September 7, 2012 by Christina Hamlett
A Conversation with Ed Kushins
“A house is not a home,” wrote Benjamin Franklin, “unless it contains food and fire for the mind as well as the body.”
Although the venerable statesman was born three centuries too early to register with HomeExchange.com, it’s a certainty he would have embraced the concept of not only walking in the footsteps of his foreign countrymen but also enjoying the hospitality of their homes and seeing through his own eyes the vitality of their communities.
Ed Kushins, Founder and President of HomeExchange.com, took time from his busy schedule to tell us why his company has become such a popular alternative to pricey vacations, especially in an uncertain economy.
Q: Let’s start out with some brief background about who you are, where you came from, and your professional background.
A: I am a native Southern Californian. I graduated from UCLA and soon after joined the Navy as a submarine officer, a tour of duty that allowed me to see a lot of the world between weeks and months submerged. When I returned to California, I attended USC for my MBA and continued to travel as the international marketing director for Flying Tiger Airline’s Asia division. In the years that followed, I took over my father’s scrap metal business in Los Angeles and then – 20 years ago – started HomeExchange.com and have never looked back. Travel is definitely a passion of mine and the business fits my lifestyle perfectly!
Q: So how often are you an active user of your company’s services?
A: My wife Terry and I usually do four exchanges per year for weekend getaways, regional vacations or extensions of some of my many business travels around the US and the world. We try to exchange with partners that have the same interests such as hiking, swimming and trying new restaurants and wines.
Q: What was your inspiration to launch HomeExchange.com and when did this occur?
A: I’d heard about home exchange in the early nineties. With much difficulty, I found someone who provided the service and took my kids to Washington, D.C. in 1992. It was such a great experience, I decided I wanted to share it and started my own little club – it wasn’t even a company – to do so.
Q: Were there any other programs like it at the time and, if so, what did you decide would distinguish your new business from the competition?
A: Yes, there were a few catalogue directories. I was really just interested in doing it as a hobby, an avocation. When the Internet came along, I saw it as an opportunity to use it to make home exchange one of the first truly digital companies by eliminating our printed directory and replacing it with an online site. We eliminated almost all our costs (transcribing listings, printing and delivery) and made information available immediately. Email allowed instantaneous contact and, without realizing it, we became one of the first social media and one of the first sharing/collaborative consumption websites. We distinguish ourselves by utilizing the full power of the Internet and not just recreating the printed directory that allows the unlimited photos and home descriptions.
Lee Greenhouse of Chicago, Illinois, has used HomeExchange.com to broaden his family’s appreciation of Paris and Villefrance (France); Rostrevor in Northern Ireland; Jackson, Wyoming; and Tiburon, California. “We loved the idea of joining a community of people who are adventurous and trusting enough to share something as intimate as their homes. Once we started actually making exchanges, we saw the richness of seeing another place through the eyes of the people who live there. When you stay in someone’s home, you are surrounded by their lives. In one of our exchanges with a French couple, we struck up a friendship with our hosts’ parents, who showed us around for several days and, it turned out, shared many of our interests in folk music.”
Q: How did you go about promoting HomeExchange.com and attracting your first gaggle of home exchangers?
A: When we first started with a printed directory, it was word-of-mouth and placing very expensive ads in travel and airline magazines. I also formed a small corporative of some other small clubs in Europe and we shared listings for a few years.
Q: How many home exchangers did you get when you started and how many do you have now?
A: My first directory in 1992 had 125 listings. We now are the largest home exchange community in the world with over 43,000 listings.
Q: Who’s your primary demographic?
A: It used to be retirees and teachers, but it now covers almost all demographics and all age groups, from newlyweds to retirees, from families with infants to empty nesters, from singles to families with six kids
Q: How has the current state of the economy impacted your business?
A: Nowadays, everyone has to watch their budget but no one wants to cut back on travel or vacations. Home exchange is their answer. Except for getting there, a vacation anywhere in the world doesn’t have to cost any more than staying at home. You can travel anywhere, live like a local, and stay for free!
Stephanie H. of Boulder, Colorado has HomeExchange.com to thank for adding Genoa, Italy; County Wicklow, Ireland; Napa, Santa Cruz and Laguna Beach (California); Williamsburg, Virginia; Southport, North Carolina; Champlain, Vermont; Colorado Springs, Colorado; Livingston, Montana; and Cape Cod, Massachusetts to her growing list of travels.”The whole ‘home away from home’ concept was very appealing. It’s such a luxury to be able to return to a comfortable home after a day of sightseeing and whirlwind activity, relax on a couch or easy chair, sip wine on a deck, read a good book, cook your own meals when you want to, and have the whole house to yourselves. It’s the best way to travel, and makes the whole experience more affordable. Not only can you exchange homes, but also cars, and pet care! We have really enjoyed our correspondence with our exchange partners before, during, and after the exchanges. Even though we rarely meet in person, we feel a kinship with them as we are all invested in making sure our trips are memorable and that are homes are comfortable and welcoming. One of the happiest surprises was when we received a thank-you note from a visitor to our home from North Carolina. He was an older gentleman who brought his female friend to Boulder for two weeks and remarked in his note to us that they had had such a wonderful time they decided to get married! And so they did!”
Q: Let’s say that there’s a lovely villa in Tuscany that I’d like to go stay in but, alas, I live in a boring tract home in the suburbs of Fresno. Does this mean that I can only do a home exchange with someone that has an abode similar to mine in square footage and design or that the person in Tuscany whose home I stay in has to be amenable to staying at mine?
A: Many of our listings “off the beaten track” are very successful at getting home exchanges. Check out this listing in Modesto (not that far from Fresno!) with over 16 successful home exchanges. http://www.homeexchange.com/show.php?id=12541
Q: How much contact do the participating exchangers have with one another prior to the exchange taking place? If someone were going to be living at my residence while I was away, I’d like to know something about them first (i.e., do they throw wild parties, have exotic pets, are they kleptomaniacs…)
A: It varies. New members usually spend a lot more time with phone calls and emails on the first exchange. Experienced exchangers feel comfortable moving forward with less checking up. In any case, it’s good to make sure you have enough communication that you feel comfortable with your exchange partner.
Q: So what happens to participants’ respective possessions during a home exchange? Are they kept out for the visitors to use or are they all put into storage?
A: It’s prudent to put jewelry and cash out of the way, but most exchangers leave the house pretty much the way they would if they had a friend coming over the house sit.
Q: How does HomeExchange.com go about vetting a participant’s property? I’m thinking, for instance, of the new movie The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel in which the retirees bound for India don’t discover until they arrive that their new home doesn’t look exactly like the pictures.
A: HomeExchange.com doesn’t do any of the vetting, but we provide many ways for exchangers to check references on their partners, including direct contact with previous partners so they can check if the home was as described, and if their home was treated with courtesy and respect. Many now do video Skype calls actually walking through their house showing live video of the home and explaining the features and even some little quirks.
Q: Speaking of movies, HomeExchange.com actually had its own flirtation with Hollywood. Tell us about it.
A: In 2007 I got a call from Sony asking if our site could be used in the picture they were about to film. I was little concerned that it might be a slasher movie where everybody gets murdered, but I was assured it was when to be a nice romantic comedy. We found out that Nancy Meyers, the writer, had been on our site and thought it would be acute way for her characters to meet. The Holiday, starring Jack Black, Jude Law, Cameron Diaz and Kate Winslet was a huge success at the box office and really increased the awareness of home exchange and HomeExchange.Com.
Huntington, New York resident Boyd H. Scheff and his wife have done 18 exchanges (so far). “Our very first one was five years ago when we hosted a young couple from Barcelona and then four years ago we visited them. After having stayed in a Paris hotel six years ago where our room was little larger than a closet, my niece told us about HomeExchange.com and said that we had to investigate it. Although we are addicted travelers, we have not stayed in a hotel since. When we went to Barcelona, we already knew Carmen and Alex, our hosts from their visit the year before. They and their parents treated us as though we were honored guests. They hosted us for lunch and dinners, they were our tour guides. And three years later we were invited to their wedding in Barcelona. We went, of course. With the birth of their first child this year, they made us the ‘honorary’ godparents. Every exchange we have done has been memorable. I only regret that we had not discovered it years earlier!”
Q: How many times per year can someone participate in a home exchange? For instance, do you have to wait until the next time your own home is used before you’re allowed to go again? (I’m thinking that the person with the blase house in Fresno could do quite a bit of consecutive globetrotting without his/her own home ever being picked.)
A: The fee of $120/year gets you unlimited home exchanges, with no additional per exchange or per day fee of any kind, to us or to your exchange partner. You can, and many people do three, four, or more exchanges per year. As an example, this family has done over 120: http://www.homeexchange.com/show.php?id=32091. Many more have already done over 50.
Q: Anything else you’d like to add?
A: I’m no longer surprised, but always gratified about how many people come up to me and tell me that home exchange has changed their lives. They started thinking it might save them some money on a vacation, but they realize the true value was not just saving money or the comfort of staying in a home, but the experience of living like a local and really experiencing an area. And for many of our retired members who had been looking forward to one or two more trips, their lives are now filled with constant travel and meeting new friends through home exchange.