Travelling is an experience which can be interpreted in many different ways. For some, a chance to sit back and reap the rewards of hard work via five-star luxury; for others perhaps the opportunity to set off into the unknown and let the winds of fate decide. An inspiring alternative take built on the idea of "experiencing a country through its people", is that of CouchSurfing. With its rapidly growing community receiving worldwide attention, Essential Travel (ET) caught up with the very man to conceive the project, co-founder Casey Fenton.
ET: Hello Casey, thank you for taking the time out to answer some of our questions. So, tell us, what is CouchSurfing and how does it work?
Casey: We are a community and a movement trying to create a better, friendlier world where people who are different from one another can meet and learn from one another. When you join CouchSurfing, you tap into our network of welcoming people worldwide. You can share your hospitality and experience your city through new eyes by offering travellers a place to stay on their journey, or you can bypass the typical hotel experience by staying at the home of a local and learning about their culture. You can join cool and interesting people for anything from a bike ride to a party using CouchSurfing Activities. And you can meet up with new people, whether at home or while traveling, for inspiring experiences and new friendships.
ET: It must be said that the question of safety does come to mind with this idea. Is there anything CouchSurfing does to ensure the security and safety of the members?
Casey: CouchSurfing members are active participants in the safety of our community. By sharing information through our systems, educating themselves about trust and safety, and making thoughtful decisions about who to meet, CouchSurfers keep themselves and everyone else safer. Small towns aren't safer just because they’re filled with upstanding citizens - they're safer because people know and respect each other. References and vouching help make our global community as safe as a small town while keeping it as exciting as any big city.
ET: We see that as of the beginning of this year you have over 1 million active members in the CouchSurfing community, where are most of your members from? Do you expect to see this number increasing throughout the year?
Casey: Our biggest CouchSurfing communities are in the United States and Europe, followed by South America. CouchSurfers come from all walks of life. Our members are young and old and from different socioeconomic backgrounds. We have surfers who are single, as well as those who have families. Our membership tends to follow a seasonal trend, with more people joining as we approach the summer months, at least in the Northern hemisphere. Overall we do expect our membership to increase over the year.
ET: Who keeps CouchSurfing running?
Casey: We have a staff of about forty which is pretty small for a website of our size. Many of them are experienced CouchSurfers who have been with us since our early days when CouchSurfing was run in collectives. Our newer employees are CouchSurfers in spirit even if some don't have much experience yet. Being inclusive of all kinds and getting a good cultural fit is really important to us.
ET: We are curious, how does CouchSurfing generate revenue if signing up is free?
Casey: We're proud to be part of the ever growing community of B Corps. At the moment some of our revenue comes from members who pay to be verified. This is a way for members to prove that they live where they say they do. We're closer to finalising what the rest of our revenue model will look like, but I can't announce it just yet. I can tell you I'm really excited about some of the revenue ideas that CouchSurfer members have come up with!
ET: A very clever way to provide a means for both the company and members! Casey thank you very much for taking the time out to talk to us, we hope this unique community continues to grow. Just before you go, where did you get the idea for CouchSurfing?
Casey: Where I got the idea for CouchSurfing is really three-fold so I'll try to explain it in a nutshell. The first part of it was being introduced to the idea of determinism versus free will. I came from a pretty small town in Maine (north of New York and Boston) and I realised that I just didn't have many options available to me. Studying the philosophy of determinism helped me realise that if I was going to make the best decisions I could in life, I needed more choices. I set about trying to broaden my world by experiencing more, and meeting different people. I realised that many people must be in the same position as me, and deserved to have a wider range of choices also.
The second step was a trip to Egypt, where I got to experience the city of Luxor with local families. My time there was so much more interesting and rich than it would have been if I had stayed in the hotel and with my tour group. That's not to say that hotels and tour groups don't have their place in travel, I just feel like I really get to know a country through its people more than anything else.
The third piece of the puzzle was a trip I took to Iceland. I had found a cheap plane ticket but couldn't really afford a hotel there and certainly didn't know anyone. Since I was an experienced programmer, I found a way to email 1,500 students at the University of Reykjavik. I asked them if they wanted to host me and show me their city. I made sure to include lots of personal information about myself, and set up the email so it seemed personalised. To my surprise I got over fifty responses. It answered my question of whether people would be willing to invite someone into their home, even if they had only met them on the Internet. They would, as long as they had an opportunity to learn something about you. I ended up staying with a really interesting family and having an amazing trip.
It would be a couple of years before I actually started programming the website. You know how life can get in the way. But, all of these experiences helped form what the CouchSurfing community and website would look like.
And you're very welcome! Thank you so much for featuring us in your blog.
Photos credits: Jim Stonemore blog posts