Old School Home Exchange Staying Relevant: Interview with two HomeLink Country Owners By: Dawn Zerly, ShareTraveler.com
HomeLink is one of the oldest home exchange networks, founded in 1953. They have a unique way of running the service with independent country owners, but a centralized website and close coordination between the countries. Then network also offers a Youth Exchange option where members can swap kids, usually for a few weeks of language immersion. HomeLink has updated their technology, but otherwise hasn’t changed much over the years. I talked with Inga de Ruiter, the Netherlands HomeLink country owner, and Caroline Connolly, the UK country owner, about the history of HomeLink and what they love about its unique structure. (Inga was kind enough to speak with me in English.)
ShareTraveler: Inga, you have been running HomeLink for the Netherlands since 1991, tell me how you got started.
Inga: My father, Renger de Ruiter, started a national home exchange service back in 1979. This idea was based on memories from his early childhood, even before WWII, when his family (6 siblings) spent a few weeks in the house of his uncle and aunt every summer. They were living in Schevening, at the seaside. My dad was living near the Veluwe, a national park in the east of the Netherlands, a perfect holiday location for his uncle and aunt. If it wasn’t for this home exchange, my grandparents would never had the finances to spend 2 weeks at the beach every year with all their children.
He started from scratch but within a year his Dutch home exchange organization grew to over 400 members. This may not seem like a lot, but in 1979 the phenomenon of home exchange was still unknown in the Netherlands. The idea of strangers in your home (sleeping in your bed!!) was quite unusual to many people. Moreover, there was no internet.
Marketing was limited to paid advertisements in daily newspapers. It was only after the first positive exchanges between his first members that journalists could be approached in the hope that they wanted to write something about home exchange. It was these stories that convinced more and more people that home exchange could be an option for a comfortable but less expensive holiday.
Renger discovered by coincidence that there was also an exchange organization in England. Remember it was 1980, you could not simply Google at that time. The first contact with HomeLink in England was quickly made. From that moment on our exchange holidays became a sort of business trips. He has been visiting members in dozens of places and trying to make them enthusiastic to start their own home exchange business and join Homelink. With success!
When I started working with my father in 1991, I knew most of my colleagues. I was the first in the row of 2nd generation organizers. Later on, my colleagues in Italy, Canada and New Zealand also transferred their businesses to their children. HomeLink is therefore run by people who have known each other personally for years and years. Although we are working by ourselves, most of us from our home, I have colleagues around the world. We keep in touch by mail and Skype. And every two years we meet somewhere in Europe.
ST: Caroline, you run HomeLink UK, how did you get started with that?
Caroline: Back in 2004 I was working for large corporate American company after having my first child. My request to work part-time was turned down so I was looking for something new. A series of lucky coincidences ended up with us buying HomeLink UK from the then owners who had run it for the past 17 years and were looking to retire. I joined 15 years ago and only Avril in South Africa is newer than me! It’s such a nice business to run dealing with really lovely, generous-spirited people that organizers tend to stay for many years.
ST: Can you explain the HomeLink system of having each country owned and run separately?
Inga: HomeLink runs a website which is owned by all organizers as we all belong to HomeLink International Associates. At our annual meetings we set new goals, discuss new projects and share our experiences with each other. The Board takes care of day to day decisions. The IT group coordinates all work regarding the website. I am a member of this group. We not only translate website problems and wishes we hear from our members but also from co-organizers to the IT employees.
Caroline: Each HomeLink country organizer owns and runs their own national business. So none of us are employees. I think this responsibility for our own members gives us a very strong commitment to them and a strong sense of loyalty from them in return. I routinely get Christmas cards and postcards from members, and emails telling me about their exchanges.
That sense of loyalty and belonging is really important. It’s so far removed from the commercial feel that is increasingly prevalent these days. I had a report of a cancellation a week or so ago as a result of a serious health condition so I sent out an SOS to some of my UK members asking for help in finding the affected Australian member an alternative exchange. The Aussies were inundated with offers and fixed up two exchanges covering 7 weeks within a week of my email. Some of the UK HomeLinkers I emailed were offering spare rooms and granny annexes without any plans to travel to Australia. They just wanted to help. What a lovely bunch of people!
The other advantage of being in the same country as our members (mostly), is that we’re very well placed to get to know them and help them out with any issues. While some questions are the same wherever you live, some require local knowledge. For instance, I can tell you all about car insurance for home exchangers in the UK (such as which companies will offer coverage) but if you ask me about car insurance in the US, I would be much less able to help so that’s when I would contact my US colleague for advice. This network of local organizers has worked well over the years and enables almost all members to pick up the phone and talk to a HomeLink organizer in their own language.
ST: How do the country owners coordinate their work?
Caroline: All organizers follow a common set of rules. We have an annual general meeting where we discuss projects and put forward proposals which are then voted on and changes implemented. There is a lot of communication between organizers and it’s a system that works well based on many years’ home exchange experience.
Inga: In case of problems between two members we contact each other and try to mediate and/or offer a solution. As we are both representing a member of our own, we take complaints very seriously. Fortunately we don’t receive many complaints. I am pretty sure that this is because of our traditional home exchange values of mutual trust and hospitality, respect, sharing and friendship. We don’t value homes or members with balloons nor points, as we think this commercial trend is not what HomeLinkers are looking for.
ST: Are the majority of your members concentrated in one region of the world?
Caroline: The bulk of our members are the old western Europe, North America, Australia and New Zealand. When you have an organizer in a region then historically they’ve drummed up interest in their area. In other areas the members are primarily expats. It would be lovely if we could have more unusual destinations but that’s much harder without someone on the ground.
ST: Has HomeLink’s membership grown over the past few years?
Caroline: We’ve been fairly static. Certainly we’ve had a good month this month. It’s quite a busy marketplace now.
ST: Is your current increase in membership coming from former HomeExchange members?
Caroline: Our suspicion is that it’s to do with HomeExchange. We have certainly had a lot more new 30 days free trials this month, but that might be a result of all the social media we have been doing recently. I suspect we will know a lot more when that 30 days is up.
ST: I heard a rumor that HomeLink is offering a discount to former members of HomeExchange if they want to switch networks. Can you tell me about that?
Caroline: We have discussed this within HomeLink and there is broad agreement that we’re very happy to offer a discount to former HomeExchange members in recognition that some feel compelled to join another organization before their current membership has expired. To take advantage of the discount anyone can contact their local organizer via the Contact Us button on our website at www.homelink.org to find out more.
Plans for the future
ST: Is HomeLink still adding new countries?
Caroline: My count shows we have an organizer representing 22 countries. We haven’t added any new countries recently, but our new website set up makes this much easier, so I think it’s quite possible in future. If a member wants to join in a country where there is no organizer then the website directs them to join via a country based on nationality, language or culture. So for example, most ex-pats join in their mother country and others join in a country which speaks their language.
ST: I believe there was a major website overhaul sometime in 2017. Were a lot of things changed then?
Caroline: It was more recent than that. In October 2018 we launched our completely revamped website, which was nearly a year in the making. This was primarily to make it mobile-friendly. However as every page was redesigned, we took the opportunity to improve the usability based on member feedback.
As we’re all very aware at the moment, launching a new site can be a fraught process but we were delighted with how smoothly the roll-out went. We’ve had very good feedback from members. One long term member I spoke to on Saturday described it as “very intuitive,” which I hope means we’ve done a good job!
ST: Does HomeLink have any plans for new features or other growth plans?
Caroline: We do have some plans but these are at the early stages so I can’t say anything about them. The website is constantly evolving and we have a number of mini-projects underway which we’ve developed with input from our members.
Because there are 20 of us, we do things by agreement. Perhaps we’re a little bit more conservative. But I think the local organizer network gives us a huge advantage in terms of member support. I look after about 10% of the membership and when you’re looking after that number you can genuinely give them personal service. There is a real sense of connection, and I think that’s why we do have a very loyal membership.
I’ve been doing it for 15 years and I’ve got 4 children and they do lots of activities so I’m always meeting and talking to people. In 15 years only two people that I know have actually joined. 80% of the people I’ve talked to say that’s a great idea, but 2 people in 15 years joined. That for me explains why its such a challenge to commercialize home exchange. Not enough people will take the plunge and try it. And that’s why I think the local organizers work well. You can support your members and expand through word of mouth.
ST: Where do you hope to see HomeLink in 5 years?
Caroline: I think we’re in a good place to expand. I hope we will just slowly grow. I think we will stay true to the traditional home exchange. We’ve had discussions about points but there is a genuine nervousness about the whole commercialization of the relationship and what that does to the members. I don’t think we have any immediate plans to talk points, but I think we’re in a good position to grow slowly and steadily.
I think we’re quite different with our organizers, it’s an unusual structure that has advantages and disadvantages. From a member point of view, to be able to pick up the phone to someone in your country and talk in your language. It’s the opposite of big corporate. I think that’s why I like doing it. It’s just a really nice business to run.
Inga: In 2023 HomeLink will celebrate its 70th anniversary. I hope, in 5 years, HomeLink still proves that it deserves an undeniable place in the world of home exchange. I think we will, as I see us slowly growing again after years of increased competition by more commercial web-orgs. As the pioneer, we have put this sustainable, alternative but also luxury way of holidaying on the map. By sticking to our original principles, we not only place (mutual) reliability in the hands of our members, but we also allocate ourselves as an organization.