Whistler at the centre of home exchange boom 

Resort is world's No. 1 ski destination for growing home-swapping trend

click to enlarge PHOTO SUBMITTED - Home away From home A property listed on HomeExchange.com

A generation ago, it would've been nearly unthinkable to open your home to a group of strangers wanting to use your house as a vacation pad.

But as our travel habits change and the world grows increasingly connected in the digital age, the concept of home sharing has become the latest vacation trend, and a profitable one at that as booking sites like Airbnb bloom into multi-billion dollar companies.

Inhabiting one corner of the home-sharing industry is HomeExchange.com, the world's largest international home exchange site, which offers users the chance to swap homes with one of the more than 50,000 properties listed in 150 countries across the globe.

The idea is a simple one: You list your property on the site, and then either wait for the requests to swap homes to come in, or send out your own. You can filter properties based on your individual needs, and no money ever changes hands. (There is a small annual fee to use the HomeExchange site, however.)

It's a trend that has already taken hold in Whistler, where there are around 340 properties listed, making it the world's No. 1 ski destination for home exchanges, said COO Jim Pickell.

"I think Whistler's No. 1 because it appeals to a much more international community," he said.

HomeExchange also recently launched a new search function on its site that narrows homes down not by destination, but by passion. The first category introduced? Ski homes, which should increase Whistler's exposure to users, Pickell said.

"We feel that we're probably going to double our listings in Canada in the next year and I think Whistler fits in really tightly into that."

The home-swap concept isn't a new one. In fact, HomeExchange began in 1992 as a printed directory. The recent growth in popularity, however, reflects the changing tastes of the average destination visitor, Pickell said.

"It's the advent of the sharing economy... and that's a real shift in mindset in people around the world," he said. "Maybe my grandmother would never have conceived of having a quote-unquote stranger in her home, whereas I think now I view my home as a physical asset, and you have to maximize that asset if you want to be smart about your finances."

With home prices in Whistler dropping in the last few years, Sue Chappel, CEO of Whistler-based vacation home rental site alluraDirect, said more second-home owners from the Lower Mainland and beyond are refusing to rent out their properties, instead keeping them for their own recreational use. That shifting trend hasn't lessened their appetite for travel, however.

"They like to travel, so when they don't want to be in Whistler, they'll often exchange their homes to go to another place, and it's a different way of saving money, it's a different currency," she said. "Rather than paying $5,000 for accommodation in Hawaii, they'll exchange their home and money never changes hands."

Of course, Whistler is heavily dependent on filling hotel rooms, with provincial Resort Municipality Initiative tourism funds allocated each year partially based on Accelerated Hotel Room Tax. But even if home swappers don't shell out any dollars on accommodation, the economic benefit they bring to the resort should not be understated, said Pickell.

"If I'm not doing a home exchange over the 10 days I have to travel at Christmas, there's no way I'm spending $500 a night to have three bedrooms in a hotel," he said. "But if I can do an exchange, I'm buying lift tickets, I'm buying dinners, I'm spending money in retail stores."

Chappel said it's essential the resort takes note of the evolving needs of travellers, or risk losing the expanding home-sharing market.

"It's extremely important to think about this in terms of bringing people to Whistler and recognizing that the way that people book travel is changing and the preferences and kinds of experiences people want are diversifying," she said. "As a resort, Whistler has so many options and it's really important to adapt to these new ways and increase appeal and competitive advantage in the marketplace."

Councillor Jack Crompton was surprised to hear just how prevalent home swapping is in the resort, and acknowledged it as a trend the municipality needs to look at sooner rather than later.

"I think we as a resort need to spend some time thinking about it and be prepared, and in some ways there's a rush on that," he said.

"It's a massive, massive opportunity but it definitely shifts the playing field."

Pickell will be speaking at The Ironworks Studios in Vancouver on Thursday, Oct. 23, and will be answering any questions guests may have about home exchanges.

Visit www.homeexchange.com for more information.

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