When Susie Hollands travels, she has the option of staying in one of thousands of luxury homes across the globe.
But Hollands doesn’t own these homes, nor does she know the people who do. In fact, chances are good she may never meet the owners of the home she chooses, and for one simple reason: when she’s at their place, they’ll be at hers.
Hollands is one of 1,000+ members registered with Luxe Home Swap, a Web site that facilitates temporary home exchanges. The concept of trading homes was made famous by the 2006 film “The Holiday” in which the character played by Cameron Diaz agrees to swap her Los Angeles mansion with Kate Winslet's character's cottage in Surrey, England. (In real life home exchanges, however, a rendezvous with Jude Law isn’t guaranteed.)
While “The Holiday” may have served as a springboard for the London-based Luxe Home Swap, the site’s true inspiration stemmed from the personal needs and vision of one of its founders. Ben Wosskow, who launched the service with his sister Debbie in January 2010, says his sister used to be a “boutique hotel addict” but began to see a need for a less expensive, more accessible means of accommodation as she started a family of her own. It was in researching home-exchange Web sites that she saw a business opportunity.
“[Debbie] saw some really nice stylish homes on these sites, but they were packaged up in a really sort of unattractive sort of way,” says her brother. “That’s when she thought, ‘This is a sector that really needs overhauling, that really needs to be transformed.’”
Debbie, a founder of advisory firm Maidthorn Partners and a number of other ventures, partnered with Ben, whose background is in digital media, to create Luxe Home Swap – a service they believe trumps others of its kind not only in execution, but also in scope. For one, the site appeals to those with “stylish” homes, but has avoided boxing itself into the ultra-luxury niche by keeping its definition of “stylish” relatively loose. There are no size limitations: homeowners can list their six-bedroom chalet in Switzerland as readily as they can list their one-bedroom apartment in New York City, so long as a certain level of quality is apparent. The Luxe Home Swap team does scan listings and removes ones that don’t fit, though Ben says the site’s members are surprisingly “self-selecting” and don’t often list homes that deviate from the site’s target.
The idea of flexibility is one that underpins much of the Wosskow duo’s service. Membership, for instance, costs a flat $159 a year with no limit to the number of swaps members can execute. (The swaps themselves are free – no money is exchanged on either side.) Luxe Home Swap provides some guidance on how to carry out a successful swap and has a customer-service team that can be reached if problems arise, but otherwise stays very much out of sight.
“A lot of sites are very draconian. We say ‘you guys work out between yourselves what you think is best,’” says Ben.
To be sure, letting a stranger into your home is unsettling to most people, no matter what the terms. Hoping to counteract some of that apprehension, the site offers members ways to message each other without revealing phone numbers or e-mail addresses, and also offers them the option of utilizing Facebook to see if they might have any mutual connections with other members. The company also encourages members to get in touch with their insurance companies to explain their situation and make sure they have the proper coverage in place before executing a swap.
Ben says the site is growing quickly, with the No. 1 destination being London. Roughly one-third of the site’s members are in the U.S. and Canada, another third is in the U.K. and Europe, and the final third is in Australia, Hong Kong and island regions such as the Caribbean.
With a flat rate of $159 a year and thousands of destinations to choose from, Ben says the service tends to attract people who realize not only the cost benefits of swapping, but the experience that comes with it.
“They tend to be a bit more adventurous and a bit more open-minded than your average person. They’re often very into local travel experiences… they want to see the city like an insider.”
Hollands, who runs a real-estate company and lives in the tourist-heavy Marais section of Paris, has swapped homes five times since joining the Web site in June 2010. One of her more recent trades was a long weekend at the home of a 40-something-year-old couple with two children in the Kensington section of London. The experience, in her eyes, went beyond what a hotel could provide.
“I have a three-year old who always got very bored in hotel rooms but here she had her own playroom with all the toys she could want, which made a massive difference. The home was also super-comfortable with an en-suite [bathroom] for each bedroom, which made it feel like the luxury of a hotel but with no whopping bill to deal with at the end.”
She is currently orchestrating a swap in Bali for the summer.