You’ve probably heard of Airbnb, VRBO and other services that let people rent out rooms or their entire homes to vacationers. There’s a new option on the market that aims to provide that same convenient alternative to hotels – but this one only caters to the 50-and-over crowd.
The idea for The Freebird Club sparked for Peter Mangan when he began working and living part-time in Dublin. He was renting the home he had built in Southern Ireland and his father, an aging widower, took care of the home and managed the guests.
His father’s lifestyle had become less active since retirement and Mangan couldn’t help but notice how much he was enjoying this new experience.
“When older guests stayed, they hit it off on a consistent basis and were going to local pubs and sightseeing and having dinners together,” Mangan said. “He had a new social outlet and it was putting a smile on face.”
Mangan also got positive feedback online from guests about his father’s hosting abilities and he soon realized he had hit on a need: a social form of home sharing dedicated to people over 50.
“In an aging society where we hear about loneliness and isolation, this is a way older people can connect,” he said. “Travel hosting will allow people of a certain age to connect and meet and travel and stay with each other.”
Launched in early 2017, The Freebird Club has about 2,000 members with 200 hosts spread among 25 countries. About 40 percent of its members are American and a majority are in their late 50s and early 60s. Mangan’s goal is to offer travel options for aging adults who want to travel more, but either dislike the idea of group tours or lack the confidence to set out on their own.
A social connectionWhat differentiates Freebird from its competitors – other than the age designation – is the social aspect. According to Mangan, when someone stays at a rental through a place like Airbnb, a vast majority of their properties are vacant. There’s no guarantee travelers will have any social connection.
“It’s our niche … it offers a way to ensure that no matter where they go, they are staying with a fellow club member who has signed up to take part in this aspect of the club,” Mangan said.
And when it comes to socializing between guests and hosts, the Freebird founder says he understands that one size doesn’t fit all. But at the very least, customers can know they’re staying with a live-in host who is welcoming and has “bought into this ethos.”
In a focus group of older adults held in London prior to starting the site, participants voiced concern that they would be mismatched and would want more or less social interaction than was available. For this reason, hosts rank themselves on a scale of one to five: the first level for hosts who don’t want a lot of interaction, moving up to chatting and sharing meals, up to Level 5; hosts who make themselves available as a tour guide.
Focus on safetyMangan said charging a fee for taking part in the club was important for creating a sense of security for aging adults booking a room online. For that reason, the cost to join is a one-time charge of 25 Euros (or about $31).
Everyone joining the club – hosts and guests – have to register and pay the fee. Prospective members must fill out identification information and upload a personal profile. Hosts are required to upload details of their accommodations and proof of address and to undergo an interview. This call is used to let hosts know what’s expected of them and to provide an extra level of comfort to prospective guests.
Benefits for hostsMuch like with Mangan’s father, being a host provides some social interaction with other adults of a similar age. But it also allows them to take advantage of empty rooms to supplement their income.
As the site grows, Mangan says Freebird is always in need of additional hosts. While the company tries to ensure that attractive destinations are well represented, members living anywhere can join and list properties.
“There’s an opportunity to make money from those rooms,” he said. “And we increasingly see that people get to know their area more. When they have a guest, they are more likely to go to nearby vacation spots that they might not otherwise visit.”
What's in it for travelersGuests booking on Freebird will be staying in someone’s home, so the cost is usually less than a hotel or other rental. Mangan said they have some places for rent for as little as $25 and up to $130, depending upon the quality of the accommodation and its location.
“You are never getting a whole apartment, but we have rooms in fabulous city apartments and villas in Spain,” he said.
He stresses that booking on Freebird isn’t just about going to Paris to see the Eiffel Tower, or other top tourist destinations. The site is as much about meeting new people all over the world. A guest may stay someplace slightly more obscure because they found a host who loves fly fishing or basket weaving or they may want to learn French and find a host who is willing to help them.
Looking aheadThough Mangan says he wants to help people spend time with others with shared interests, the site isn’t quite set up specifically for that purpose yet. But he plans to create a platform for someone who’d like to visit Dublin, for instance, for a theater festival. The guest could then perform a sub-search on the site to find a host with that interest who may want to attend the festival too.
The site’s founder has also worked with www.internationalrail.com to help members get discounts on rail tickets to travel through Europe, Canada and Japan. This would allow people to country or city-hop (and stay in Freebird rooms along the way) at a more reasonable price.
Mangan said that while The Freebird Club is still young and small, it’s growing daily. He hopes to create momentum and soon see the site foster a strong international social travel community.