Home Base Holidays is a small house swap network that is part of an alliance of several exchange groups, mostly focused on Europe. My reviews of this network have been a bit sparse, in part because it never fit my house swap network needs. I’ve also never entirely understood their alliance approach. Recently I came across Mark Sealey promoting the network on Facebook and was intrigued, so I asked him for an interview. This is a network that is run by one family, and has been from the start. Mark’s story, and that of the Home Base Holidays alliance, is a reminder of how many traditional home exchange networks got started and how they can stay relevant today.
ShareTraveler: Your network was founded in 1985 (I think), were you there from the start?
Mark Sealey: Yes, that’s right, we started all the way back in 1985 but, as I was nine at the time, the answer is no …well not really. My mother, Lois, started Home Base Holidays. Growing up, home swapping was always a big part of our lives and we went on family home swaps in both the UK and in Canada (where my mother is from).
ST: What was the inspiration that led to creating Home Base Holidays?
Mark: Originally, during the 1980s, Home Base Holidays published an annual guide to bed and breakfast accommodation in the USA and Canada that was marketed in the UK. Shortly after, home exchange was added as both concepts were ‘home based’ alternative forms of accommodation that fit together well. As time went on, we focused more and more on home swapping as we found it to be such a rewarding and very cost effective way to travel.
ST: Who currently owns Home Base Holidays?
Mark: Home Base Holidays is a partnership owned by myself, Mark Sealey, and Lois Sealey. We are backed up by an IT and administrative support team.
ST: What distinguishes Home Base Holidays from the many other home exchange networks out there?
Mark: Longevity for one! We believe that Home Base Holidays has been able to survive in an increasingly crowded market by sticking to the core values of home swapping and so provide the best quality service to our members. It’s important to us that all queries are replied to quickly and personally. Plus, we always focus on providing only genuine home swap offers rather than ever bulking up member numbers with old inactive offers. Apart from the two week free trial membership period, all members pay a modest fee for either a six month or one year membership and listings are automatically hidden if not renewed, thus ensuring quality listings and only members actively interested in arranging exchanges. (A two year membership option was dropped as we found many members were inactive during the final months of a two year period).
ST: Home Base Holidays is part of the First Home Exchange Alliance, which includes three other networks. It looks like these networks share the membership, but each has a different website interface. Can you tell me how this alliance came about?
Mark: Pre-internet, alliances with home exchange companies in several countries was the ideal model to insure members had a large choice of exchange offers (published in directories three times a year). It was, and still is, a great way to share thoughts and ideas with other like-minded home swap enthusiasts. When we’re thinking about developments to make to the website you’re not a lone person. Obviously our members provide the most important feedback, but having other people who are running the sites to discuss the feedback from members and their own ideas is invaluable.
ST: Are you trying to bring in more networks to the alliance?
Mark: We’ve had agencies contact us about joining our alliance, and we wouldn’t rule it out, but only consider those that would bring value to our network (i.e. with a paid for, up-to-date membership that would balance our own listings.) There have been a couple of start ups that asked about joining the alliance. We’d need to be 100% sure they’re going to improve the home swap service that we provide.
We have also been approached by three different home swap networks asking if we’d be interested in being bought out. Although financially it was certainly tempting, we would only ever consider selling the business if our members were guaranteed a continuation of the same service and core home swap values they had opted for when joining Home Base Holidays.
ST: What is the difference between the networks in this alliance? Why not just merge them all into one?
Mark: Each agency in the alliance has its own focus and so attracts members in different ways. Even now that the service is internet based, co-operation with other agencies is useful although Home Base Holidays and Guardian Home Exchange are the predominant agencies with over 90% of members.
ST: I noticed this Guardian newspaper group service but I have no idea what it means. Can you explain?
Mark: In 2005 the Guardian invited several home exchange agencies to tender for the contract to operate a home swap network for the newspaper (the Guardian newspaper is split into two distinct sides: the editorial side and a corporate side which includes Guardian Travel). Guardian Travel has a number of travel companies as partners offering various services, e.g. cottage & villa rentals, tours, cruises, city breaks, organized ‘escapes’ and the home swap service. The home swap site is branded as Guardian Home Exchange, a white label version of the Home Base Holidays website, designed for the Guardian’s requirements.
Home Based Holidays Today
ST: It looks like most of your members are in Europe. Is that intentionally the focus?
Mark: Being a London based club has meant that we receive most publicity for our service in Europe, particularly in the UK. As we do have a large number of European listings, new offers outside of Europe tend to be very popular and so we feel that we are a great option for people looking for exchanges in Europe.
ST: How are you paying for all the costs of running your network with such a low membership fee?
Mark: Keeping Home Base Holidays as a family business has given flexibility in terms of how much money is drawn from the business and how much re-invested into tech development at any one time. Some bells and whistles features have to be left on our wish list for later to enable us to focus on more essential, on-going development. But in terms of being a viable business, it absolutely is. We’re far from swimming in money, but as long as we can provide a quality service and cover the cost of running that service, we will continue to do so.
ST: I believe your network has just under 2000 members. Has membership grown over the past few years?
Mark: Our membership has grown slowly but steadily over the past few years but we are looking to expand our membership further during 2019 and beyond. Two websites in the alliance, Green Theme and Invented City have had a drop in membership. The owners are working full time jobs as well as running these networks so they have not had the time to focus on keeping their membership numbers up. The members that they do have have fantastic homes so they are still a real asset to have in the network. But our membership has been quite steady but growing by small amounts each year.
ST: Can you tell me about plans for HBH to grow and stay relevant among the many other house swap networks out there?
Mark: The last few years have been an exciting time in the world of home swapping with a lot of new sites opening (and some closing after a short time). Home swapping is still a very niche way to travel and so it has been great to see more and more people become familiar and comfortable with this wonderful way to travel. However, I do feel a bit worried that the original ethos of home swapping is sometimes being lost and that many newer services are more focused on ways to monetize home swapping rather than on providing a traditional home swap service. We don’t want to see home swapping turning into a proxy form of rentals. There are many specialist services catering for this market already. And so we always try to keep our focus on the original home swap ethos that we fell in love with – a truly friendly way to explore the world at very little cost. Therefore, we will continue to keep our membership fees very reasonable and only ever display genuine, up-to-date home swap offers on the website.
ST: Have you seen an increase in membership recently with people newly integrated into HomeExchange looking for other options for house swap networks?
Mark: We have seen an increase in enquiries in the last two weeks, with many people going on to join Home Base Holidays. Interestingly, quite a number of our most recent new members are experienced home swappers which would seem to indicate they are, or have previously been, members of other home exchange services.
ST: HBH offers only the traditional simultaneous and non-simultaneous house swaps. Do you have any plans to expand into other concepts like points-based exchanges?
Mark: That’s a good question! To be honest, that’s a question I do not fully know the answer to just yet. Personally, I am much more of a fan of traditional home swapping rather than points systems. With home swapping being such a personal way to travel, traditional one to one swaps still feel by far the best way to build the trust that is essential when swapping. We do get quite regular feedback from members that are grateful that we have not adopted a points system. However, we do also get the occasional enquiry from people asking if we do have a points system. We are continually reviewing this and in talks with our web development team. It would be great to hear your readers’ feedback on whether they prefer traditional swaps or swapping with points.
ST: Where do you see HBH going in the next 5 to 10 years?
Mark: We will continue to provide a quality home swap service where members pay a modest fee to access genuine, up-to-date home swap offers. We will also continue to engage with our members, not only in responding to messages promptly, but also in order to adapt our service over the years to changing needs, and to welcome members’ valuable contributions for our newsletters and blog. We will stick to the core values of home swapping that we love – the home swapping that I have been involved in and enjoyed since I was a child.
While researching for this interview I found this super cute HBH video explaining home exchange: