The rise of short-term holiday rentals like Airbnb and Stayz has fundamentally changed how we humans travel. But as we begin to grapple with the ramifications these platforms have on Australia’s broader housing crisis – and, indeed, the tourism industry at large – what are the proposed solutions?
Some places around the world have begun to regulate short-stay rentals. Elsewhere, fees and taxes have been imposed. But one Victorian woman is planning on shaking up the entire industry.
In 2019, after 20 years of working as a designer, Jen Clark packed up her life in Melbourne and moved to the leafy town of Woodend in the Macedon Ranges with her partner Kirstie and son Max. It was here – on the back of her running her own socially conscious accommodation business, Ranges Escapes – that she conceptualised the podcast Hosting with Heart.
Now, the brand has grown into a bountiful directory of beautiful properties going the extra mile for the planet and its people, and Jen has her sights on building a world-first ethical accommodation booking platform called Heartful. In partnership with Hosting with Heart, we caught up with Jen to learn more.
above NOOK ON THE HILL, VICTORIA below JEN CLARK, HOSTING WITH HEART FOUNDER
Tell us what inspired you to create Heartful…
I’ve spent about five years in the Australian and New Zealand short-term accommodation sector now as the owner of a busy property management business and the host of the hugely successful podcast and consciously minded accommodation directory, Hosting with Heart.
As someone with multiple ‘invisible’ disabilities who is part of the LGBTIQIA+ community, I’ve also had plenty of experience with what it’s like to live on the fringes.
The absence of a booking platform for hosts and guests who passionately care about issues pertaining to the environment, inclusion, accessibility and local community-building was glaringly obvious to me, so I decided to make it my mission to create one!
PwC found only four percent of holiday accommodation in Australia could be deemed ‘accessible’. In addition to our focus on sustainability, we feel compelled to do something about that.
What does ethically managed accommodation look like to a guest? What might they see or experience during their stay in an ethically managed property?
As opposed to most ‘cookie cutter’ short-term rentals, ethically managed properties really showcase a particular host’s awareness of their guests’ diverse needs and their concern for the future of our planet.
They might include, for example, recycling and composting facilities, dimmable lights, a portable ramp for those with mobility issues, fresh produce grown on-site, extra-wide doorways, photos of toilets and bathrooms in their property listings, no artificial scents, all-electric infrastructure, use of a green energy provider, car parks in close proximity to entrances… the list literally goes on and on.
The last time it was investigated in 2013, PwC [on behalf of the Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism] found only four percent of holiday accommodation in Australia could be deemed ‘accessible’. In addition to our focus on sustainability, we feel compelled to do something about that.
above BOKETTO, NEW SOUTH WALES
Can you share an example of how hosts show their commitment to inclusion, community-building, sustainability and accessibility in their accommodations?
A great example of heartful hosting is one of our existing Hosting with Heart members, The Grain Shed Retreat in Queensland’s Darling Downs region.
Owners Bel and Neil, who both work as therapists, salvaged and repurposed many locally sourced materials to creatively upgrade the old grain shed on their property, converting it into a fully accessible, highly sustainable retreat for their clients – and other guests – to stay in.
Not only are they supporting their local community through the provision of their professional services, but they’re also attracting travellers to the region in a way that minimises impact on the planet and prioritises inclusion.
You’ve said that “hosting is a privilege, not a right” – can you tell us more about that?
The majority of hosts – not all, granted, but certainly the majority – are multi-property owners. It’s common knowledge here in Australia that to own property in this day and age you normally require one or more of two things: luck and privilege.
I believe those who are fortunate enough to own a property or even part of a property that they can then rent out as a source of income need to take that privilege seriously and aim to give back as much as possible. ‘Giving back’ takes many forms – be it by supporting local businesses and community groups, ensuring as many guests with varying needs are catered for and working hard to minimise their ongoing environmental impact.
above MACEDON VIEWS HOUSE AND GARDEN, VICTORIA
Why was equity crowdfunding important to you?
I loved the idea of Heartful emerging as a democratised platform – one that is owned by travellers who really give a shit, for travellers who really give a shit.
Many of the larger platforms, I feel, have fallen victim to corporatisation and a relentless focus on profit above all else. I believe purpose and profit go hand in hand.
Equity crowdfunding makes it possible for investors from all walks of life to own a part of a business they fundamentally believe in. The barrier to entry is incredibly low. The decision to go down this path was therefore a no-brainer for me.
What are the benefits for someone investing in Heartful?
Heartful is at the stage called a ‘pre-revenue’ or early-stage startup, in that we haven’t actually built the platform yet. We have, however, built a phenomenally successful MVP (or ‘minimum viable product’) in the current Hosting with Heart directory, which has experienced 300% growth in the last four months alone. Heartful will serve as an evolution of that.
Joining us as an investor now means you get to come with us on this business-building journey from the ground up and help us really shape the culture of what Heartful will become.
Investing now also means that down the track, should the platform be commercially successful, the rewards will be considerably higher than becoming a shareholder at a later stage.
above DUNMORE FARM, VICTORIA
Heartful will also have a philanthropic purpose, donating one percent of all revenue to social and community housing initiatives. Why did it feel important to embed this into the business?
I’m 45 years old and it was only three years ago that I found myself in the fortunate position of being able to purchase a house.
Before that, I had lived in over 35 different properties, most of them long-term rentals and share houses. I know exactly what it’s like to experience housing insecurity and live in poor-quality housing and the level of stress that can create.
I fundamentally believe housing and housing security are human rights and at the moment, like many countries around the world, we have a housing crisis on our hands here in Australia.
Rather than turning a blind eye, I see it as our ongoing responsibility in the short-term accommodation sector to contribute to a solution, hence our commitment to donating part of our annual revenue to different social housing initiatives.
above 8 PADDOCKS, WESTERN AUSTRALIA
What is your dream for the future of Heartful?
Call me ambitious, but I firmly believe that this time in 10 years, Heartful will be the global platform of choice for travellers seeking high-quality, ethically managed, short-term accommodation.
Not only that, but I want Heartful to emerge as an innovator and educator – ensuring our host and guest communities are fully informed about what it takes to individually and collectively reduce our impact on the planet and create welcoming, inclusive, safe and comfortable spaces for travellers from all backgrounds and with all manner of needs to stay in.
I hope also through our philanthropic activities, we’ll have made a substantial contribution to helping solve the housing crisis.
I know we can do all of the above and a lot more and, with the knowledge in tow that I’ve gained from building the Hosting with Heart community, I literally cannot wait to get started!