This summer the global spotlight will be on London as the Olympics bring the world's sporting elite and an estimated 5.5 million visitors a day to the capital.
While the influx of people will provide a huge boost for the capital's traditional hotel and tourist industry, the Olympics has also brought a more unconventional and cutting-edge travel phenomenon to the fore: the social travel movement.
Social travel relates to the huge amount of people worldwide exploring new ways of travelling and hosting, preferring to swap, share and couch-surf instead of renting and buying. Made possible through a digital economy that enables 24-hour communication across continents and time zones, it's no surprise that the businesses at the helm of the movement (Love Home Swap, Airbnb, 9flats) are cyber-savvy and socially engaged.
Swapping and sharing is fast becoming the chic, 21st century travel choice for everyone from silver surfers to city slickers to families.
Not such a new phenomenon?
Informally offering friends and travellers somewhere to stay in spare rooms or by swapping homes for holidays is not new a new idea; the novelty of the social travel movement comes through the proliferation of formalised networks which enable people to negotiate these swaps and shares.
The incredible growth in popularity of the networks which put travellers in touch with would-be hosts is testament to the mainstream appeal of the social travel movement; Love Home Swap has tens of thousands of members in over 85 countries worldwide.
Social travel: not for me?
The biggest misconception about social travel is that it only works for a certain type of person; poor backpackers and idealistic hippies with low standards, bad personal hygiene and a lot of time on their hands!
The new breed of social traveller does not fit this stereotype at all and the new batch of social travel companies caters for a wide demographic: smart, stylish and discerning. Professional interfaces make the sites simple to use and efficient; certainly no more complicated than purchasing a holiday online. They are also increasingly integrated with familiar social networks so communication across them is easy and arranging a home swap holiday, or to stay in someone's apartment, becomes no more complicated than arranging , say, an event through Facebook.
To take myself as an example, I am a London-based, mother of two tiny children and owner of my own business and a keen home swapper because it makes my life easier, not more complicated. I arrange house swaps because they are the most convenient travel option for me - I swap with families with children so I know their home is child-friendly before I arrive, with all the family focused paraphernalia only a mum would know to need!
I have friends who now never stay in hotels, preferring to home swap or else stay in other people's homes on holiday. They are a diverse range of people, with different travel needs - but all have found a way to make social travel work for them. It is the sheer variety of experience offered by the various social travel sites which is ultimately at the root of this surge in popularity.
Social travel: becoming big business
The growing popularity of the social travel movement is also proof that grassroots sharing of assets is a viable and lucrative business model. Sites like Airbnb now command the money and influence to promote themselves as a viable alternative to established operators. Consumers are getting smarter and social travel is already proving a hugely popular option for people who are stretched financially, but don't want to give up their quality of life.
It would be remiss of me not to mention that social travel actually falls under the broader heading of collaborative consumption; a trend that Time magazine recently pitched as one of its 10 ideas that would change the world. Collaborative consumption means people look to their cyber 'neighbours' instead of big business for what they need; which could be anything from a dinner tonight, a gardener tomorrow or a designer dress for that special occasion.
With growing economic and ethical concerns about how we consume - social travel and collaborative consumption more generally is a way for people to spend smarter and enjoy thoroughly modern lives with less impact.
The internet has profoundly changed the way we communicate with each other and share our experiences - social travel is the way we translate this into enriching offline experiences. It is a way of using our heightened global connectivity to make meaningful global connections which directly benefit our lives.
The bottom line is that for many, global travel is no longer a dispensable luxury - but an essential cultural exercise. Social travel is the 21st century answer to limited budgets and limitless wanderlust - and it's about to go viral.
Debbie Wosskow, launches Collaborative Consumption Europe - a new network of European businesses promoting the growth of the 'share economy' on 28th March 2012.
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