Peter Mangan, founder of the Freebird Club, knew he was onto something when he noticed that his dad, who was 75, more than enjoyed welcoming guests to their Airbnb home rental in southwest Ireland — he often turned it into a social event.
“My dad didn’t just give them a key. He’d end up taking them to the pub, having dinner with them or even taking them for a game of golf,” Mangan says. “I could see that he was really benefiting from these people arriving on his doorstep.”
Fast forward three-and-a-half years to September, 2016 and the launch of The Freebird Club, an international, peer-to-peer travel and homestay club for people age 50 and older. Just three weeks post-launch, the Freebird Club had signed on 352 members and 70 homestay hosts in 15 countries — including a senior named Luisa, who hosts guests in her Swiss lakeside house.
Though you’re likely to find more homestays in the UK and Europe through the club, activity Stateside is growing fairly quickly.
The Sharing Economy for Seniors
Mangan, a 45-year-old entrepreneur, learned a few things from his dad, and also from older neighbors and friends, focus groups and drop-in senior centers: He learned that many seniors are perfectly healthy and ready to travel. Besides being healthy, we’re also likely to be free of the responsibilities of children, job, and mortgages — so we’re free to travel, and travel is high on our wishlists. Since we’re likely to have grown-up kids, we’re also likely to have unused rooms in our houses. But the isolation of no longer working and raising a family can be challenging, and traveling alone to an unfamiliar place can feel intimidating. Plus, many of us can’t or don’t want to splurge on hotels.
Put these together, and you have a senior population that’s a perfect fit for an online, peer-to-peer homestay network — a kind of AirBnB that lets older people connect with one another, either by hosting travelers or by staying in other seniors’ homes while traveling. It’s a sharing economy concept with a generational twist that emphasizes social engagement.
One more thing Mangan learned: We don’t like the name “Silver Sharers!”
Although “Silver Sharers” conveyed the concept of the sharing economy for seniors, time and again older people told Mangan that the name he was planning to use for his club was patronizing.
Mangan took the complaints seriously and renamed the concept the Freebird Club for its notion of flight, travel and the freedom to go places.
Can This Club Become a Movement?
Making the service a club helps establish trust, Mangan explains. Paying a small lifetime fee of about $28 confirms that a person is serious about joining and is not just a curious online lurker.
Aside from the one-time membership fee, the Freebird Club earns 15 percent of the rental fees charged (12 percent from the host and 3 percent from the guest), which is comparable to other homestay and owner rentals, including AirBnB.
But Mangan’s concept for a club was more than just a business plan. He sees it as the beginning of a movement, a Freebird community for mobilizing older people — especially seniors who might be retreating from life and not doing the things they want to do, like meeting new people and traveling. Down the road, he plans to add steep discounts for European rail travel and specialized group trips.
Once again Mangan’s dad, a widower for the past 15 years, was his inspiration. “I never heard him use the word ‘lonely,’ but he used the word ‘bored’ a lot,” Mangan says. The social exchange between host and guest became a vital aspect of the club.
Another motivation was the desire to give his dad and seniors like him a reason to be online. “If you can bring older people into the internet, they don’t feel left behind,” he says.
Making it Simple and Safe
The process of vetting members is quite extensive. To join and have access to the club’s site and interact with others, a prospective member uploads a driver’s license or passport to confirm their name and age. (These are deleted when identity is verified.)
A member provides a few basic details and completes a personal profile not unlike those on dating sites. For instance, you post a photo and describe your interests. Guests and hosts are asked about any mobility issues and/or their home’s accessibility. Hosts also indicate the degree of interaction they’re looking for — you might prefer that your guests do their own thing or you might be being willing to act as a tour guide. The same goes for guests’ preferences — you’re more of a go-it-alone type or you’re hoping for a guiding hand.
Finally, a Freebird staffer interviews prospective hosts by phone or Skype to confirm that their homes are suitable for hosting.
Guests and hosts can also take advantage of an optional and unique security measure: a “Buddy” system. You can list a buddy, usually a family member or close friend, who has limited access to your Freebird account. When you book a trip or act as a host, your buddy gets a notification. In other words, someone else knows where you’re going or who’s coming to visit.
Mangan wants to empower seniors to travel far and wide, and in his view, that means taking into account the needs and preferences of some older people. The safety checks are one way, though Mangan has made it clear that he doesn’t see seniors as especially vulnerable.
Mangan has taken tech into account, too. In his experience some older people don’t check their emails 24/7 the way a lot of younger people do, so when someone requests to book a homestay through the website, the potential host gets a text message on their cellphone instead of an email. If someone isn’t comfortable making arrangements online, they can do it via the club’s customer service phone number instead. (Currently, the number is international long-distance for U.S. callers).
Jobs for Older People
The Freebird Club plans to have a large customer service operation, which will create jobs for older people. The club has set a goal of having at least 50 percent of the staff be age 50 and older. Mangan believes older people are likely to be more understanding of the issues and questions that a senior may have.
At 45, Mangan has left his job in research administration at University College Dublin to manage the Freebird Club. “The 50’s are just down the track for me,” he says with a spirited laugh. “All I’m doing here is future-proofing my own old age!”