INTERNATIONAL REPORT—Rooms for Change, an online booking site, is gradually building a following thanks to its inclusion of only smaller, locally owned independent hotels and its commitment to donate a portion of profits to several charities. One of the site’s aims is to also be an advocate for sustainable tourism. Green Lodging News recently interviewed Gabriela Sijer, Co-founder of the site, to learn more about the site’s history and its owners’ ambitions for it. The following are the questions and answers from that e-mail interview.
Please give me a brief history of the site, when it was launched, who launched it, and what prompted you and other(s) to launch such a site.
I co-founded Rooms for Change with my husband Tony. We have traveled to over 60 countries on six continents and you can safely say it’s our greatest passion. My background is in charity work while Tony is a tech genius. Last year we combined all our strengths and created a charitable hotel booking site.
We have always been committed to making our travels low-impact and to contribute to the host communities rather than just ‘taking’. We’ve known for a long time that one of the best ways to do that as a traveler is to support businesses that are owned locally, be it restaurants or lodgings, in order to avoid what’s known as “tourism leakage” (as an extreme example—by staying at a foreign owned all-inclusive resort as much as 90 percent of your tourism dollars can ‘leak’ abroad instead of staying in the local economy).
To achieve that, we used to spend long hours every time we needed to book a hotel. It takes a lot of tedious scrolling through search results, applying filters, and endless (mostly fake) review reading to find a room that’s full of character, meets a decent standard, is reliable, reasonably priced AND locally owned. We began to want to share our finds and our experience. The decisive moment was when we found out how much a small family-run business pays in commission to the large booking sites. We decided there was clearly room for change in the online hotel booking market.
Then there’s the other side of the coin: our dream is to one day open a sustainable boutique hotel of our own, and we came to realization that—all aspects considered—at present there is no one perfect booking site that we’d like to list our future business with. We started asking other small hotel owners during our travels, and it turns out that, often, they feel the same way.
Other than large OTAs there isn’t much to choose from: Many sites focus on one niche only e.g. B&B. Small local websites are typically not very user friendly. Boutique hotel booking sites tend to charge high subscription fees, plus they favor luxury properties—the word ‘boutique’ in hospitality has become synonymous with upscale and pricey. The industry has somehow forgotten that there’s a whole world of locally run lodgings out there that by definition are sustainable, comfortable and charming, while not necessarily qualifying as 4 or 5 star.
What’s been astonishing for me is the recent success of Airbnb and other vacation rentals as a ‘much welcome alternative to chain hotels that offers lower prices and more character’ (which, by the way, directly contributed to the phenomenon of overtourism). That alternative—and a much more sustainable one at that—has been there all along in the form of small independent hotels, except we didn’t have one place to list and book them. At Rooms for Change we aim to create that ‘one place’.
How many hotel properties are represented on the site? How many countries are represented?
We currently list 3,884 hotels in 52 countries (356 cities).
There are some similar sites out there. What makes yours unique? (The emphasis on smaller, independent local businesses?)
We feature smaller, independent local businesses with excellent reviews. Other than that, our properties vary greatly—you can find anything from a budget dorm in a quality hostel, simple family-run inns, B&Bs, all the way to smaller design hotels and luxury eco safari lodges. We cater to all budgets and travel styles. We also have global presence—whenever we see or hear about a property worth adding, we invite them to our site, regardless of location.
That said, we are selective as for whom we invite, and we value quality over quantity, every time. As seasoned travelers ourselves, we know what to look for in a hotel and we can usually tell easily whether we want to list a property on Rooms for Change or not. Our rule of thumb is—if we wouldn’t want to stay there ourselves (at a given budget and type), or recommend it to a friend, we don’t list it. Indeed, numerous properties on our site we did stay in and wanted to share our finds with other travelers. We also welcome recommendations from our customers—everyone has that hidden gem unique hotel they once stayed in.
While we don’t solely feature ‘eco’ lodgings (we believe supporting the local economy is sustainable in itself), we certainly do give those a warm welcome. We have sustainability filters that are unique to our site, such as electric car charging, LEED certified, eco cleaning products, free bikes, or vegan- and vegetarian-friendly hotels.
A total of 1.2 billion of us traveled last year. The numbers are astounding and keep on growing. We are passionate about spreading awareness of the importance of traveling in a sustainable manner. One of the ways we do that is through our responsible travel blog. We don’t want to be simply an impersonal booking site. We aim to take a holistic approach to responsible travel and to create a community of conscious travelers where our customers can find inspiration, motivation and unique green travel tips, in addition to their perfect hotel room.
On top of that, they can feel great knowing that they are not just helping the local economy, but also contributing to a greater cause via our donations on their behalf. A triple win.
With how many charities do you work, and can you give me a few examples? (Just the three on the site?)
We work with the three charities listed. I was involved with several NGOs and nonprofits in the past and I’ve seen first-hand that some of them are much more hands-on and transparent than others. Therefore, it was crucial to me to select charity partners whom we could trust with using our donations the right way. The public these days is growing more and more frustrated—they desperately want to help out but are increasingly losing trust in whether their hard earned money will end up in the right places.
It is a subject very close to home for us at Rooms for Change and we wanted to do our small part in being that ‘missing link’. In fact, rather than simply writing checks, we intend to work with our charities and monitor what aspects of their work we’re helping with, so that our travelers can see tangible results. All this is of course at no extra cost added to the booking—we’ll donate a part of OUR profit made off of the commission.
In addition, we wanted to work with charities that address issues in some way connected to the travel and tourism industry. For example, Survival International is an advocate for the indigenous peoples, and we’re passionate about the growing impact of indigenous tourism (I wrote about it here), while Lighthouse Relief responds to the refugee crisis—and refugees have been involved with hospitality which I discussed here. Thus, by supporting the right charities we strive to increase awareness of certain tourism matters that require attention.
We’re always happy to hear about other charities which would be a similarly good fit—perhaps travelers who book with us come across an outstanding NGO during their travels that they might want to share with us. We’re open to suggestions and we’d like to make this a community effort.
Do you select the charity that the money will go to? Or, does the person making the booking?
For the time being the donations are spread evenly between the three charities. Soon we’d like to implement the option for the traveler to choose the charity most dear to them. They’ll be able to select it with one click at the time of booking.
Can you tell me how many booking transactions the site has experienced so far?
Since our marketing and advertising budget equals zero dollars at the moment, we’re very proud of our several hundred bookings that resulted from our slow but steady 100 percent organic growth and word of mouth. That said, we’ve decided to seek small outside investment in the coming months and we’re confident with the right online marketing campaign our bookings will increase exponentially.
How can a property be listed if it currently is not listed?
We have a simple contact form for hotel owners on the site; alternatively they can send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org. Once we’ve evaluated that the property is the right match for Rooms for Change we send them an invitation link to create a profile (we assist with the process if needed), and the hotel listing goes live. There’s no subscription fee. Listing a property is 100 percent free.
Can you tell me how much has been raised for the various charities so far?
It’s very early days and we haven’t made any profit yet. As soon as any donations are made, we’ll be posting updates on our website and on social media. We want to be very transparent about what donations are going where and we want our travelers (and hoteliers!) to be up to date and feel like they are a part of the process.
Glenn Hasek can be reached at email@example.com.