Thursday, January 12, 2006
The Hospitality Club became the first hospitality exchange network to pass the 100,000 members milestone on January 11, 2006. Its closest competitors, CouchSurfing and GlobalFreeLoaders, have 40,000 and 30,000 members.
Hospitality exchange organisations are dedicated to putting travellers in contact with locals offering to host them in their house for free, or simply offer them a tour of their city or share a meal with them. Besides the obvious financial advantage, the Hospitality Club believes that “bringing people together and fostering international friendships will increase intercultural understanding and strengthen peace.”
Servas Open Doors, the oldest network, in fact formally views itself as a peace initiative, and there are also a number of smaller hospitality exchange networks which focus on specialized audiences, such as Agritourism.
w:Veit Kühne from Dreseden, Germany, who founded the Hospitality Club in 2000 while he was still a student, believes that “one day, everyone will have the opportunity to visit any country knowing that someone will be waiting to receive them with open arms. People will travel in a different way, meet each other and build intercultural understanding through personal contact.”
“There will be many members in places like Israel and Palestine, Northern Ireland, the Balkans, Chechnya, Rwanda, or Timor who will exchange hospitality with each other, and in small steps the Hospitality Club will have helped making peace a lasting vision for our wonderful planet,” he adds.
Hospitality Club was the first online organisation to offer on a major scale the possibility for travellers to find and contact locals open to cultural exchange. The whole system is entirely free, and hosting fees are supported by Google advertisements. The safe and efficient operation of the 30+ languages website and its database, forum, and chatroom depends on the work of hundreds of volunteers from around the world.
Anybody can become a member, but they must provide their full name and address, for security reasons. All members have a profile they can fill with information about themselves and their preferences, to help prospective visitors contact the person most likely to welcome them.
The most often mentioned drawback of the system is lack of security. The main difference between hospitality exchange networks and other social networking platforms such as Orkut or LiveJournal is that the former’s ultimate objective is to allow for face-to-face meetings. Users should realise that there is a risk involved, although according to Frenchman Jean-Yves Hégron, main software developer of the Hospitality Club, “By using the Club you have the same level of risk as the one you face whenever you get out from your home.”
Discussion about strategic or security issues is not allowed on the website’s forum, hence critics often mention lack of transparency in how they perceive decisions are taken by volunteers in Hospitality Club. Another point of critique is the fact that there is no legal organisation behind Hospitality Club, and the domain name is registered to the founder of the Club himself. Messages containing links to other hospitality exchange networks were at some point deleted without further notice though this policy has since then been reverted. Exponential growth of the network has also caused server failures alike to those observed in Wikipedia until recently.
The idea of free hospitality exchange is not new. Servas was the first organisation to develop it, right after World War II. It still exists to this day, with over 15,000 members, and is represented as an NGO in the United Nations. Because democratic, paper-based Servas is perceived as bureaucratic by some, Hospex was created as the first online network in 1991.
Hospitality Club succeeded to Hospex in August 2000, introducing innovative security features ranging from spam protection to passport control and a sophisticated feedback system, thus making online hospitality exchange available to travellers with higher safety concerns. From 1000 members in July 2002 to 10,000 in February 2004, it quickly grew to 100,000 on 11 January 2006 and is expected to reach the million in about two years.