website and responding to what they want.
ST: Would you have done anything differently with the integration?
Emmanuel: I think that the timing of the merger was unfortunate. And I think that we could have done a much better job in preparing HomeExchange members and explaining to them what was going to happen. We are catching up now and intensifying our communication on all channels.
Points swapping controversy
ST: What do you say to people who don’t like the points system? Will there be an option for members to turn it off entirely?
Emmanuel: We’re going to start talking next week about new features. Our priority is to handle the bugs but then we need to look at the feature requests. GuestPoints are a way to organize easily non reciprocal exchanges and we need them for this.
ST: Can you explain to HomeExchange members how home point values are set?
Emmanuel: There is an algorithm which takes into account 3 variables. One is the number of people who can sleep in the house, second is the location, third is the amenities. Based on that we make a suggestion of what the GuestPoint value of the home should be. People can change that as much as they want downwards and up to 30 points upwards. It’s an algorithm that has been refined over the years and that we believe today works. Obviously, members coming from HomeExchange are not familiar to this new system to facilitate non-reciprocal exchanges. We expected them to need some guidance.
One of the things I want to say is that it’s not about giving a value to your home or trying to say that this house is better than that one. It’s just putting a system in place to make it easier to exchange.
ST: How do you set a value for location of a home?
Emmanuel: There are five bullet points that you can choose from: heart of international site, 30 minutes from heart of international site, 30 minutes from a local site, etc. It’s ok if people choose what they think works if their home is not being valued properly based on location. The system is made so that members can adjust as needed.
ST: How many people actually opt to pay for points for a swap? Does anyone pay for the full stay?
Emmanuel: Less than 4% of exchanges have points bought. When they buy some, they buy for on average 40€. No one has ever paid for the full stay, because we chose to limit it naturally thanks to the price. It is really to close a little gap of points to conclude an exchange.
ST: Are you making a profit selling points? What do you say to people who think you’re profiting by renting out their home?
Emmanuel: The intention is to help members finalize exchanges. The reason why we had two tiers, one very cheap and one we thought was prohibitively expensive was so that we could reach the objective of topping up very easily, but then we want to create a very strong incentive for you to host guests. The idea was that buying points for the full stay should be even more expensive than renting on Airbnb because we want people to exchange not rent. In recent years the system has been a success: people could top-up easily, nobody used the points to “rent” a place and we were not getting complaints about this part of the system. For us revenue-wise the money coming from GuestPoints sale is not important. It represents less than 2% of the total revenues. The challenge is that it’s complicated to make it possible to allow people to top up while still incentivizing hosting guests. I understand this point of view and we’ll find a way to satisfy our members very soon.
ST: Balloons were converted to points at a rate of 1500 points per balloon. How did you come up with that as a fair valuation?
Emmanuel: Ten days was the average stay of a HomeExchange.com swap. We calculated that 1500 points would cover a 10 day stay in 60 or 70% of the homes available. To honor our commitment made prior to the merger, we evaluated all cases. Some members will be able to do 2 exchanges with that number of GuestPoints. A few may lack some GuestPoints, in that case, they can send us an email on email@example.com
ST: Will the features from HomeExchange.com that are now missing on G2G be added? (i.e. reverse search)
Emmanuel: We’ve heard you and there is a list of everything people are asking for, and we are looking at adding new features. We hope to make some announcements about plans in the next few weeks.
Reverse search is located right under our logo when you launch a search, but some people do not find it. We are going to see if we can improve its visibility. There was also a bug that is being fixed soon. It works a bit differently from HomeExchange.com so some members don’t like the way it works now. You can only use preferred destinations to find people interested in coming to your home. Enhancing this is on our list to look at.
ST: Some people noticed the removal of affinity groups like the LGBT friendly badge. Will this be added back in?
Emmanuel: The General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) EU law required specific trainings for people who held any data about groups on sensitive topics. We must have a data protection officer (DPO) who our members can contact. This person makes sure we are in compliance with GDPR. We decided to extend our GDPR policy to all our members, not just those in the EU. Any group that is related to any medical information, sexual orientation or ethnic background we had to take down until we were able to put in place in our back office a way so that people who would handle that information had the required training. We even had to take down the group for allergies to dust mites. And we had to take down regional groups because regional can be ethnic. This was done six months ago to clean house for GDPR. And LGBT Friendly was one of those groups. We plan to put these back online once we are fully in compliance with the GDPR requirements.
ST: I’ve heard a lot of concern about the verification system at G2G, which requires members to send personal identification documents over email. Is there a plan for a more secure upload or other system?
Emmanuel: Yes, we were supposed to roll out a secure upload system before the merger but it was delayed. Right now, for people who are not comfortable with the email system, we can do a Skype interview to show docs in front of the camera. However, we are working on a secure conduit that everyone will be comfortable with.
Deposit and insurance questions
ST: Let’s talk a bit about the 500€ “deposit.” I think a lot of the confusion and fear about this is based in a language problem. As I understand it, members of HomeExchange are agreeing that IF there is a problem with their home exchange and their host claims damages, it is possible that they will be charged up to 500€ before the HomeExchange guarantee kicks in and covers the rest of the claim. There is no advance hold put on a credit card for this amount, nor is the deposit collected in advance in any other way.
I would compare this to the deductible that people often pay on auto or home owners insurance. For instance, your auto insurance may require you to cover the first 500€ of damage in case of an accident. After that deductible your insurance covers the rest of the costs to repair your car.
Also, the amount paid (up to 500€) is negotiated by the Happiness team, talking with the host and the guest. Nothing is charged until they come to agreement on the amount with both parties.
Is this correct?
Emmanuel: Yes, they are giving us the permission to take up to 500€. In some cases we have the technical means to take that money and in other cases we do not. And to clarify, guests could pay up to 500€ only for malicious acts. Guests pay up to 100€ for accidental damage. Beyond this amount, HomeExchange guarantees to pay the rest of the costs to the host.
The future of the HomeExchange network
ST: Is there anything else you want to share with the home swap community?
Emmanuel: One thing is that there is a lot of good news with this merger. We’ve done a poor job getting across to our members information about that good news. If you look, for instance, at the guarantees we are extending to all members without increase in subscription cost, it’s pretty huge. I think it’s great news because it makes home exchange safer. And adds some comfort in case of cancellation.
Also, it is the same team. We have integrated team members from HomeExchange. For the Happiness Team (Member Support) it means more professionals serving the community, which means the level of service will increase.
With more members, there are more opportunities to exchange.
Finally, I want to clarify something. There is this fear that we’re trying to monetize the database with GuestPoints and the spirit has changed. That’s not what we are trying to do. GuestPoints are just a technical means to an end, allowing people to do as many home exchanges as possible. That’s something we really care about.
ST: Is this a preview to selling your site to Airbnb?
Emmanuel: No! We believe we offer more than Airbnb. Home exchange is simply a better, more human way to travel.
ST: Where is HomeExchange going to be in 5 years?
Emmanuel: Our vision is to have millions of people doing millions of home exchanges. We think it’s the most authentic and human way to travel. I don’t understand why everybody isn’t doing it. I tell my friends and family about it and everybody says “oh yeah that’s interesting” but nobody starts doing it. Now that I’ve been working at it for years a few people have started. But in general the number of people doing home exchange as opposed to the number of people who would have a better life if they were doing it is really small. We need to bring home exchange to a large audience.
This amazing way to travel that has been very difficult to use in the past. You had to be very very dedicated and open minded to a point where many people were not comfortable doing it. We’re trying to keep the spirit and keep what makes home exchange amazing and improve it so that more people can use it. Offering guarantees is to help convince more people to join in. GuestPoints and non-reciprocal exchanges make it easier for people who don’t have a second home. They can travel whenever they need to travel. We want to keep the concept of this human and unique way of traveling and enhance it so it becomes a mainstream way to travel.