To most people, home exchange is a vague concept. A way of vacationing that sounds sort of neat, but maybe also scary. Most people don’t do home exchanges. And so most people don’t join home exchange networks. But within the house swapping community there’s a wide diversity of views about what people want from a home exchange network. And this debate has really intensified with the merger of the two largest house swap networks.
I’ve learned a lot from talking to people and reading discussions about the merger between HomeExchange.com and GuesttoGuest (now called HomeExchange). Many people were outraged at the integration. I understand where they are coming from. Aside from the poor communication from HomeExchange and the many technical issues and bugs, I think there is an underlying division in the house swap community between folks who I would call home exchange traditionalists, and people interested in new ways of doing home exchange.
Traditionalists are often long time home exchangers (but some new folks fall into this camp as well). They have enjoyed house swapping for years and want to keep home exchange as it has always worked for them: a friendly agreement between two families. This could be simultaneous or non-simultaneous. It could even be a hosted stay. But the network should basically be hands off and the agreement should be worked out directly between the swappers.
Traditionalists don’t want their home to be available for points, especially not if the network is setting variable points values. They see this as counter to the egalitarian nature of home exchange where all homes are valued equally. Or at least where members are allowed to figure out which homes are valuable to them for an exchange. Variable points values look and feel more like a monetary exchange.
Some traditionalists also object to home exchange networks offering insurance. I think this comes back to the idea that it’s best if the swap is just an agreement between two parties, with the network playing a minimal facilitation role. Insurance also gets into the realm of home rental type requirements. Again seeming more like a monetary agreement than a friendly exchange.
There’s a strong feeling of loss from some people who have been integrated into the new HomeExchange network and forced to use points and insurance for their exchanges.
Old school swappers believe that the traditional way of swapping preserves the spirit of home exchange. I asked some active exchangers to help me define this spirit. The responses included some definitions but also a lot of great examples of home exchange leading to lifelong friendships. I think this spirit generally means a strong sense of trust, friendship, openness, kindness and respect. The emphasis is on a different way of traveling that gives a local experience and often lasting friendships between swappers.
The New School
The new school of home exchangers includes some people who have been doing house swapping for years. But I think it’s also very focused on bring in new members, including folks who are not interested in traditional home exchange.
This school of thought includes an emphasis on points-based exchanges and offering insurance to protect the swappers. In my spreadsheet I count five networks that offer insurance and five that offer points-based swaps of some sort. That’s not a lot. But the largest network, HomeExchange, is at least 20x larger than the next biggest network. So they really dominate the conversation.
Newcomers to home exchange are familiar with Airbnb. Most have already stayed in other people’s homes, or maybe even rented out their own home. They are comfortable with this more anonymous model of rental lodging. And so a system of points-based exchanges makes sense to them. And protecting these agreements with insurance is a logical addition for these folks. That’s not to say the newcomers don’t also value the personal connections and unique experiences offered by home swapping. But I think there’s a segment of people who wouldn’t join a home exchange network without these features.
The new school also includes people who have done home exchanges for years but like the more transactional and flexible approach of point-based swapping. These folks are happy with these innovations, which makes house swapping easier and more convenient for them.
Some people have speculated that the new school folks who like to use points for house swapping are less likely to engage personally with their exchange partners. Witness some of the requests people get generically asking to stay for points without any preamble. One person shared an angry followup received after rejecting a points request. The message sounded like the requestor thought it was like Airbnb where no offers should be rejected. I do agree points lead to a less personal sentiment. It feels more like a transaction.
Where will this division lead?
In the past I sometimes wished one of the larger home exchange networks would just buy up all the smaller ones. I figured consolidation would be a win for all the members with a much broader base from which to find swaps. I still think a large membership is a real asset in a home exchange network. But I also see the perils in having one network that gets to impose it’s world view on all the new members. People seek out networks that reflect their home exchange goals and values. To some, this is more important than the number of opportunities and ease of finding a swap.
Some home exchange traditionalists will never be won over by the new school. They refuse to be assimilated. And so these folks are jumping ship from HomeExchange. They are joining smaller swap networks that focus on traditional exchanges. And they are particularly drawn to the ones that are vocal about their commitment to the traditional spirit of house swapping. We’ve seen growth in a lot of smaller networks in the past month. Probably most striking was the 10x growth of People Like Us. People were willing to give this new network a shot in spite of it’s tiny size in the hopes that they could build it up into what they loved about the former HomeExchange.com network.
In the end I think the exodus will be a minor dip in membership for the new HomeExchange network. But many of the members leaving are very active committed swappers. They will be a strong addition to the groups they join. Some of these smaller home exchange networks have not grown in years. These new members could have a big impact, perhaps really boosting numbers and swap activity. It will be interesting to see how things shake out over the next year.