Impact Journalism Day 2016

New Travel Club Is Glad to Be Gray

The Freebird Club is an Airbnb for the over 50s – except the homeowner has to stay and entertain the guests.

Mary and her husband Barry Fairtlough, from Killorglin, County Kerry. Loved having guests stay with them.
Domnick Walsh

The sharing economy is mostly driven by and aimed at millennials. But a peer-to-peer social travel and home-stay club for the over 50s is aiming both to involve the older generation and address a social issue.

The idea for The Freebird Club arose when Peter Mangan started renting out his home in southwest Ireland on the Airbnb website. While Mangan was looking to make some extra income from his property in County Kerry, it was his father – a retired vet who took care of the property while Mangan was working in Dublin – who ended up benefiting the most.

He was going into his seventies, and there was no question that he was struggling with the downscaling in his work life and being a widower, says Mangan. However, meeting and greeting guests staying in the house gave him a new lease of life.

There were a few older couples who came, and straight away they hit it off – there were nights in the local pub, he was invited to the house for dinner, they played golf and he took them to do some sightseeing, adds Mangan.

And so The Freebird Club, which launched officially in June, was born.

I thought there was something that Airbnb was only scratching the surface of, Mangan continues. If you turn up the dial on the social side and make it about meeting people, and not just finding a nice place to stay, you can tackle some of the challenges for older people.

Loneliness and isolation are a major issue for elderly people, particularly after the death of a spouse. Its a real scourge, a real problem in society, says Mangan. He thought the sharing economy could have potential to address this particular social issue.

Join the club

Mangan was accepted to participate in an entrepreneurial incubation program – the Impact Hub Fellowship for Longer Lives – and carried out research and focus groups. He says the older people he talked to said they would like to travel more but dont feel like they have the option – particularly if theyre on their own or have lost a partner.

Unlike Airbnb, The Freebird Club requires that hosts be present during the vacation. You cant just rent out an empty house: the social interaction is as much a part of it as providing the accommodation.

Safety concerns were another important factor for those Mangan talked to, which gave rise to the idea of a club where those who want to participate in it have to become members and pay a fee to join.

With Airbnb, the older people told Mangan that they felt anyone could be on it and they didnt trust that. If it was a proper club where you have to pay to join, they would have more trust in it, he says.

Bethia Tooth was one of the first guests to take part in the Freebird Clubs pilot program. She traveled from her U.K. home to Kerry last December. Despite arriving in Ireland in the middle of Storm Desmond, Tooth says she had a lovely time staying with her hosts in the town of Killorglin, County Kerry.

Its not just a Bed & Breakfast, thats what made me so keen on the club, she says, adding, It was as if a friend introduced me to a friend of theirs. I told them about my family and they told me about their family; we were chatting away like old mates.

While Tooth traveled to Ireland with a friend, she says that the next time she uses the club, she will be happy to travel on her own – something she wouldnt have considered previously.

My husband died six years ago, and before The Freebird Club it never would have entered my head that I would go somewhere new by myself, she says.

Sharing with others

For those who host, there is also a social benefit since many are empty nesters, explains Mangan.

Mary and Barry Fairtlough were hosts during the pilot program and rented out a room in their Killorglin house. They had two separate guests and found it a great experience to have people stay with them. All our children are away abroad and we are retired. Were in a beautiful place and thought it would be exciting to share that with others, says Mary.

Using the same model as Airbnb, The Freebird Club lets hosts charge a fee for guests to stay in their homes. There are no set prices and hosts decide how much to charge – usually a similar price to a local Bed & Breakfast establishment. This provides an additional income, something that is important for pensioners, notes Mangan, as it can be a difficult time for them financially.

Many struggle with inadequate pensions and its a way to monetize the one asset many older people have: a house with their mortgage paid off, he says.

Mary Fairtlough agrees. Its an extra few bob. Especially on our pensions, you want to make the most of the money that you have, she says.

The Freebird Club is a business that addresses a clear social need, and it was this that helped it win the 2015 European Social Innovation Competition, run by the European Commission, last November.

Mangan says the business element is important to increase the clubs effectiveness. Its a modern-day social enterprise, its a for-profit business, he says. He believes this will allow the club to have a greater impact: To grow, it has to be profitable in order to attract investment. However, he stresses that the social impact ethos is at the very center of what were trying to do.

This article first appeared in Irish daily The Irish Times.