Sabbatical Stories - Meet the master of sabbatical connections
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
Nadege Conger is a sabbatical legend. 20 years ago, just as the internet was becoming a big thing, she had the vision of creating a global network of academics to help people find and rent their homes while on sabbatical. SabbaticalHomes.com was born and since then, she's helped countless people find their dream sabbatical home. Lyndall Farley, Founder of Beyond a Break caught up with Nadege to talk about our shared passion for sabbaticals.
Lyndall: You have a fascinating background. Born in France, living in California with a passion for sabbaticals! Can you tell us a bit more about how these things have shaped your life?
Nadege: Joining a student exchange program in high school pretty much changed the course of my life in a wonderful way. It shaped a strong belief that exploring places beyond where one lives is essential.
I went to live in Canada and attended a high school where no students from France had gone. Speaking English daily helped me become much more fluent, and I believe that knowing a second language really opened up my possibilities for travel and life. To this day, my exchange family is an important part of my life; in reality, my exchange family has fused with our family.
Lyndall: Can you tell us about your first sabbatical experience? What did you do and what did you learn?
Nadege: Ironically, my first sabbatical experience wasn’t even my own sabbatical! Jay, my husband-to-be, was a professor at McGill University. On his first sabbatical, he came to France (where I lived at the time) to teach at INSEAD, the global business school based in Fontainebleau.
People attribute a lot of benefits to sabbaticals. In this case, one benefit was finding love – although it’s not the first thing that comes to mind for most people when they’re planning a sabbatical! SabbaticalHomes.com wouldn’t exist today if that had not happened because it opened my eyes to what I see as an inspiring way to live and explore the world, a way that I first glimpsed as a high school exchange student and now saw was a possibility through adulthood.
Related: Beyond a Break Sabbatical Stories - life changing sabbatical experiences told by our community of sabbatical lovers.
Lyndall: What inspired you to start SabbaticalHomes.com?
Nadege: In 1999, Jay was again going on sabbatical, this time to teach at LBS (London Business School). I specifically remember the moment I thought of creating SabbaticalHomes.com. We were driving in a car with another friend who is a professor, and he told us about a Harvard professor he knew who had cancelled her sabbatical to the U.K. because she couldn’t find affordable housing.
This was 20 years ago, when the internet was still in its infancy, so the solution of connecting professors with each other online seemed the perfect answer. It was clear to me that a website like SabbaticalHomes.com would help us as well as many of our academic friends on their sabbaticals.
Many academics and scholars have the opportunity to travel the world while teaching, conducting research or writing. However, the travel budgets of many academics do not line up with scarce and expensive housing in many urban cities across the globe, like London, New York, Paris and San Franciso.
My thought was, if this many people are moving out of their own homes temporarily to travel to all of these destinations, isn’t it more budget-friendly and just practical to create a way to connect this network for reasonably-priced home rentals and exchanges? It’s certainly environmentally friendly as well, if we use what is already built.
I also love the idea that if your home will be empty for a few months to a year, why not have a trusted academic and their family enjoy your home and possibly take care of things for you? So, I learned how to write code and develop a website, for the first version of SabbaticalHomes.com that launched in the year 2000.
Lyndall: How does SabbaticalHomes help people on their sabbatical journey? How does it work? What challenges do you solve?
Nadege: The site is unique in that it gives users a lot of freedom and responsibilities. Hosts post their own home to rent, exchange or even share. They can include house sitting duties if they wish. Tenants can post their profile for potential hosts to find and contact them.
Members are responsible for checking each other’s references, agreeing to terms, and arranging payment. We provide the platform where people can find each other, we provide detailed “how to tips” in our FAQ resources and technical support, and the rest is up to the members.
The obvious challenge we solve is the overwhelming difficulty for scholars to find adequate housing and trustworthy house-guests when planning their leaves. In addition, our travelling members benefit from an instant community thanks to the welcoming kindness many hosts offer. There is not only a home but also a network of contacts (for example doctors or baby-sitters) that may be available simplifying the transition away from home.
Lyndall: Why should people consider listing their home on SabbaticalHomes.com instead of other platforms?
Nadege: Our members share many values. They respect each other and each other’s homes: they don’t think of their homes as a business, they welcome meaningful conversations, they look after each other. Members understand how to treat a book on a shelf, meaning that for academics, their books are almost sacred. Many scholars put a lot of thought as to how their books are organized or placed on the shelves of their home office or workspace.
They appreciate people staying in their homes who also respect education and are courteous guests. While housing is the reason why they first come to us, the people our members meet is the reason they form a dedicated SabbaticalHomes community of world citizens.
Lyndall: SabbaticalHomes.com is almost 20 years old. Congratulations! What’s changed now in the world of sabbaticals since you started 20 years ago?
Nadege: Technology is evolving in a way that makes it easier for people of all professions to stay productive away from the home base. You can be on a sabbatical and still stay in touch with your work cohort in a meaningful way. Or you can give yourself a break from your work life to recharge and refresh.
While some may enjoy getting away from it all, others can have their cake and eat it too. The fear of missing out on the developments happening in their institutions isn’t so daunting, which makes taking a sabbatical away from home easier than ever before.
For me, what started as a way to help academics and scholars find housing has become the most perfect, portable job I could have designed for myself. We run our independent company with a dedicated team based out of Los Angeles, and I am still able to travel as much as I want or need.
Lyndall: You have a long history of helping the academic community finding their perfect accommodation for their sabbatical, and increasingly you’re also helping people from non-academic backgrounds. How do you see this trend shaping up over the next few years?
Nadege: We don’t actively seek those outside of academia, but some are drawn to us because of our shared values. Most are referred by a friend or colleague and “think” for a living. Like our members in the academic world, those outside of academia welcome the opportunity to experience life beyond their own borders. For example, artists, writers, filmmakers and journalists fit perfectly in our community. We regularly post feature articles about our members who are involved in all kinds of inspiring work in our blog.
In short, we welcome people who fit our motto: a place for minds on the move.
Lyndall: If you had a magic wand and SabbaticalHomes.com could immediately be everything you want it to be, what would it look like?
Nadege: Every single scholar on earth would feel like they could live anywhere in the world and be welcomed by the friends they met through SabbaticalHomes.com. For me, the community we have built is everything.
Lyndall: If someone is struggling to find accommodation for their sabbatical, what would you advise them to do?
Nadege: If they are struggling, they may have waited until the last minute and there may not be the same amount of available homes in the area. Although some members prefer just to search home listings, we recommend creating a tenant listing on our site so homeowners who are searching can also reach out.
If the reason for the struggle is due to budgetary reasons, they may want to consider looking away from the expensive cosmopolitan hubs. And as you well know, there is an art to planning a sabbatical with an equal balance of setting up logistics and also being open to new experiences. Maybe sharing a home is an option to bring costs down or being willing to house sit can be the way to find the right fit.
Related: How much does a sabbatical cost? Download Beyond a Break's Sabbatical Cost Calculator to find out just how affordable it can be.
Lyndall: What are the top things people should consider when looking for sabbatical accommodation?
Nadege: People should make a list of their priorities based on their sabbatical focus: location, price, space, amenities and go from there. We also advise our members to think about if they need a home that has a dedicated office or writing space. Many of the homes on our website have those amenities, and it makes a world of difference if you need a quiet place to work or pursue a project.
When members take time to look through all the photos and descriptions of the homes listed on our website, it’s the best first step to make sure that the space is a good fit. For example, they may need outside space if they are traveling with their children or pets – or stairs are a difficulty for them. Our filters allow people to fine tune what they need in a home or a tenant when they are searching.
Next, we encourage people to contact each other through WhatsApp, Facetime or Skype for a chemistry check and to discuss the features of the home and the rental or exchange terms that are important to each member.
Lyndall: What’s the one piece of advice you’d give to someone considering a sabbatical if they’re unsure about whether a sabbatical is right for them?
Nadege: Lyndall, they should talk to you!
Lyndall: Yes, they can absolutely talk to me! Finally, tell us about your next sabbatical – is there one in the planning already?
Nadege: I don’t have one planned yet, but the world is my oyster.
Beyond a Break exists to support people and organisations as they navigate sabbaticals - from launching sabbaticals as a wellbeing benefit to ensuring people get the most out of the experience.