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Though it’s nearly two decades old, “The Holiday” starring Kate Winslet and Cameron Diaz not only lives on in the hearts of romcom fans — but home swappers too.

The movie plays like a 136-minute advertisement for HomeExchange, and it’s hard to tell what holds the bigger appeal: the romantic English cottage where Diaz’s character stays or the doting widowed father next door played by Jude Law.

The movie was so good for business, the company continues to use it in a marketing campaigns, such as one last year that sent the woman who played one of Law’s little daughters in the movie on her own swap to a Tudor farmhouse.

Yet not even Hollywood could top the moment home swapping is enjoying now. Last year alone, HomeExchange, the biggest of the home-swapping platforms, reported 51% growth in membership, increasing from roughly 100,000 members to more than 150,000.

Part of that came from the company’s acquisition in March 2023 of United Kingdom-based competitor Love Home Swap. But those 10,000 new members don’t account for such an outsized growth rate for a company that started in 1992 with paper catalogs shared mostly by schoolteachers who corresponded by (snail) mail.

HomeExchange isn’t alone in seeing rapid growth in home swapping.

“We have definitely experienced a surge in interest,” said Justine Palefsky, the CEO and co-founder at Kindred, a members-only home exchange network founded in 2022 and a PhocusWire Hot 25 Travel Startup for 2024. “We frankly have been surprised at the rapid traction and growth that we’ve seen.”

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Home swapping is built on this mutual trust. Everyone is both host and guest. You want to treat the home the way you would want yours to be treated. … There’s just this extra human element.

Jessica Poillucci – HomeExchange

So what explains the burst of new interest? The home-swapping platforms point to the rise in remote work and travelers’ heightened sensitivity to overtourism and the rising cost of living — along with an eagerness to embrace a “more human” transaction that may lead to more memorable experiences.

While those broader trends play to the strengths of the swapping experience described widely on social media by its acolytes, the numbers and timing raise another possibility.

Just as COVID-related shutdowns of hotels created an opening for short-term rentals to grow and thrive, the growing pains of stricter regulations, a supply glut in some markets and rules and fees that frustrate some travelers may be creating greater opportunities for home-swapping platforms to thrive.

Consider New York City, which last year began enforcing short-term rental rules that were seen as so restrictive thousands of Airbnb hosts dropped their listings. A year-end report on short-term rentals in the United States from AirDNA showed demand in the city dropped 46% for the year, the biggest drop among the top 50 markets tracked in the study. Meanwhile, the nearby Jersey City/Newark market saw the highest demand growth at 54%.

Those rules influenced home swapping in the Big Apple too. Palefsky said Kindred, which has about 20,000 members, saw membership grow in New York City over the last year by a factor of 10. HomeExchange reports that swaps in the city so far in 2024 have doubled over the same period last year, and the total number of exchanges is nearly 90% of what the city saw in all of 2023.

“All of these [factors] come together to give us the perfect storm for home swapping to be, hopefully, one of the next big waves of travel,” said Jessica Poillucci, the public relations manager at HomeExchange. “Travel home swapping is probably the most affordable accommodation out there.”

Palefsky points to another factor, crediting the surge of interest in home-swapping platforms to an “environment of trust.”

“That’s what we’re hoping to do with Kindred: vetting members and homes … helping folks get to know one another and feel comfortable with each other before they confirm a stay,” she said. “These are all necessary ingredients in creating the environment of trust that people need to make something as fun and romantic as home swapping a phenomenal option.”

“Short-term rentals at a crossroads?”

None of this is to suggest the short-term rental market is unhealthy. Gross bookings are projected to clear $202 billion in 2024, an increase of about one-third from global totals in 2022, according to the Phocuswright Short-Term Rental Interactive Database. Airbnb revenue in the first quarter exceeded $2 billion and was up 18% over the same period in 2023. Active listings grew by 17% and stand at a record 7.7 million.

The 50,000 members HomeExchange added last year? For Airbnb, that’s like the change guests find in the pullout sofa of a rental.

Still, growth in the short-term rental sector is slower than it had been during a period of “booming pandemic-era demand,” according to Phocuswright research. The company’s latest report on global short-term rentals cited various causes, including rebounding demand for hotels and increasing regulations in many key markets.

At next month’s Phocuswright Europe conference in Barcelona, an expert panel discussion on the subject is entitled “Short-term Rentals at a Crossroads?” and examines whether property managers have hit a ceiling with the rapid scaling up of portfolios.

The sector has grown more complicated, said Phocuswright senior market analyst Peter O’Connor, who is moderating the June 12 panel.

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There’s a romance to the idea of trading lives with someone else in a different part of the world and discovering a new city, and through that discovering a new part of yourself.

Justine Palefsky – Kindred

“In many, but not all, parts of the world regulation both limits what you can do and also increases the barriers to entry,” O’Connor said. “Governments are also getting tighter on issues such as taxation, which makes the business model less attractive. But at the same time, it’s still comparatively easy in many locations, so STRs are likely to remain a major component of the accommodation [sector] in most destinations for the foreseeable future — unless other destinations follow the example of New York and introduce severe restrictions.”

Regulations like those in New York City generally don’t apply to home swapping because no money changes hands; the swappers are seen more as guests than renters.

Yet given the heightened regulatory environment, HomeExchange said it’s working proactively with local officials to ensure that distinction is clear. This spring the government in Scotland clarified legislation for short-term rentals to specifically exclude home-swapping from its license requirements.

But that’s not the case in Amsterdam, where home swappers are required to apply for the same license short-term rental hosts need. Both are limited to a maximum of 30 days of rentals or exchanges per year, and guests must pay a tourist tax.

Regardless of how the rules are applied, the number of people who might choose a swap instead of listing on a short-term rental platform is marginal, O’Connor said. “I think the ones doing this are outliers rather than the mainstream STR owner.”

Home swappers don’t object. Home swapping was always a niche product, originally designed for people who had no interest in making money off their homes — only in traveling more cost effectively.

“The real sharing economy”

Airbnb was founded in 2008, two years after “The Holiday” raised awareness of HomeExchange. The companies share similarly modest origin stories: teachers swapping homes to make the most of long summer vacations; the Airbnb founders offering an air mattress and breakfast to entice visitors to a spare room.

While both companies were tagged as “alternative accommodations” to differentiate them from hotels, their paths have diverged greatly since their humble beginnings. Now it’s the short-term rentals that are lumped with hotels, said Phocuswright’s O’Connor.

“Most of the major [online travel agency] platforms already propose both traditional hotels and STRs to people searching for accommodation offerings,” he said. “Some hotel chains are starting to promote STR-type offerings as part of their portfolios of brands.”

And as short-term rentals grew more hotel-like in their professionalization, so did the ownership.

“Even if the STR companies do not like to admit it, a substantial proportion of their business is not customer-to-customer but business-to-customer, with investors and professional hosts buying apartments/houses solely to make available on STR platforms,” O’Connor said.

By contrast, nearly three-quarters of listings on HomeExchange are primary residences. The figure is 90% at Kindred, which prohibits investor-owned homes — even though there isn’t much incentive for them to be on the site.

That’s because no cash changes hands — HomeExchange charges members an annual fee of $220; Kindred members pay a cleaning and service fee with each swap. That makes home swapping “the real sharing economy, where real people are sharing their real homes with each other,” said Kindred’s Palefsky. “They are realizing that Airbnb is actually a rental economy.”

The cash-free nature of the transaction changes the dynamic between hosts and guests, the home swappers say. While short-term rental owners worry about whether they need a doorbell camera or noise monitor to safeguard their properties, home swappers are wondering what kind of wine to leave for their guests or a suitable “thank you” gift for their hosts.

“At the core, home swapping is built on this mutual trust. Everyone is both host and guest,” Poillucci said. “You want to treat the home the way you would want yours to be treated. … There’s just this extra human element.”

“When you’ve seen somebody’s face and talked to them, it’s a lot harder to be a jerk,” Palefsky said.

That’s part of the reason home swapping platforms don’t see themselves in competition with short-term rentals. Any gains they make as that sector copes with regulations, rules and fees are viewed merely as opportunities to convince more people to give them a try.

“Some people may never be comfortable swapping homes, allowing someone into their space,” Poillucci said. “But I think that connection aspect is a big selling point. It’s why some people end up loving the platform and being on it for years to come.”

“There’s a romance to the idea of trading lives with someone else in a different part of the world and discovering a new city, and through that discovering a new part of yourself,” Palefsky said. “I think it’s a resonant dream that a lot of us share. It’s rewarding to be able to bring that to life for people.”

Phocuswright Europe 2024

Are short-term rentals at a crossroads? An executive panel on the subject features Guesty president and chief operating officer Vered Raviv-Schwarz; Interhome co-CEO and chief commercial officer Sylvia Epaillard; Bob W. co-founder and CEO Niko Karstikko; and Awaze group CEO Henrik Kjellberg.





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