Fiona O’Brien speaks to the Dubliner behind the new club that allows an older generation to meet new people while supplementing their incomes.
Peter Mangan first saw the potential for a new business venture when his semi-retired father Owen was helping him out with renting out a holiday home in County Kerry.
“My father was always on hand to meet and greet visitors on their arrival, and it was clear that while they enjoyed the personal touch of having a host there, there was a lot in it for him too,” says Peter.
While Peter observed how much his father enjoyed the interaction the cogs in his head got turning as to how this could be spread across the whole of Ireland, and beyond.
“There was just a natural bonding. Before you knew it, they were down the pub on a Tuesday evening. He’d be telling them about nice places to go, and he might take them there, and they’d invite him back to the house for dinner. It was all happening very naturally.
“He ended up befriending many of the guests and kept in touch with them after they left, especially the older ones. And all of the reviews that were left were as positive about the added experience they got from his social interaction as they were for the cottage itself.”
Mangan, who was working as a senior research manager at University College Dublin, sees the concept working on several levels. Most disposable income is in the hands of the over-50s. Older adults are more likely than their younger peers to have paid off the mortgage on their home, and to have more space, with children who have grown up and flown the nest. Many also have much of their wealth tied up in their home, especially those hurt by the pensions crisis. So, Peter got working on The Freebird Club, which is a similar model to Airbnb where people can rent out their spare rooms, or entire homes, to vistors to their local area.
Only open to those over 50
But the club is only open to those over 50, and the onus is on the host to decide what level of interaction they have with their guests, with many setting up their membership with the purpose of interacting with their guests as it is about “always staying with somebody, not just getting the keys to their apartment”.
The online community platform, which Mangan developed with tech partner Nga-Hong Lau, allows like-minded members (“Freebirds”) to interact, travel and stay in each other’s homes. As such The Freebird Club offers a new way of travelling for older adults, a means to unlock some of the asset value of their homes and earn extra income, and a fun accessible way to meet new people; promoting social and cultural interaction in later life.
When initially crowd-funding for the project Peter isolated three key aspects that his plan would address, in terms of awareness of a rapidly ageing society. Worldwide the number of older adults (aged 60+) is projected to soar; from 840m in 2013 to circa 2 billion by 2050. This throws up a number of societal challenges, and Peter listed the following three as ones that need addressing:
Loneliness and isolation among older adults – one of the biggest issues facing the elderly today, carrying significant health risks such as coronary heart disease & stroke according to latest research.
Financial insecurity in later life – many struggle post retirement with inadequate pensions.
Lack of travel options for older people – research indicates many seniors would like to travel more but either lack companionship or the confidence to do it alone.
“It addresses the loneliness, lack of financial income options, and travel issues that the older generation feel and that is why I think it has been embraced so much by organisations who deal with the aging population.”
The business launched last week at Silicon Docks in Dublin, and the website is live now with members and homes across Ireland and Europe already signed up. The Freebird Club already has 1,000 users across 34 countries, and its global ambitions are impressive.
“We are a real ‘heart and soul’ venture which aims to connect older people in very real ways that can improve quality of life and well-being. We seek to create an international community which provides opportunities to enjoy the world around us regardless of age”.
At the launch guests included Freebird Club members, representatives of age organizations such as Age Action and Third Age, public institutions and journalists. In congratulating the initiative, Ireland’s Minister for Jobs Mary Mitchell O’Connor noted ‘I’m not the only one that thinks yours is a very good idea’, pointing out the numerous awards won by the start-up already, including the European Commission’s Social Innovation Competition.
“I am continually surprised by the novel and innovative ideas entrepreneurs come up with for businesses. Yours is certainly that. Offering independent seniors options for affordable social travel is a great way of helping them to remain engaged and connected,” she added.
Impact Hub Fellowship for Longer Lives
Freebird came to life in London in 2014 when the project was selected to participate in the Impact Hub Fellowship for Longer Lives. Further proving its worth as a tool for the older community, it did exceptionally well in the international incubation programme specifically designed for those with start-up ideas that address an ageing society.Peter spent three months on the programme and came away convinced that his idea was viable.
Freebird then received another boost when it won the top award (worth €50,000) in the 2015 European Social Innovation Competition which saw 1,400 ideas from 40 countries addressing issues of inclusion and accessibility for Europe’s ageing population.
The company launched a pilot in October 2015 to connect Londoners with Freebird hosts in Co Kerry and Peter and his business partner Nga-Hong Lau, who manages the technical side behind the venture, have tweaked it now that the website has gone live. Based on Peter’s research there is a paid registration fee to use the site, of €25 (£21) , as focus groups told him they would have more trust in a site where people pay for access.
Membership provides access to an age- friendly website where members can book and pay for stays both here and internationally. “The safety of members is a priority, so we have invested heavily in ensuring that we have the best possible identity verification in place.” The company, which takes a 12 per cent commission from guests and three per cent from hosts on each booking, as well as the joining fee, which acts as a security check. Participants are required to create a profile, with a picture, and submit proof of identification.
All hosts are vetted by the Freebird Club, through direct communication such as a phone call. Hosts and guests can see the profiles of other members, rather than just their properties. They are asked to state their preferred level of interaction with guests and to include details about mobility and the house’s accessibility. And while a traveller can initiate contact with a homeowner, only a host can activate the booking, by inviting the guest to stay.
The scheme also allows members to nominate a buddy, such as a child or a grandchild, who can receive alerts when the member makes a booking and will get limited access to the website to keep an eye from a distance.
“Our mission is to connect and enrich the lives of older adults through meaningful social travel and in so doing to address the problem of loneliness and isolation among the ageing population.”
He also sees real potential to link older members of the Irish diaspora with their peers in Ireland and also with each other internationally. And he hopes that all of these touches will ensure that each Freebird maintains a relationship after their first host or visitor experience to create a full community. They might nudge a couple to travel to somewhere new and unknown, encouraged by the prospect of staying with a welcoming host with whom they have already communicated. Or they might sway a widow or widower to go on holiday who might otherwise not have felt comfortable travelling alone. And they might even foster relationships that last beyond the length of the trip, creating an international network of like-minded older people.
Looking ahead, in addition to travel and home rentals, Freebird could start to include social club within its networks, and also dis counted European inter-rail ticket that would allow older people to tour the continent like students and stay with other Freebird members rather than in youth hostels. Although his initial company name Silver Sharers was quickly shut down by focus groups who found it patronising, Peter pledge to make the business work with at least half of employees aged 50 or over.
• For more information visit www.thefreebirdclub.com