I’m sure you have a hostel horror story. Whether it’s things that go bump in the night, showers that trickle past the Trade Descriptions Act, wombats running amok in dormitories, dubiously-cooked delicacies, trench-foot, bed-bugs or worse, everyone worth their Himalayan rock salt has a tale. Well, it’s time to reevaluate (or, in the spirit of this blog, revaluate). Since the gap year you spent finding yourself, hostels have matured and evolved into an interesting experiential proposition for business travellers and event planners. While they have not always been known for their creativity, in recent years pioneering properties have emerged to disrupt the market with a strong focus on design, local flavours and the kind of social buzz that even attracts non-guests. With room blocks in traditional properties shrinking, events outgrowing their host locations, the shareconomy offering small batch alternatives and lifestyle hotels blurring the lines between established hospitality and the new digital frontier, it’s time for event planners to start casting their venue finding net wider to include these previously-eschewed community hubs, which are nowadays housed in warehouses, factories, shipping containers and once-derelict industrial buildings.
One of the best examples of the current calibre of hostels is Generator, whose design-led approach now covers 14 European locations. New properties opened in Amsterdam (168 rooms), Stockholm (233 rooms) and Rome (75 rooms) last year, while a 102-room property is scheduled to open in South Beach, Miami later this year (with a pool and three restaurants). Plans to expand into more North American cities are afoot. Hostel culture isn’t as well established in the US as it is in Europe and Generator sees an opportunity to change perceptions and fill a growing need for lower-cost, high-quality accommodation. “Millennial consumers are growing-up and migrating from shared to private experiences. The least important thing we sell is the bed. Guests are buying into social engagement with the community” says Generator CEO Fredrik Korallusin. Speaking of beds, those allergic to the niche charms of dormitories will be delighted to know that most Generator properties have around 30% of their bed stock in single rooms.
Since its inception, Generator has always offered an array of in-house events such as live concerts, parties, art openings and fashion shows, however over the last few years a growing number of consumer brands have been booking the properties for their own events in an effort to align with Generator’s experiential hipness (and with it, the zeitgeist). The multi-use public spaces are designed to draw in residents from the host neighbourhoods and in doing so create a vibrant, unmatched social ambience that you would never get in a congress hotel. In Stockholm, Generator have created (by removing 22 guestrooms) a phenomenal, design-driven first floor event space that can hold up to 120. This multi-functional area (suited to press and product launches, music events and parties) has four or five different personalities throughout the course of a day as it morphs between uses. In Paris, where rooftop bars are rarer than chicken teeth, Generator have one with incredible views over Montmartre. In Amsterdam, their auditorium and library spaces are ideal for small, private group events that need a memorable, non-traditional environment, far-removed from the tepid, staid and uninspiring climate of a corporate boardroom. The Generator in Amsterdam also boasts its own nightclub, Oosterbar, which – as well as being a great addition to the city’s burgeoning club scene – also serves as a cultural hub, hosting activities from poetry readings to art exhibitions and everything in between.
If you read my previous blog about using portmanteaus to create new event formats, you’ll know I am a fan of cunning word-splicing. I am therefore reasonably amused at the concepts of poshtels and flashpackers. Flashpackers aren’t just backpackers with higher disposable income, clutching their ubiquitous Apple device; they are today’s urban nomads and social travellers – the same clientele which Marriott’s Moxy or Hilton’s Tru seek to attract. What poshtels have in common are affordability, good locations, modern amenities and contemporary design, but – perhaps most importantly – they do what hostels do best, connecting people to the local culture and community. Poshtels can charge less than a hotel room because they have reduced operational and design touchpoints to be functional and comfortable, but not superfluous.
One of my personal favourites is Kex in Reykjavik, an independent, one-off (though surely set to expand given Iceland’s current overtourism challenges) that’s named after the building’s previous incarnation as a biscuit factory. It is affordably hip (even by uber-cool, super-expensive Icelandic standards) with quirky retro stylings and an abundance of mismatched second-hand furniture. It sleeps up to 138 people in 32 rooms and dorms and most of the action takes place on a large open-plan floor that contains a reception area, bar and restaurant, a 1950s barber shop and an interior courtyard for those long, light-flooded summer nights (or those short, dark winter days). Kex is typical of the new breed of hostels that make social interaction central to the stay, particularly through food, drink, gigs and shared work spaces.
Similarly, in Miami, Los Angeles and Chicago, Freehand makes a virtue of economy through thrift-shop-cool décor and trendy boozers. The Chicago property has a duplex penthouse with two bedrooms and the resort-like Miami venue has a pool. Meininger is another chain that has led the reinvention of European hostels and the trend is now spilling over to Asia with brands such as Thailand’s Lub d (meaning ‘sleep well’ in Thai) expanding into Cambodia and the Philippines. Closer to home, YHA – once synonymous with school geography trips – have spent a small fortune (£37m since 2011) refurbishing and modernising their UK bunkhouses, adding glamping pods and an extra sparkle to ensure their facilities match their incredible locations.
Hostels are a mind-set. Like an event, they’re about sharing a moment, an experience and a physical space. With the global hostel market expected to grow around 8% this year (representing around £5.6bn in revenue) and more and more competitors entering the marketplace to mimic the existing successes, it’s time for event professionals to put aside their preconceptions and past experiences and embrace the modern reality. Hostels have become a huge missed opportunity in hospitality and it’s time to address this oversight, providing daring clients with an unrealised, exciting and dynamic venue option for their future events.
Photos (top to bottom): Generator Amsterdam (1, 3 and 5), Generator Paris (2), Generator London (4), Generator Berlin (6), Freehand Chicago (7 and 8) and Freehand Miami (9).
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