Ben Ireland spoke to the founder of a British travel start-up who hopes to ride the wave of peer-to-peer accommodation lettings
A British graphic designer is hoping to eat into the growing sharing economy travel trade with a business she describes as being “a bridge between Facebook and Airbnb”.
Start-up My Friend’s Room is a social network on which users can rent out their home or find a place to stay while on holiday – the difference being you are connected with a friend of a friend.
Founder Clare Mellor says the idea offers more security, personalisation and trust than other sharing economy sites – such as Airbnb – which she believes are being exploited.
“A lot of people I’ve spoken to are quite happy to rent their place out to a friend,” said Mellor.
“They like the idea of Airbnb but wouldn’t particularly want to rent to someone who they don’t know at all.”
She says people, particularly the British, have always been accommodating with their homes but not necessarily to strangers.
“I remember my mum and dad met this American couple with kids when I was nine and we went all the way to Boston to stay with these people,” Mellor recalls.
“But they’d met them before and there was a level of trust established that you don’t get with someone you’ve never met.”
So three years ago, when working in Turkey, Mellor was looking to move back to England temporarily and needed an affordable place to stay. That’s when she came up with the concept of My Friend’s Room.
“I hadn’t even heard of Airbnb at the time,” she told Travolution. “But I’d had lots of friends to stay and I’ve rented out my place to a lot of people.
“The big sell for us is not that it’s cheaper, although in a lot of cases it will be , but that it’s more interesting and at the same time you feel safer and more reassured.”
Mistrust, Mellor says, is creeping into the wider sharing economy market, due to a combination of “bogus, destructive renters”, travellers going missing abroad and even terrorism.
She believes that leaves a ready-made gap in the sector for My Friend’s Room and her market research backs up her point.
In fact, it shows that 75% of Brits would prefer to rent travel accommodation from a mutual friend rather than from a stranger on Airbnb or an impersonal hotel and would prefer to pay for it.
MyFriendsRoom already has properties listed in the UK, Italy, Greece, Cyprus, Spain, Portugal, Switzerland, Bulgaria, Austria, The Czech Republic, Turkey and Spain.
Within three years it hopes to have 15,000 listings worldwide and teams in five travel hot spots across Europe and is targeting more than 100,000 users within five years.
The next step, however, is securing investment and this week My Friend’s Room has been posted on crowdfunding site Crowdcube in a bid to raise £90,000.
If the company’s hits its target, Mellor said it would be used to fund a marketing campaign, pay freelance salespeople across Europe, develop the website and pay salaries. There are also plans for a mobile app.
So if people are keen on the idea, why aren’t people finding mutual friends to stay with already?
“You tell me,” she said. “When Airbnb started it was a bit more friendly and about staying in people’s houses but now you see some businesses with ten to 15 properties on there.
“It doesn’t have that homeliness anymore because you don’t know the people from Adam.
“A lot of people in conversation say they are happy to have people to stay but then I, and I’m sure many others feel the same way, don’t feel like I can just ring them up and ask.
“But if there’s a platform where people have listed their room and their price, you know they’re for real.”
Mellor insists she isn’t trying to compete with Airbnb, or the traditional hotel sector, but ride the wave of a growing industry.
Her business plan states the world vacation rental market is worth $100 billion and is expected to rise to $190 billion by 2019.
“A lot of people don’t like the sharing economy because they feel it’s pushing them out. This is a bit different though, so hopefully we shouldn’t step on anyone’s toes.
“Airbnb is a brilliant idea, but there’s always that worried feeling that it’s a stranger’s house. We are trying to do something different.”