SwitcHome is one of the few home exchange networks that is entirely free. They have been operating since 2002, when the founder, Rodolphe Nargeot, got fed up with free trials that turned into expensive annual fees. The network is run by volunteers. And they pride themselves on an active and engaged membership. I interviewed Petra Lindenau, the administrator for SwitcHome about how the network got started and their plans for the future. A few responses below include input from Rodolphe, translated by Petra.
Running a free network
ShareTraveler: Tell me about how and why SwitcHome was created.
Petra: Rodolphe Nargeot, founder and webmaster, had subscribed to a non-commercial site in the year 2000. The idea was good: enjoy the services offered by this channel to exchange with other people without any financial participation. The site then became chargeable and Rodolphe did not approve of this concept. Pay for exchanging, for him became a kind of renting. We exchange against a payment, a kind of exaggeration of course.
Switchome was born with the aim to stay completely free of charge and never become chargeable. As Rodolphe is a computer scientist, he had the possibility to develop with lower cost a first version of the site. This first edition became more and more popular by word-of-mouth and continued like this without any publicity.
Since then we are even more satisfied to keep our free of charge concept because it allows us to delete accounts which do not respect our charter. This would be much more difficult if the member had paid. We owe nothing to anyone which allows us to select only the best exchangers in the world. We have active members, who really look for an exchange, who do not offer renting to other members and who have to answer all requests they receive.
ST: What is your role with the network?
Petra: I work as an administrator for SwitcHome since the beginning. As I am German/French I also did the first translations for the site. I control the different offers before they go online, recommend to add photos for a better presentation, respond to emails of members, administrate our Facebook page, and do not hesitate to take offers offline if they do not respect our charter.
ST: As a free network, how does SwitcHome cover operating costs?
Petra: Administrators and of course our webmaster Rodolphe are volunteer workers, no one gets paid. At the beginning Rodolphe even paid for the website host and the domain. Since the last edition of our site, our members can make a donation. This has allowed us to increase our technical possibilities for our last version. We can now cover the costs for the domain, but it’s not a lot. It’s really small. For the donations there are little services people can buy like putting their offer first in the search results for 30 days.
The spirit of SwitcHome
ST: How does the SwitcHome ensure that there are not lots of inactive ads from folks who joined but decided not to use the network?
Petra: Since the last version, you get a one year membership when creating your account and offer. This membership must be renewed every year, even if it stays completely free. Several reminders are sent. I think this allows a minimum of update of all offers. If we notice that people do not respond to offers, we take the offer offline. We really try to have an active and participating community.
ST: I see there was a big redesign of the website in 2007, what changed?
Petra: Yes the website has been redesigned twice in a big way. First in 2007 and then in 2018. We added different functions which were asked for by our members. Search by map, reverse search possibility, internal mailbox, calendar, evaluation system (not only positive comments are published), live chat, donations, automatic translation, suitable design for tablets and smartphones, etc.
ST: The network offers only simultaneous and non-simultaneous exchanges. Have you considered expanding to offer points-based swaps?
Petra: No, we do not want to do any kind of commercial business. Points are a kind of virtual money which we do not use. We only want to offer real exchanges, based on confidence and a real spirit of quality and motivation for a human experience.
ST: How would you describe the real spirit of home exchange?
Petra: A real big thing for me in home exchange is the confidence in the other person. It’s the real thing because there must be a relation between the two persons or families who exchange. You leave everything, your house, your belongings, so everything is open. This is the real spirit and for me the most important thing.
ST: What does SwitcHome do to foster that spirit?
Petra: It’s just the home exchange site in itself. The first thing is you don’t have to pay for it. People only stay if they really have the spirit of home exchanging.
ST: Can you tell me about the geographic distribution of your members?
Petra: We have of course many French members. Details of our active members are the following: 2115 members in Europe (France 1881), 81 in North America, 37 in Africa, and some members in the rest of the world (Asia, Oceania, South America).
ST: Has the network grown in the past few years?
Petra: At the end of 2017 everyone had to create a new listing on the new site. The offers we have now they just came in in one year. We had more members when we closed the old network. But there were many members who were not really active anymore. So it was a great thing to pull people out who did not participate in the site. Before I think we were much bigger, about 10,000.
ST: Are you seeing more interest in SwitcHome this month after the HomeExchange integration problems?
Petra: Yes, I think we had frequency of visits up 3x. Before we had 200 per day and now we are about 600 per day and about 10 new offers per day.
ST: Do you have plans for any new enhancements to the network in the near future?
Petra: The new website is a quite big evolution (design and the different functions offered). Today we have to take our time and accompany our members and explain the new, different functions of the website. No big changes in the next two years. Afterwards we will certainly have to adapt, as computer applications evolve very quickly.
Petra: This is difficult to say, our society evolves a lot, the world changes. A kind of wake-up call is taking place to rationalize everything: share cars, services, etc. And people are looking more and more for real free services, services which do not enrich big companies even more. The time when it was possible to profit from ‘the credulity of people’ is gone!
SwitcHome will continue to grow, develop its experience and be a real challenge for big companies who only offer home exchange to get a financial benefit out of it. One thing is sure, SwitcHome will never have millions of members because we only have and will have real members. Our aim is not to go for a big number, we are not interested in the quantity but we want quality, real members, trustworthy members and respectful members. SwitcHome will still be here in 5 years, which will perhaps not be the case for other other big commercial home exchange companies who will have difficulties to survive the next 5 years.
ST: Is there anything else you’d like to share?
Petra: People should just come and try it because you don’t have to pay for it. If you like it, stay, if you don’t like it you don’t have to stay, it’s really easy going. There’s no pressure at all. The only pressure is that we do not want people to offer renting. That’s the real point when we delete accounts. We are the old fashioned home exchange site, you only can exchange your home and do nothing more.