Before I left, I thought that between all of the hostels & dorm rooms, tours & activities, I may start feeling a bit crowded and crave some 'me time'. I was surprised to find the opposite true. Winter in New Zealand is most definitely the low season, and overall the hostels have been really quiet. I've had a great time over the past two months, and had spurts of meeting some wonderful people, but found myself struggling to find partners in crime more often than I expected. Traveling was starting to feel a bit lonely, and less enjoyable. Pretty sure my low point was playing peek-a-boo with a llama behind a tree. The llama walked away bored before I did. Yikes.
Luckily, a new friend I had met in the previous town showed up a couple hours later and saved my sanity. Really lucky, actually, because it turned out I was the only guest staying at the hostel that weekend. Apparently hiking the famed Abel Tasman in winter is not overly popular. The hostel was part of a farm, right next to the park. The stars are beautiful at night, because of a lack of light pollution. Which is tranquil, until you start thinking about how you are in the middle of nowhere, alone. Confession: I still get scared being home alone sometimes, let alone some camping area that I hitch hiked to. Yea, I was thanking my lucky bright stars that I convinced a fellow traveler to join me.
I've spent most of my time in medium or small hostels (50 beds or less), and generally prefer them for the more personal experience they can provide. However, I feel like low season can hurt small hostels more than the larger ones in terms of atmosphere. For example, a couple weeks ago I wanted to attend a Maori Cultural Experience. The hostel I was at was very quiet, and I went alone. I wasn't too bothered, until the bus stopped at a much larger hostel (over 100 beds) and at least 15 people climbed in. They were talking and laughing, already having a great time. The same thing happened as we stopped at another very large hostel.
Though I really liked my hostel, which I'll discuss in a separate post, I was beginning to see an advantage of a large one. Even if it was only half full, as many small ones have been, there are still loads of people to meet. While my hopes peaked a bit when they all joined the bus (I was literally the only passenger until then), we arrived to previously assigned tables. Being from the same hostels, they were all seated together; I was across the room in between two families. Neither spoke English. Sigh. All the more time for eating delicious food, I suppose!
I think creating or at least facilitating good atmosphere takes more work in low season, especially for smaller hostels. I noticed this a few times during low season in San Francisco. The hostel I managed only had 34 beds to begin with; during those few times when we would only have 12 or 16 guests, it could feel dead. Not good when our biggest selling point and reputation was on the amazing atmosphere. Luckily, low season also generally provides more time. Usually this is used for maintenance, repairs, deep cleaning, etc. but it can also be used for creating more community events that gather guests together. 15 guests scattered around the hostel or city can feel like a ghost town. Bring those same 15 people together for a community potluck dinner or event in town, and you've got yourself a party! These events can also facilitate new friendships and more bed nights, which I discuss further down.
I really enjoyed the Maori evening, even though I was flyin' solo. But as I headed to my final destinations for my last week in New Zealand (I'm actually writing this on the flight to Sydney), I was still feeling a bit dejected. I was texting with my mom on the bus ride to Paihia that I hoped I'd meet some cool people again, and then the universe stepped in. I paused in my thoughts to ask the guy in front of me which stop we were at, lest I miss mine and really end up in the middle of nowhere, alone. Turns out he was a backpacker, also going to Paihia. Not only that, but we somehow skipped past the usual 'where are you from, how long are you traveling' small talk in about 15 seconds and into a conversation about life on the road being a bit quiet and lonely at times.
We both felt it was the most refreshing 'hey, you too?!' conversation we'd had in awhile. Soon a 3rd backpacker across the aisle joined in, and the three of us were quickly chatting and laughing. Neither of them had booked a hostel yet, so I quickly encouraged them to head where I would be staying the following night, Mousetrap Backpackers (which I will talk about in part 2 of this blog). I was first doing The Rock overnight cruise, but I figured even if no one else was at the hostel when I came back to land, I'd still have 2 new friends around. Now I just crossed my fingers that the cruise would have some great people, too.
Turns out I didn't need to worry about sailing solo. There was a solid group of 17 people to meet and mingle with, and I had a great time on this floating hostel of sorts. The boat can sleep up to 50, so this was still a low season crowd, but being confined on one boat keeps everyone interacting. Even still, the staff had such great enthusiasm, I'm sure it would have felt fun even with only a handful of people. I found the strength in The Rock cruise to be the inclusiveness felt the whole time on the boat, as a result of both the staff and the program. The crew quickly got to know all of the guests' names, something I've noticed at a few hostels that makes a big difference. It's like speaking a foreign language while abroad- even an attempt is appreciated by the person you're speaking to.
Though different from a traditional hostel in that there was a fairly set program of activities, participation was always optional. There was enough flexibility that it felt more like being at a hostel with community events to join in rather than a school trip. The crew always encouraged participation, but in a relaxed manner. (But really, who wouldn't want to go kayaking at night and see the infamous phosphoresence? It really is as cool as you think it will be!) The cruise only lasted 22 hours, but such a great atmosphere was created in that short time that everyone wished they could stay longer. I think this is a wonderful goal for a hostel to achieve. The Rock is only set up for 1 night stays, but if your hostel can cultivate an atmosphere so vibrant that a guest doesn't want to check out, you could actually increase your bed nights.
The group goodbye pic. What a fun time!
I left The Rock feeling better about life on the road, but was in for more than I hoped for. Turns out my final week in New Zealand was also the best of the 2 months I spent there. But you'll have to read part 2 of this blog to find out why!
Do you feel a drop in atmosphere in your hostel during low season? Have any tips for making a guest's experience wonderful all year round? Sign in and comment below.
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