Ingrid Oelschlager and Shannon Chambers’ trip to Vermont was supposed to be restful and relaxing.
Instead, the couple’s interaction with a hotel front desk clerk while checking into their shared room would not only set the tone for their vacation, but serve as underlying motivation for their home-swapping service, Levio.
“There wasn’t a moment of being in danger, or feeling unsafe, but a moment of us having to question who we are,” said Oelschlager, MBA '18. “As people who are so proud of being out and owning who we are individually and as a couple, to have that kind of awkward, uncomfortable moment when you're traveling, not only takes away from the experience of what you’re traveling to do, but it just kind of chips at your soul a little bit.”
That soul chipping happened in the same state that was the first to legalize same-sex marriage through legislation. What could happen to an LGBTQ couple looking for a place to stay in a more conservative part of America, or a foreign country?
“At Levio what we’re trying to do is create that safe place in those destinations you want to visit where you at least know you’re going to be accepted where you're staying,” Oelschlager said.
“The unknown is what travel is about,” Chambers said. “But you want to explore the good part of that, not the bad, or awkward.”
Unlike a traditional, transactional travel or short-term lodging site, Levio is a reciprocal home-swapping service. No money is exchanged, and there is a points system in case schedules don’t align. The company is still considering whether or not it will charge a membership or house-swap fee after launch, but beta users currently pay Levio $50 per house-swap.
To help ensure this safe space, when new members sign up, they agree to Levio’s set of community values, Oelschlager said. Customers are also likely to come from referrals, she said, “so if we know you’re a respectful member it’s highly likely that the people you refer are also.”
The Levio host questionnaire includes a list of preferred pronouns and gender identities. When it comes to how a person identifies with the LGBTQ community, there are options for “lesbian,” “gay,” “bisexual,” “transgender,” “queer,” “questioning,” “ally,” “other,” and “prefer not to say.”
As part of Levio's beta testing, Oelschlager and Chambers coordinated their first swap earlier this month.
An emotional connection
While the safe space requirement grew out of experiences like their trip to Vermont, Chambers and Oelschlager landed on the idea of a home-swapping service when family members came and stayed at their Boston apartment while the couple was out of town.
“It really is a different way to let people into your life,” Chambers said. “The easiest way to get to know someone is to spend time in their home.”
Though the women had been nervous at first to open their home while they weren’t there, they enjoyed offering their family recommendations of where to eat, drink, shop, and visit in Boston.
“We were surprised at that emotional connection, and the kind of depth of the experience,” Chambers said. “We just knew there was something there, something to that. We wondered why people didn’t do this all the time for travel. It made so much sense, especially if you live in an incredibly desirable area.”
Oelschlager said she and Chambers started looking to see who else was thinking along these lines, and where it was happening. They found a few options around Europe, but in each case, the system asked the traveler to do the work.
“Most travel sites are search-based; you know what you're looking for, you go on the site, they give you recommendations — but they’re based on what you’ve already searched,” Oelschlager said. “What we want to do is get to know what kinds of trips you want to go on, what your availability is, and propose more like yes-no options for you.”
The company isn’t out to replace the major vacation sites, but instead design a thoughtful travel experience that’s safe and enjoyable for LGBTQ members.
“If you know you’re going to be free in three weekends, and you want to go somewhere within a 4-hour drive, or $200 flight, and you want it to be within this temperature bracket and you want it to be near a lake, we could send you to seven different states and how many different towns or cities within those states,” Chambers said. “You don’t need to know where you want to go, you just need to know what you want it to be like. That's going to be the really fun thing; sending people to places they’d never thought they'd go and having the ability to ask someone what to do and then having a blast in a brand-new place.”
Hosts in those brand-new places provide recommendations for a more immersive and local experience, something the women also picked up on one of their recent trips to Brooklyn, New York. Their host provided two pages worth of suggestions.
“It was so specific,” said Chambers. “Not just ‘go to this restaurant.’ She [the host] had painted a whole picture. She had said ‘I’m going to leave out picnic blankets for you. Go to this sandwich shop, then go to this place and get a bottle of wine, and go to this park — it’s very close by.’ That’s a coordinated experience. How long would you have to live in a place to figure that out? On a whim as a traveler you’re not going to coordinate that experience for yourself. Maybe you would, but it would take an extraordinary amount of work.”
That attention to detail can also help LGBTQ travelers know which areas — even down to streets or buildings — are safe.
While it’s an LGBTQ member’s right to decide if they want to visit a place that might not be as accepting as other locations, Oelschlager said, “it’s so important for people to have a platform to go to where they know they’re going to be accepted and welcomed.”