The first question people ask Lizanne Pando, the communications director for the World Meeting of Families, is almost always, “How can I help?” The second, she said, is like it: “Can Pope Francis come to my house?”
In actuality, the homes that the pope might visit may only be a precious few, but the World Meeting’s partnership with the global travel accommodations company, Homestay.com, will allow thousands of Philadelphia-area residents to welcome attendees of the families’ congress into their living rooms in the spirit of Christian hospitality.
More than 10,000 delegates are expected to descend on Philadelphia in September to attend the World Meeting’s week-long congress (Sept. 22-25), which precedes the visit of Pope Francis Sept. 26-27.
And while Philadelphia has seen its share of conventions and conferences, the papal visit and its expected 2 million visitors presents extraordinary challenges, recognized early on by the leadership team.
Last fall Donna Crilley Farrell, executive director of the World Meeting, said, “we will need every housing option available” to meet the needs.
“We’ve had hotels reaching out to us, of course,” Pando said in a recent interview. “But there was a definite need for more housing.”
Enter Homestay.com, a hospitality company founded in Dublin in 2013. Unlike Airbnb — the online room booking tool which technologically hip Philadelphians might be more familiar — Homestay.com specializes in connecting local residents with out-of-towners visiting for specific, large-scale events like the World Meeting.
While other services typically facilitate renting out vacant vacation homes or guesthouses, Homestay expects homeowners to share their living spaces and to remain present so as to “enhance the guest’s travel experience through their hospitality and local knowledge,” according to the website.
Anyone can use the Homestay service, Pando said. “Sign-ups don’t have to check a ‘Catholic’ box or anything,” she said. “Only about 60 percent of presenters at the Congress are Catholic themselves, and ecumenism is one of the great themes.”
Eric and Renee Bowin of St. Katherine of Siena Parish in Wayne signed up for the service as soon as they heard about it.
“It’s a bit like Match.com,” Renee said with a laugh, referring to the popular online dating service. “We’re sort of waiting for the right couple. Because of space, we’ve only room for a couple or a couple with a small child.”
The Bowins are, in fact, moving out of their master bedroom and into their guest bedroom to afford a potential homestay family more privacy. They are making available their bedroom because it has its own bathroom, though this is not a requirement of the service.
Like many who have signed up for Homestay, the Bowins were encouraged through their pastor’s remarks and announcements in their parish bulletin.
Hosting families can rent out rooms or guest houses and indicate their own rates, which tend to be much cheaper than comparable hotel rooms, but hosts are expected to help provide orientation.
Guests, for their part, can view pictures of the rooms and the host’s “amenities” and get in touch directly with the owners of their potential crash pad.
“We’re not looking to really ‘rent’ out the room,” said Renee. “I know some people have seen it as a great moneymaking opportunity. But we’re just looking to help.”
Patricia Hughey booked up her Graduate Hospital-area, center city Philadelphia, row house early on. A native of Montgomery, Alabama, she met her husband, Scott Mitchell, when they both worked for General Electric in Northeast Philadelphia. They have lived in the city for the last 24 years.
“We’ve never done Airbnb,” said Patricia. “But we’ve had a lot of guests through work. And we love to travel, so it’s like bringing another country into your house.
“We have a cat, Barney, so we also wanted to make sure that anyone staying with us was well aware, in case of allergies. You can indicate that on your profile.”
In September, the Bowins will be hosting a couple from Vietnam — the husband of which is a deacon — and a pair of brothers from the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
According to Pando, the largest portion of attendees utilizing the service are from within the United States and Canada, followed closely by Vietnam.
“It’s also been great practice for my French,” Patricia said with a laugh. “All of our e-mails with the brothers have been in French, so we’ll see how well I hold up when they get here.”
Because friendships are bound to result from the Homestay visits, they might become reciprocal in the future.
“And of course, we’re hoping to visit them after the Meeting is over, either in Vietnam or the Congo,” Patricia said. “Maybe not to stay. But it would be great to have them as hosts one day in their own countries.”
Learn how to welcome guests to your home through Homestay.com’s service at the website of the World Meeting of Families, worldmeeting2015.org.