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Home Around the World Interview

What is your role with HATW and how long have you been with the company?

I am Ken Russell, the owner and CEO of Home Around the World and have been running the service for around 10 years. We are based in London and it’s always a pleasure to find new members popping up all around the world.

What got you interested in the concept of home sharing?

It all started in the magical city of San Francisco when I found my very own Mrs Madrigal.

I rented an apartment one summer from a drag queen I'd met the year before on my first visit when I'd fallen in love with the city and vowed to return. The apartment turned out to be situated in a dark alley south of Market, which at the time was not the trendy area it has since become. It was gloomy, grim and depressing and all its rooms overlooked a high wall at the side of the freeway. I was depressed and wondered what on earth I'd agreed to. As any self-respecting Taurean will tell you, we don't function well when we aren't comfortable and don't feel ‘at home’ in our own home.

And then San Francisco began to weave its magic spell. 

On my first Sunday morning I headed towards the light, to the Castro, the gay area where I'd felt so comfortable the year before. I didn't take the direct route up Market, but instead I meandered through unfamiliar streets in search of whatever it was I was hoping to find. I didn’t know what it was and didn’t have a plan but I sensed something special was about to happen. It was a long, slow uphill climb when finally I reached Henry street, a picturesque residential tree lined street of pretty, pastel coloured homes. 

I noticed a 'For Sale Open Day' sign outside an apartment and it was there I met Rosie. I explained I was just an inquisitive visitor from London. We hit it off immediately and within moments Rosie had whisked me to her own apartment opposite and suggested I stayed with her for the summer. As soon as I saw the expansive views across the city and the wonderful guest bedroom she was offering me, there was no doubt in my mind that I had not only found a new home, but I'd also found my own Mrs Madrigal.

I spent that summer with my wonderful Rosie and I returned, year after year, self financing these fun vacations by working, painting homes and tending gardens. I'd travel the Bart across the bay to Oakland and ride my bike across the Bay Bridge. I made close friends and I began to really understand 

what it was like to live in a city that was not my own. And I still keep my bike there.

It was sprawled across Rosie's bed one evening a few years later that HATW was conceived. I'd loved San Francisco and making friends the ‘at home’ way. Now it was time to provide opportunities for other gay travellers and their friends to have the same wonderful opportunities.

Over the following months I created Home Around the World, a site where home exchangers, guests and hosts could find each other. I hoped it would become a welcoming community of like minded people who shared the same values of mutual trust and respect, for each other and their homes.

What kinds of experiences/benefits are available for those who sign up with the site (that they can't get from hotels, hostels) etc?

By joining a club of like-minded people, our members sleep around the world without ever losing the comforts of home. Staying in upmarket hotels and eating in fancy restaurants is great, but on a vacation it can be ruinously expensive and it’s almost always an impersonal experience. And unless you’re just relaxing in a resort, how often do you return from a vacation feeling exhausted?

Hotels encourage their guests to leave their room and be out during the day, which is fine if you have the stamina to schlep around and explore all day long. Personally I’d rather live life at my own pace, sleep late if I choose to, sightsee at my leisure, take new pleasure in shopping for food in supermarkets, meet local people and just enjoy all the comforts a home can offer.

By staying in a home it’s easy to experience new cultures and really begin to understand what it’s like to live like a local, and not travel as a tourist. You’ll not only save a ton of money, but you’ll have far more rewarding experiences. And what you’ll save on expenses means you can have more vacations throughout the year. It’s a win-win!

It's all about location, location, location. If someone were to sign themselves up and offer their home, what kinds of things would you suggest they include in their page? 

Our listing design ranks amongst the best of any mainstream or gay accommodation site and enables members to provide a balance of information about their homes and area. A listing is your advertisement, so it’s worth spending a little time getting it right. 

Apart from promoting the best of your home and area, it’s also important to upload some well-chosen images and by supplying personal information including your holiday likes, preferences and what you're looking for, our members begin to know more about who might be swapping with them and living in their home. The personal touch is very important to encourage contact from other members.

Why is this home exchange network important for LGBT travelers?

When Home Around the World started our clientele was the LGBT traveler, as based on the concept that like attracts like, it seemed only natural to cater for our own community. However, a few years ago I began receiving emails from gay-friendly people disappointed that they might be barred from joining. Thankfully, times were rapidly changing and so it was an easy decision to open the site up to our ‘gay-friendly’ friends.

Our members are singles and couples of all ages and backgrounds and they offer a variety of homes from the simple and comfortable to the simply luxurious and ... the one thing they have in common is the warm welcome they offer each other.

With the growth of the new sharing economy Home Around the World fulfills a valuable role in the LGBT travel market. However, for any niche business to stay successful it can never rest on its laurels and must always be considering new ways to grow. We are currently making a few updates to the site that will include the addition of gay and gay friendly BnBs into our program and because home swapping is ideal for those with a family we’re hoping to encourage more gay parents to join.

This might be an unsettling idea for some folks who may be concerned with the security of their things, what are HATW's policies regarding broken or stolen goods?

It is quite natural to be hesitant about inviting people we don’t know to stay in our homes – just don’t forget your exchange partner, no doubt shares your own anxieties! With careful communication however, the reality of home swapping is quite different. Swapping your home involves first establishing a friendship based on mutual trust. As your communication develops through emails, photographs and phone calls, strangers soon become friends and once that friendship and trust has been established, the anxiety truly disappears. It’s like swapping with a member of your own family without all the accompanying stress! In all the years we’ve been in business we have never received any reports of damage. 

A member writes: “We’ve done ten home exchanges over the past 3 years. The worst that’s happened is our garden watering can got broken. And our guests left the money to buy a new one! I tell our insurance company the dates we’re exchanging and they note the dates – but don’t charge anything. They recognise that a home is much safer with guests in than being left empty.” 

We impose no rules or boundaries, except that our members are respectful of other people, their homes and their possessions. And that’s not too much to ask.

Are there any other things that potential users should know about? Such as benefits, opportunities, etc. 

Trust is the key to all home exchange arrangements and our members engage in home swaps in the safety and security that they are exchanging homes with other members who have paid the same nominal annual fee to use the service.

Most members are looking for simultaneous swaps but non simultaneous swaps are also popular. They can provide an ideal way for new members, who might be hesitant about making their first direct swap, to stay with another member first and then return their hospitality at a later, mutually convenient time. The site also provides ‘The Essential Guide to Home Swapping’ - a useful step-by-step guide to assist all our virgin home swappers eager to make their first swap.

We also advertise vacation rentals as some of our members also own second homes and there are generous discounts on renewals and additional listings.

Our great review system provides members the opportunity to earn a month’s free membership by leaving a review of their exchange because we know there’s nothing better than personal recommendation. There’s also a guarantee that if a member doesn’t arrange a swap during the membership period, we’ll add on a second free year.

In addition to keeping in touch with everyone by sending mail shots and a regular bi-monthly newsletter, I’m also very approachable by email and make every effort to provide great customer care, support and advice if ever it’s required.

However, I’m not the best at social media, so I’d love to find someone with great Facebook skills to give advice on our Home Around the World business page. There’s an offer of a free 2-year membership if anyone is interested!