“Life is about doing things that don’t suck with people who don’t suck.”
A Profile of Couchsurfing and its Founder, Casey Felton
This post is a companion to my blog about hospitality exchanges. This interview was from October 2004. Couchsurfing is much bigger today, and Casey Felton is not associated with the organization as far as I know today. In 2011, a private equity firm bought Couchsurfing, and today, it has around 12 million subscribers.
CouchSurfing.com has nearly 5000 members worldwide who agree to provide hospitality. Usually (approximately 70% of all members) hospitality offers a bed for a few days’ stay to other members. However, some hospitality is limited to offers by hosts to spend some time showing guests around their community. Casey Felton, a 26-year-old political consultant and computer programmer in Anchorage, Alaska, set up coachsurfing.com in February 2004.
Most of the members come from the US and Canada, though several members n Europe and East Asia. Couchsurfing also has several members throughout the Third World.
Casey has put a lot of thought and time into the site. He has gotten a lot of press interest (including articles in the New York and Los Angeles Times and several major European papers) and developed a site that allows members to post a lot of information to help “break the ice.” Couchsurfing.com also has excellent tip sheets, helpful member profiles, and an intuitive, easy-to-use design.
In October 2004, I interviewed Casey. Here is a summary of that interview:
Paul: When did you start developing couchsurfing.com?
Casey: I started planning couchsurfing.com four years ago. It began after traveling throughout the globe and thought it would be great to get to know people by staying in their homes. In Egypt, I was invited by a young boy to stay with his family. His family offered me a dirty blanket and put me on a bed outside, but they also taught me that the Earth was full of hospitable people.
To see how receptive people would be to couchsurfing.com, I sent e-mails to a University in Iceland’s entire student population before I went there. I was met at the airport by an Icelandic pop star and received a really wonderful welcome from people throughout Iceland.
Paul: How has Couchsurfing become so popular so quickly?
Casey: I think the name has attracted a lot of attention, and I also believe that many people are attracted to Couchsurfing because of its non-profit status. I also encourage members to contact their local press to inform them about our service. It has worked well. I expected to have 3000 members at the end of 2004, and it looks like we’ll have around 5000 instead.
Paul: Are most of your members young?
Casey: Our average age is 29. Last week, I hosted a pair of nurses who were both in their 60s, and we have members in their 80s.
Paul: How do you deal with safety issues?
Casey: We recommend that members refuse to host people if they don’t feel comfortable with the exchange. We have two ways that we help to establish trust. One is that we give members the option of becoming verified. “Verification” requires $25 payable by credit card. This enables us to establish that the person is at least creditworthy enough to have a credit card. We also verify the member’s name and address by sending them a letter.
We also offer members the option of “vouching” for each other. Hosts who have enjoyed a guest can “vouch” for the guest by posting their remarks on the website. So far, I have not received any comments about any significant problems with any guests. One host did complain, however, that a guest was not interested in spending much time with the host. This, however, is a question of good guest-host communication rather than safety.
While I have never read of any serious problems with hospitality exchanges, many people are reluctant to join out of fear for their safety. They don’t want strangers in their homes or fear their safety in someone else’s home.
While this concern is understandable, it isn’t really justified. You have to remember that most people involved in hospitality exchanges also open their homes to travelers. They have opened themselves up to risk because they are both trustworthy and open to trusting other people.
If you are extremely concerned about safety, you should consider joining SERVAS since they require that all travelers go through an interview. However, rest assured that you will be safe with any organization you choose.
Regardless of which hospitality exchange program you choose, there are things you can do to help ensure safety. Couchsurfing has an excellent list of safety precautions, including:
- After contacting a person, get their telephone number and make a telephone call. Make sure you get a photograph, and an address. Ask as many questions as you need. No one who is offering their couch to visitors should be afraid to provide this information.
- Leave a copy with friends or family, next to your passport copy, with the date, address, and telephone number you are staying at. If you are traveling in a remote or dangerous area, you might consider registering with your embassy. You can usually do this via phone or email.
- Keep a backup plan. Perhaps your host has a family emergency and has to leave, or maybe you’ve found that you don’t get along well. Don’t worry. Get a telephone number for a hotel or youth hostel ahead of time, just in case.
- Know how to get downtown from where you are staying, by foot, taxi, auto, bus, or metro. This means that you should get a map. Mark your embassy on it. Your embassy is there to help you. Make a telephone list with the numbers for the police, your embassy, a taxi, an ambulance, and your host. Find out how to use the local telephones ahead of time so that you can make calls easily in the event of an emergency.