There are many hostel lovers who fantasize about owning one themselves, though few will ever try. Owning a hostel involves a lot of work, and although they can be lucrative when successful, there are probably easier ways to get rich. The time and effort required to own a great hostel are, and should be, barriers that stop daydreamers from trying. However, believing that owning a hostel requires lots of money, formal training, or special skills is a mistake. During our journey across the United States, we met hostel owners from all walks of lives. We learned that there are no universal qualifications for owning a hostel. We confirmed that owning a hostel is almost always hard work, but the good news is, anyone can work hard. Here are some of the owners we met. See how different they all are, and understand that if they did it, you can too.
Jason Ordiway, co-owner of Sin City Hostel in Las Vegas, immigrated five years ago to the United States from Costa Rica. In Costa Rica, he worked as an eco-tour guide. Jason had his eye on a fancy camera lens that would take his birdwatching photography to the next level but had no way to afford it on a Costa Rican tour guide salary. Born to a “gringo” father, he had American citizenship, so, taking his friends’ advice, he came to the United States on a 3-month mission to earn enough money for his camera lens.
Through his father’s social network, he met a woman that owned a hostel in Las Vegas and was hired as a housekeeper. Run by a manager who was never sober, the crumbling hostel was popular with those looking for a place to bring prostitutes or do drugs. In Costa Rica, Jason had once helped a friend who owned a hostel, so he applied his experience to the one in Las Vegas. Motivated beyond his housekeeping role, Jason made recommendations for improvement to the owner. After he spent 3 months cleaning the hostel, she offered Jason the chance to implement his ideas by making him the manager of the hostel. With his plans to return to Costa Rica on hold, he moved into the hostel and leaned into the challenge before him.
The hours were long and the change was gradual, as he replaced unmotivated employees, repainted rooms, and replaced furniture. Besides being the manager by day, he was the entertainer by night, ensuring guests enjoyed their time in Las Vegas. The hostel’s ratings steadily improved and so did its income statement. In 2014, recognizing that the Sin City Hostel had only been reborn because of Jason, the owner gave him an equity position in the hostel. He married an American girl from Wisconsin and bought a house. Living the American Dream, these days it’s not a camera lens that Jason hopes to one day own; it’s a second hostel.
Lisa & John McCulloch
In the 1990s John McCulloch was a performing musician in Arizona. He also was an elected member of Flagstaff’s city council. When he wasn’t playing his guitar or crafting the city’s budget, he worked with wood; building bookcases, desks, and beds. Hostels came into his life in Page, Utah.
Every couple of months John would travel to Page for a performance and the venue would accommodate him in the town’s hostel. The hostel’s owner had another property in Flagstaff that he was trying to sell. John, knowing the local Flagstaff market, saw opportunity in the hostel. He had no hospitality experience, but entering his 40s, “I was getting too old to be a teen idol, and was ready for something to fall into place,” explains John.
Together with his wife Lisa, they became the owners of the Grand Canyon International Hostel. “We weren’t afraid to leap into something,” says John. “We thought, we can make this work. We just have to bring customer service into the hostel and make a great product.” As a waitress and restaurant manager, Lisa was well versed in good customer service, and so “make it work”, they did. Today, Lisa and John own not only one hostel, but two hostels, and this year they opened an international themed restaurant called Nomads Global Lounge.
Andy Ward’s love for hostels started at a younger age than most. When he was only eleven years-old he stayed at his first hostel while vacationing with his mother. However, the spark was really nurtured into a flame when he graduated high school.
Before heading off to the University of Texas, he diverted course to Europe for a summer backpacking trip. Many a backpacker has been inspired during such a gap trip to want to own a hostel, but most of them eventually go “back to reality” and become accountants. Andy was different.
He did return to America and start school, but his involvement with hostels only grew. He spent a year studying abroad in South America, and between semesters worked for accommodation at The Bella Vista Hostel, in Santiago, Chile. Next, he kicked it up a notch and tried his hand at managing a small hostel in Guatemala. By this point, Andy was fully determined to start his own hostel. With a degree in one hand and a 100-page business plan in the other, Andy returned to Austin and set out to find the perfect property.
It took 2 years of searching, but eventually, Andy found the ideal property. It had once been a dormitory, and was steps from his alma mater, the University of Texas, close to quirky bars, tattoo shops, and other amenities that college students and backpackers love. And so, Drifter Jack’s was born. As the owner of one of Austin’s top notch hostels, Andy has moved on. That’s right, now he’s in Denver, Colorado constructing his second hostel, Ember.
Hostelling makes the world accessible to many travelers who otherwise might not be able to afford to explore. Just as staying at a hostel is accessible to anyone, so is owning a hostel. Yes, there are big city hostels that hire Ivy-League managers and have Silicon Valley investors, but as these three stories prove, it is hard work and patience that are the essential keys to ownership. When more travel enthusiasts understand this reality, there will be more hostels in the world.
How did you come to own a hostel? What do you think are the keys to success?