At 9pm, a united nations of travellers sits around the lounge, temporarily ignoring the Playstation 3, huge DVD collection and street art doodlings on the walls. The feast — a vegetable soup, followed by piri piri chicken and still-warm carrot cake — is coming. And it’ll be washed down with a seemingly limitless supply of beer, all included under the same €10 bill.
The deliberately cultivated social atmosphere in Lisbon’s Yes! hostel is a far cry from the somewhat outdated vision of backpacker accommodation that many of us may still have imprinted on the memory. The youth hostel concept was originally born in Germany, as a way of encouraging poor city youngsters to get out and enjoy the fresh outdoor air. The first hostel — which is still open today — opened within Altena Castle in North Rhine-Westphalia in 1912.
The original noble concept of getting kids out and about, however, led to certain practices that still affect the image of hostels today. Having to do chores to help fund the stay, bringing your own bedsheets and being locked out during the day are among the damage to their reputation hostels have been lumbered with.
It doesn’t take much prompting to conjure up the hideous visions. Gigantic, institutionalised 48-bed dormitories, awash with the grim smell of feet; grot-smeared showers; sociopathic staff rigidly enforcing lock-out periods between 10am and 3pm, irrespective of whether there’s a howling blizzard outside. This gruesome combo of military field hospital and brutalist boarding school is not a fiction — it’s what at least one real hostel (in this case, just outside Innsbruck) was like just 15 years ago.
A lot has changed in a short space of time. And the most interesting thing about that change is that there’s no single template that the new breed hostels are following. Yes! is one of many high-quality hostels in Lisbon — a disproportionate number feature in specialist booking site Hostelworld’s list of the world’s best. Yes! is unashamedly geared towards a party crowd — the reception desk is also the bar. Sister property Home, meanwhile, plays up its homely properties as the name suggests. Chess sets and board games are strewn all over the common rooms, while the €10, three-course evening meal is cooked up by the co-owner’s mum. Elsewhere in Lisbon, the Living Lounge goes for a cultured edge, with each room designed and decorated by a different artist, while other properties offer bar crawls, tapas tours, free hot breakfasts, Segway rentals, bike hire and cooking classes.
The only common theme is a sense of sociability — merely offering a bed to sleep in, it seems, is no longer enough. Even what’s around those beds is instructive, too. Dorms in the city’s Travellers’ House have little cotton bags hanging down from the top bunks, to store books and phones at night. There are also plenty of bedside plug sockets, meaning laptops, phones and tablets can be charged without a fight for power points. And each bed has a reading light and quality bedding — a far cry from the scratchy bug-ridden sheets of yesteryear. The lockers, meanwhile, underneath have a safe inside — all of this has been retrofitted into a handsome old building.
But around the world, hostels are being purpose-built to modern specifications. The new Hostelling International property in Boston is a case in point. It opened in 2012, and makes no pretence at being small and homely. But unlike the giant, sour-faced backpacker barns of the past, it has been designed with customers in mind. There’s a maximum of eight people in a dorm (many of them are four-only), they’re awash with plug sockets for tech-toting travellers and free wi-fi comes as standard (something hostels have long led hotels on). In the bathrooms, shampoo and shower gel are provided. The common areas are also well thought-out — Wii games, a projector for movie screenings and a pool table mean there’s much more than the usual perfunctory rack of leaflets about local attractions.
Of the purpose-built hostels, arguably the most impressive is the Sydney Harbour YHA, which is in the usually ultra-pricey Rocks area overlooking Australia’s most photogenic harbour. The rooftop sun-deck with an open-to-all barbecue and views of the Sydney Opera House is always going to stand out as the shiny selling point, but it’s what’s underneath that’s most surprising.
The hostel was built on top of an archaeological dig site, and in order to preserve the foundations of the historic buildings beneath, Sydney Harbour YHA is effectively standing on stilts. Little displays encourage guests to discover the artefacts uncovered in the archaeological dig, then learn about the shops and convict-era houses that once stood on the historic site.
According to YHA Australia’s CEO, Julian Ledger, spending the time and money to create such an unusual property is a deliberate ploy. “In the past decade in particular, YHA has faced a lot of competition, and has always strived to have a distinct point of difference from other hostels,” he says.
In Australia, a key moment in the evolution of hostels came in 2004, when the purpose-built Base hostel opened in Melbourne. Among its key gimmicks was a female-only floor and hotel-esque en suite doubles with TVs. At the time, it was a big deal, and the Melbourne hostel quickly became a chain that has spread across Australia and New Zealand. Base doesn’t particularly have a reputation for standard-raising innovation now, but it has proved there is room in the market for hostel chains not affiliated to the long-standing stalwart, Hostelling International. And other independent chains have mushroomed elsewhere — Che Lagarto has numerous properties across South America, while the Generator,
St Christopher’s Inns, Meininger and A&O crop up regularly across Europe.
The latter two groups are trailblazers for a remarkable hybrid hostel-hotel concept, combining somewhat futuristic-looking dorms and four-star quality hotel rooms in the same building. The latter are aimed squarely at those who still enjoy the sociable side of hostels but feel they’ve outgrown the dorms — the activity-packed common areas and hip bar are still in play. But those fancying a design hotel without having the budget to pay for it still have the dorm option.
And that merging of worlds is increasingly common. Julian Ledger from YHA Australia says: “Traditionally a hotel and a hostel have been different accommodation types, but that distinction is breaking down.”
Competition has played a big part in changing expectations. Ledger says YHA has seen — and catered for — a demand for a mix of room types, including more twin and double rooms, and more in-house activities for guests. The demographics have also shifted and fragmented.
“There has been a steady rise in the range of the ‘youth’ as more people choose hostels as a lifestyle option,” says Ledger. “They continue to embrace the traveller’s lifestyle even as they find themselves getting older.
“Meanwhile, the traditional western backpacker from Northern Europe and North America has been joined by travellers from Southern and Eastern Europe, South America and Asia. As the middle class grows in Asia, we expect the proportion of guests from Asia will keep growing faster than any other group,” he says.
While the numbers of young travellers is growing, the competition for their business is increasingly fierce. Caroline White, the chief executive of YHA UK, says: “Eighty years ago, you would have had hostels or expensive hotels. In the 40s and 50s, around 70% of people knew about the YHA. Nowadays, that percentage is much lower.” In other words, the organisation can no longer ride on the back of its status as a national institution.
White says that while there’s not any direct competition, there are plenty of territory overlaps. In major cities, the likes of Airbnb, independent hostels and budget hotels such as Tune or Travelodge are competing for sections of the clientele; in rural areas, there are B&Bs. Aspects of this competition have had to be incorporated into the hostel format — whether it’s key cards and en suite bathrooms, or in-house bars that deliberately seek out local beers to serve. “We also sell over 800,000 breakfasts every year,” says White.
In a bid to stand out, British YHAs have increasingly focused on activities, particularly in rural areas where the hostels forge close links with hiking, biking and coasteering tour companies. Once again, it’s about the experience rather than the bed. The other distinctive edge comes from the properties themselves, which YHA UK has spent £17m upgrading over the last three years. Many are gloriously historic old country houses, that have had judicious upgrades and makeovers to meet increasing demands. “When we look at the things that appear consistently in good reviews, the locations and buildings come up a lot,” says White.
Customer feedback is a key factor in how and why hostels have changed so much in a relatively short period of time. The evolution has coincided with the internet era — and, in particular, the rise of the review site. Tripadvisor is the best known of these, but for hostels, the likes of Hostelworld and Hostelbookers can have a bigger impact. In the past, feedback may have gone privately to staff. Now, it goes to the world, and it’s much harder to ignore. Back at the Yes! hostel in Lisbon, manager Pedro Barbosa says the review and booking sites have ‘unbelievable power’. He believes they have hugely driven up standards.
But while efforts can be made to broaden the appeal and attract visitors who wouldn’t normally consider a hostel, realistically only so many will ever stay in one. Any new hostel opening effectively has to attempt to take guests from an existing property.
“There might be 150 to 200 people in the city on any one night who will be staying in a hostel,” says Barbosa. “If you want to fill the beds, you have to be at the top or very near the top of the list on the review site. To get there, you need to be seen as great value — which means either dropping your prices or improving the service you give. Hostels selling beds for seven or eight euros a night just end up killing themselves, so it’s best to go the other way and give guests more.”
The shift in mindset might not meet with approval from the founders of that first hostel, over 100 years ago. But hostels are no longer about giving young people what’s supposedly good for them. They’re now about shifting heaven and earth to take on board what young — and not so young — travellers want.
Published in the Jan/Feb 2015 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)