New innovators: The Freebird Club, a travel platform for over-50s
Start-up aiming to eliminate loneliness among older adults set to launch later this year
The Freebird Club founder Peter Mangan: start-up aims to tackle isolation among over-50s
Peter Mangan came up with the idea for the The Freebird Club when he started renting a cottage he owns in Kerry to holidaymakers. His father, a semi-retired widower, was on hand to meet and greet the visitors who loved this personal touch while Mangan snr also enjoyed the social interaction and meeting new people.
Watching his father’s multiple roles as welcoming party crossed with tour guide, Peter Mangan began thinking about a framework that could facilitate peer-to-peer homestays for independently-minded older adults who like to travel. He started working on the idea in early 2014 and in a few months time will launch The Freebird Club, a web-based community travel platform for the over-50s .
Freebird is a bit like Airbnb but with its own distinctive twists. Twist one is that Freebird is first and foremost about social interaction, so hosts are always present for visits. Secondly, it’s a club, so people pay a small membership fee to join. Thirdly, members (both hosts and guests) upload their profiles so people can identify and connect with like-minded individuals.
Freebird came to life in London in 2014 when the project was selected to participate in the Impact Hub Fellowship for Longer Lives. This is an international incubation programme specifically designed for those with start-up ideas that address an ageing society.
Mangan 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 Mangan and his business partner, Nga-Hong Lau (the technical force behind the venture) are now making tweaks to the website based on pilot feedback while bringing their online payments system on stream. The Freebird Club will go live in the spring.
Freebird operates a pay-in membership model because Mangan’s focus groups told him they would have more trust in a site where people pay for access. The fee is still to be finalised but will be about €15 and will be one source of income for the company while commissions on bookings will be its main earner. Membership provides access to an age- friendly website where members can book and pay for stays both here and internationally.
“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,” Mangan says. He also sees real potential to link older members of the Irish diaspora with their peers in Ireland and also with each other internationally.
Mangan estimates the start-up costs at about €20,000 so far. He has received support from the Kerry Local Enterprise Office, while an Innovation Voucher from Enterprise Ireland has been used to work with a cyber security expert to set up a robust validation system for the site.
“The safety of members is a priority, so we are investing heavily in ensuring that we have the best possible identity verification in place,” he says.
Mangan currently works as senior manager for Research Operations and Finance at UCD Research and Innovation. He says the university has been very supportive of his venture, allowing him leave to attend the accelerator programme in London. “Freebird is a niche segment but it’s a massive niche, and one that is currently way underserved,” he says.
“Ours is a truly international concept and we are looking at the UK, Europe and the US where we will leverage relationships with age organisations to market The Freebird Club to their communities.”