GoCambio: the travel experience that’s a little out of the ordinary

Bartering language lessons for food and accommodation can bring you to some special places


Sinead Gould has been bitten by the travel bug. Just back from a two-month stint in Africa with Voluntary Services Overseas, she clearly prefers to travel off the beaten path. So when the chance to take a different kind of travel experience to Europe arose, she jumped at the chance.

To get that unique experience, Gould signed up for a service called GoCambio. At the heart of GoCambio is the traditional barter system.

Would-be travellers put up profiles on the site advertising their skills for trade – teaching English or French, for example – and are matched with potential hosts seeking those skills overseas. The idea is that for a set period of time, the host will give you accommodation and food in return for some language practice.

What it means in practice is that you can travel for less, or improve your language skills for a knockdown price, depending on what side of the trade you are on.

The Cork-based company was set up by UK-based businesswoman, former stand-up comedian and Wife Swap star Deirdre Bounds and Ian O’Sullivan. Both founders had already dipped their toes in the travel market with former venture i-to-i.com, and invested about €400,000 in their new venture.

Officially, GoCambio opened in March, and to date, it has signed up more than 5,000 people in over 100 countries.

It was word of mouth that brought GoCambio to Sinead Gould’s attention. A friend of a friend was working for the company – Teresa Lenane, GoCambio’s digital marketing executive – and an advert for the site popped up on her Facebook newsfeed.

“It was free to sign up, so I thought, why not?” she says.

Having been to Barcelona twice before, she was keen for something a little different; she ended up travelling to Zaragoza, where she stayed for a week. “It’s not a touristy place, and it was great to see the real Spain,” she says.

In return, she promised two hours a night of English language practice. Gould is TEFL-qualified, but it’s not a requirement to use the service; the idea is that you are helping them practice their language skills rather than teaching from scratch. And native speakers will offer a more informal level of fluency and experience.

Some hosts prefer defined times for language lessons, but they don’t all work to timetables. For Gould, her hosts included her in social occasions, allowing her to get in some language practice while also seeing the local sites.

That’s what GoCambio specialises in: the travel experience that’s a little out of the ordinary.

The site has hosts everywhere from the UK to the US, and the company is currently building the second version of its site. The IT team was sent to the Philippines as part of a four-month project to create the new site, with some new features promised when it launches in October.

The idea of staying in a stranger’s home while offering them English lessons may not appeal to some would-be travellers. But there’s a growing move towards a “sharing” economy, with people opening their spare rooms and homes up to Airbnb, and home swapping for holidays abroad has been around for some time.

GoCambio taps into this trend. But it’s not an informal arrangement; it has a very clear contract that hosts must fill out that outlines everything they will – and won’t – offer, from food to airport pickups. Guests can also take the GoCambio Express course, that offers a few tips and techniques for language classes.

Safety is of paramount importance though, and potential travellers are urged to check out their potential host in advance of travelling. That means vetting social media profiles, for example, or doing some basic fact checking before agreeing to a Cambio.

Some hosts will have recommendations, which are always worth checking. A Skype call with the potential host is also advised before agreeing to an exchange.

For Gould, her GoCambio experience ended in friendship, and she is still in touch with her hosts. “Lots of people said I was crazy because I’d never met them before,” says Gould. “But everyone is a stranger really. There was a bit of apprehension, just because you’re going to live in someone else’s house. It’s a fear of the unknown, but that’s also exciting.”

At the moment, the site concentrates on language skills, although there are a few other skills on offer – cooking, music, or even technology, for example.

But there are plans to expand GoCambio further. Lane said there is already talk of widening the skills offered, so in future you could be offering to teach salsa dancing or surfing in return for a room for a few nights. “We didn’t want to exclude anyone,” she says. “Everyone has something worth sharing.”

For hosts and guests the site is free to use, and intends to remain that way. You don’t have to pay a registration fee or a subscription to complete your exchanges. That means it currently has no definite revenue model, but there are plans afoot.

Lenane said the company is currently exploring a few different options, but it hasn’t decided what direction to go just yet.

However, whatever it decides in the future, GoCambio will always have some form of free model for its guests. “It’s more like the rental economy. If you have to pay to use the service, it defeats the purpose.”

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