No room at the inn? Philly residents step up

The pilgrims in Geoffrey Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales” gather at the Tabard Inn in London before setting off on a four-day journey to Canterbury. After 700 years, some parts of the pilgrimage experience have changed significantly. Traveling anywhere around the world is now a question of hours, not days, allowing many more people access to the Church’s worldwide events.

For the volume of pilgrims coming to Philadelphia in September, the World Meeting of Families will need more space than the Tabard Inn provided. To house many of the visitors, officials from the World Meeting of Families are asking families in the Philadelphia region to open their homes for a few days.

“We will need thousands and thousands,” said Donna Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting of Families — Philadelphia 2015. Officials are preparing for 10,000 to 15,000 visitors to Philadelphia for the World Meeting of Families — and those numbers are projected for the days before Pope Francis arrives in Philadelphia. While some visitors will undoubtedly find hotel rooms for the week, others will be looking for a family with whom they can stay. An Irish firm called Homestay is making this process much easier.

Finding a connection

The goal of Homestay was to improve the travel experience for young people booking hostels in foreign places. Ultimately, moving this manual process online allowed for greater transparency and safety between the hostel and the customer. Realizing the huge market for travel, two co-founders decided to explore a broader market. They developed a six-step process by which people can seek housing for anywhere from a few days to several months. In turn, families with an extra bedroom to spare could advertise their space on the online platform, The hosting family does not have to vacate the home.

Farrell said that after a great deal of research, her team decided that Homestay was “the best option for visitors.” Alan Clarke, CEO of Homestay, said the experiences that his company facilitates “always come down to the person. The Homestay experience is really about the connection between two people.” For this reason, he sees the mission of Homestay as closely aligned with that of the Church and the World Meeting.

“It’s a great fit,” he said, adding that there are benefits for both hosts and travelers who want to “broaden their horizons and meet new people.”

An enhanced experience

One of these people is Renee Bowen. She heard about the possibility of volunteering for the World Meeting of Families during a conversation at her parish. She then learned about the opportunity to welcome pilgrims traveling to Philadelphia. After discussing the idea with her family, Bowen decided to be one of the first 100 people to register on the World Meeting of Families housing website, which she called “very accommodating.”

Bowen lives with her family in Wayne, Pennsylvania, a short drive from Philadelphia. She sees offering her extra bedroom to a visiting family as a way to “enhance (her) experience” of the World Meeting of Families. If the visitors are from another country, she said, it would make the week a “religious but also a cultural experience.”

The host family is “the gatekeeper,” in this process, Clarke said. They make the final decision about who stays in their home and for how long. Bowen said she looks forward to dialoguing with potential families during their search, something she thinks the website makes it easy to do. They would be able to discuss options for cooking, transportation and sightseeing long before the visitors arrive.

“I do hope a family picks our home,” she said. “We want to enhance — not diminish — the experience of someone staying in our home.”

Farrell said that while the system is “powered by Homestay,” both visitors and hosts can log onto the main World Meeting of Families site to register, creating a seamless experience exclusively for use by those involved in the World Meeting of Families.

The website gives guidelines about reasonable rates for available space. The visitors pay through the website and Homestay reimburses the host family. While Homestay has matched up hosts and visitors for large gatherings before, such as a PGA Tour event, the World Meeting of Families represents a whole new logistical challenge.

“If the pope arrives, it will definitely be a bigger scale,” Clarke said. “I’d be lying if I said I could find one [event] bigger in the recent past.”

Eric Banecker is a seminarian for the Archdiocese of Philadelphia.

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