SabbaticalHomes: Housing for Traveling Professors

By Features WomenEntrepreneur.com

"This is a traveler's dream job," says Nadege Conger, founder ofSabbaticalHomes.com. "I can virtually travel the world several times over each day and help academics and their families with their dreams of adventure and exploration."

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Conger, born in France, has an MBA from McGill University in Canada and now resides in California. She is the enthusiastic founder and leader of SabbaticalHomes.com. The site lists homes to rent, share, exchange or house-sit across the globe.

SabbaticalHomes.com started more than 10 years ago as the brainchild of necessity. Conger's professor husband, Jay, was going to teach in London, and she had to find a place for the family to live. She realized there were few resources available to help individuals find temporary and, more important, affordable housing. She knew the internet would be the perfect vehicle for solving this problem.

It took Conger a year, figuring it out on her own while caring for her first child, to launch a serviceable website. Her goal was a site that would enable scholars to conduct research away from home or go on sabbaticals without spending a lot of time, worry or money on housing. Once the website was up and running, she was happily surprised when someone posted the website's very first advertisement for a home. Soon more ads came flooding in, and she knew she was on to a significant unmet need.

Like Craigslist, SabbaticalHomes.com works like a classified advertisement service, but to a targeted audience. In the beginning, viewing her work as a "goodwill service," she didn't charge any fees, only asking for success-based contributions. "I quickly realized that room for website improvement was never-ending," Conger says. By the third year of operation, she started to charge a nominal setup fee for home listings, as a way to service the growing costs of building a sophisticated web service and to ensure that listings were legitimate. After some time, she says, "The business was doing well enough that I could afford to hire the information technology expert I needed to build a sophisticated database and internal framework." With a webmaster on board, Conger was able to spend more of her time marketing the website and expanding the reach of Sabbaticalhomes.com.

"It took a while for people to catch on that not everything on the internet was free, but I found that if people pay for something, it is more legitimate and increases the value. I can keep scammers out and provide a wonderful service to my clients. I am in touch with my clients on a regular basis, and many have become friends," Conger says.

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The mission continues to be enabling scholars to research and exchange ideas with others in different locations. Helping them succeed in their plans is worth all of the energy. "Academics tend to have similar schedules and values," explains Conger, "so connecting them for housing while on sabbatical and research leaves makes so much sense." At the same time, the site has become a popular destination for the friends and family members of academics.

SabbaticalHomes.com members can preview homes on the site with photographs and details of the home and surrounding neighborhoods. While the site is focused on academics, it attracts writers, artists and professionals who enjoy traveling the world and staying in private homes. The site features a browse option, and home seekers can choose any of 56 countries to begin their search.

"Many of the homes that are listed are located in ideal neighborhoods of the great cities of the world; others in remote areas make ideal writing retreats," muses Conger. "I do a lot of daydreaming about staying in them as a guest myself!"

Conger balances running her home-based company, caring for her two school-age children and doing a fair bit of traveling herself. Her husband still teaches in London in the summers. As soon as the kids are out of school, they all travel as a family. "As a mother, I am lucky to be a stay-at-home mom with a professional mission. I didn't have to chose one over the other. This is a solution where I can be an omnipresent entrepreneur and parent, and have control over my schedule." She travels with her laptop, of course, so she can keep the business humming.

Celebrating its tenth year in business, Sabbaticalhomes easily weathered the internet bubble and several downturns in the economy as Conger continues to build a steady and growing following for her service. More than 60,000 listings have been posted so far. Home rental fees are usually lower than market rates because the community of members views one another as caretakers rather than paying clients. "People on our site usually have something in common and feel a certain responsibility toward one another," Conger says. So homeowners find their properties well cared for.

Today, SabbaticalHomes.com is managed by a small team of multinationals who are always asking themselves how to take the service to the next level and who help Conger provide top-notch customer service. "The testimonials we receive are what we are most proud of and what drives us to continually improve," Conger says.

Nearly 200 sites link to SabbaticalHomes.com. These sites include universities, and sites such as Fodor's travel blog.

With a well-established business, Conger still battles the pull of family vs. work. "You can feel that you run out of time and constantly need to shift priorities, but the kids understand to a certain extent," she says. She adds that one day, when the kids are in college, she'll complement her virtual turns around the globe with more visits to the exciting places she sees on the site. But, she says, she'll continue her mission while traveling.

Sara Pritzkat is a freelance writer as well as editor for SabbaticalHomes.com. She is based in Southern California.

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