- no sustainable revenue model
- demand / supply imbalance (more “surfers” than hosts)
- geographic imbalance (hosts in popular destinations are swamped)
- safety and trust
In this one I’ll review a number of their current competitors and briefly discuss their scale and how they’re tackling these issues.
Two older networks that we don’t need to spend much time on are Hospitality Club and Global Freeloaders, and one look at their websites will tell you why — the design and functionality have clearly not been updated in a very long time. They seem to be #1 and 2 after CS in terms of total members, with about 800,000 and 100,000 respectively, but that’s mostly because they’ve been around for so long. I’m sure that their ratio of active profiles to stale ones is much lower than for CS or any of the others below, and it’s unclear how actively either one is still being curated.
Then there’s BeWelcome (BW) which seems to be aimed at duplicating the “old” CS as closely as possible. I believe it was originally started as a Hospitality Club alternative, but it gained a lot of traction during the CS meltdown and became the destination of choice for users who were leaving CS in protest.
In terms of transparency, they put CS to shame, with published financials and a public stats page that shows a wide variety of user data and trends. They’re currently at around 75,000 users, and they confirmed for me that about half of these are “active” according to their definition of having logged in within the last year. If we used the more restrictive definitions I applied to CS for my estimates in the previous post — well, I’m sure the ratio is higher at BW, but it’s hard to imagine it’s more than 15-20k active users.
BW runs purely on donations, with a shoestring budget of just a few thousand euros annually. The back end is open source, it’s built and run entirely by volunteers, and decisions about site development and rules are made by consensus.
This consensus system is the single most common criticism I’ve heard of BeWelcome — that it slows things down too much. I would add that the lack of funds is almost certainly also a hindrance. Without taking anything away from volunteers, some things just get done faster when you can pay for them.
But it’s still very impressive what they’ve been able to accomplish while holding themselves to a much higher standard of financial austerity, transparency and ethics than even the old Couchsurfing appears to have done.
If there’s a better candidate than BeWelcome to replace CS in its original form, then I’m not aware of it. But a variety of other projects are tweaking the model in various ways.
Two similar ones are Nightswapping and Trampolinn, which both address the host/surfer imbalance by using a points system: you earn points by hosting people and spend them by being hosted. (Nightswapping calls them “nights.”) This kind of system can also be adapted to deal with the geographic imbalance problem, by assigning a higher point value to accommodations in more popular destinations. Nightswapping also seems to distinguish according to the quality of the accommodation.
Each has a complex revenue model based on transaction fees and other ancillary services. Among other things, they will sell you extra points — just like you can buy extra airline miles if you don’t have enough for your booking.
Right now, these sites feel more like a complex, underpopulated version of AirBnB than an alternative to CS. But it’s still early for both. Nightswapping raised a €2 million funding round in September, at which time they claimed 6,000 active hosts; at year end they reported 2,000 “nights” spent in 2014. Since each accommodation costs multiple “nights” per night (getting a headache yet?), this presumably means only a few hundred stays. Trampolinn reports 22,000 members on their homepage and they tell me they’ve also had a few hundred stays.
If you think of these as AirBnB alternatives rather than CS alternatives, swapping out cash for a virtual currency has at least one potential advantage: the local laws being used to shut down and fine AirBNB hosts may not apply if there’s technically no exchange of money. (I’m not sure I’d bet the farm on that distinction holding up, though.)
Another category is networks that focus on a specific target audience that already has some group identity and mutual trust — ideally a group that already has a built-in propensity for travel. These sites give up one of the best selling points of CS, which is that it helps you meet people outside your normal social network or activities. And they forfeit many potential benefits of scale. But in return, they’re getting a higher initial level of trust and engagement.
The oldest and most successful example of this is WarmShowers, which is essentially CS for long distance cyclists, and seems to have reached about the same scale as BeWelcome. They are also funded by donations, but frame them as a recurring, voluntary “membership fee” — which is a step in the right direction, from my perspective, since it creates a more stable revenue stream and avoids repeated “pledge drives,” which users eventually tune out.
Interestingly, WarmShowers is starting to run into their own growing pains in terms of finances. Their proposed 2015 budget is about $60,000, which is basically a BeWelcome scale budget with another $50,000 tacked on for an “Executive Director / Fundraising Consultant.” Needless to say, some members are not happy.
I’m not sure that’s the first full-time paid job description I’d add, but there’s no question that most non-profits need at least some paid labor to run efficiently once they reach a certain size. A network that rules that out on principle is putting a real ceiling on its potential growth.
Another that just launched, called Trustroots, is initially aimed at hitchhikers. Like WarmShowers and BeWelcome, it’s both open source and committed to its non-profit status. It sounds like they’re planning a somewhat expanded feature set from BeWelcome, including more Facebook integration, and they hope to eventually raise enough in donations and/or grants to have some paid full-time work on the site.
One that didn’t make it was Startup Stay (2012-2014), whose target audience, ironically, was entrepreneurs. They found that their members were more interested in networking than actually staying with each other, and after pivoting in that direction, merged with another “founder dating” type site called CoFoundersLab.
I’m a beta tester for a new iOS app called Horizon, which uses mutual Facebook friends and group members to connect people. This seems to be less of a meta-platform for group specific networks, and more of a way to build trust by finding whatever friends or groups two members have in common.
There are more sites I could talk about, but I think I’ve covered the bases in terms of the different potential operating models. There’s one in Europe called Roamalot that seems to cover other kinds of “sharing” besides hosting travellers, like borrowing things from other locals.
There also seems to be a good deal of vaporware out there. Less than a month ago I received an email promoting another new hospitality network, with links that have already all gone dead. And even as I was writing this post I discovered this guy announcing yet another project. He wants it to be invitation-only, which is an interesting idea that we’ll come back to in the next post. But it highlights another problem with the pure volunteer-driven model; it’s hard to keep everyone rowing in the same direction. Without anyone gathering a critical mass of either members or funds, there’s nothing to stop this constant splintering.
Let’s recap: more than ten years after Couchsurfing was founded, the total active member base at all these sites is probably less than two million, and almost all of it is still at CS — which brought in venture capitalists and professional management three years ago, an eternity in tech time, and has not yet figured out how to make it work. When you put it that way, things look a little grim.
A cynical (but not unreasonable) observer might say: the true demand for this as a reciprocal service seems to be very low. For whatever reason, we’ve had this trend for the last five years or so when a few million extra people were doing it. But most have been from a younger backpacking/bohemian demographic and it’s been mostly a freeloader phenomenon; they all want to party and have a free place to crash, but not enough of them are really committed to hosting themselves, or donating their money and time, to make the system work.
Eventually the most dedicated and trustworthy hosts will get sick of them, they’ll go back to their hostels, and the “hospitality exchange” world will return to its sustainable level — the old offline networks (like Servas, for example), a few of which have made the jump to the internet (like WarmShowers), maybe one or two new ones like BeWelcome, plus whatever’s left of CS when Silicon Valley gives up on it. They may all do a great job for their community, but none of them will stabilize at more than a hundred thousand or so active members, and they’ll all continue to scrape by on donations and volunteer work.
I’m not that much of a cynic. There’s definitely a ceiling on how large something like this can grow, for a variety of reasons, but I think that limit is closer to 10 million active users than one million or 100,000. And I think there are multiple ways to make it self-financing at that scale. We’ll tackle that in the next entry.