By Steve Mackenzie, Euro Hostels
Hostels… What are they really? How did an ‘s’ get added to hotel and what’s the difference anyway? Hoteliers are starting to take notice of this growing market, and with good reason. Let’s have a look at the origins of hostels as well as the modern hostel and the industry today.
A hostel used to represent a lodging establishment full of large rooms set up for multiple occupancy (dormitories). The old days of university hostels, nurses hostels, homeless hostels and even hostels for freshly released prisoners have left a lingering stigma attached to the word. But who was it that decided to set up ‘youth hostels’ and call them exactly that?
In 1912 in Altena, Germany, Richard Schirrmann created the first permanent youth hostel. It was inside Altena Castle (famous now for an annual hard rock festival) which had been recently reconstructed.
This first hostel was an exponent of the ideology of the German Youth Movement to let poor, young city people get a breath of fresh air in the countryside. The youths were supposed to manage the hostel themselves (as much as possible) such as doing the chores involved for the day-to-day operation of the establishment.
Although somewhat more relaxed nowadays, these ‘old-style’ hostels still exist today and mostly belong to Hostelling International (YHA), a non-profit organisation composed of more than 90 national and international associations representing over 4000 hostels in over 80 countries throughout the world. Rules like curfews, cleaning your own room and ‘lock-outs’ (enforced times that you must be out of the building ‘exercising and seeing the sights’) are still fairly common.
In the 60’s and 70’s, young and not-so-young travellers were returning home after their big OE (overseas experience) and realising that there was a much better way to do things. Largely beginning in Australia and New Zealand, independently run hostels started popping up all over the place. The owners took into account the things that they didn’t like about their own hostelling experience and set about making changes for the better. Relaxed rules, 24-hour receptions, no chores and a choice of room types became commonplace as well as adding bars (licensed or otherwise!) and cafes. But most of these places were not run by professionals and left a lot to be desired in the cleanliness stakes as well as meeting basic health and safety regulations. It was common to use the catch phrase “Run by travellers for travellers”, and it showed. The term ‘Backpackers’, used as an alternative to hostel, was the preferred name to signify that it was not a part of HI, that everyone was welcome, not just youths, and that it was fun.
Independent hostels today have undergone massive changes since these early times and are still improving. Some are huge, multi-storey places offering all the facilities of a hotel and more.
There are two big differences between a hostel and a hotel though. Price and attitude. Hostels are much cheaper and will remain that way to attract their established budget traveller market. There is also an aura of fun and friendliness as well as a genuine desire for staff and guests to meet new people from all over the world. All hostels encourage guests to interact in common areas, share travel stories, give advice and most importantly, have fun… even the new, large, professionally run hostels.
Hostelling is the fastest growing sector of the worldwide accommodation industry with modern hostels being run by true professionals as well as large companies.
Take the Euro Hostel in Glasgow, Scotland for example. It has over 360 beds in all-ensuite rooms, a WiFi enabled modern bar, two large screen TV lounges, two games areas, huge dining room, commercial quality guest kitchen, guest laundry and internet facilities as well as TV’s in all 70 of it’s twin and double rooms. It has rooms of all sizes including dormitories and family rooms as well as disabled rooms. As with the new breed of professional hostels, there’s no need to share a room if you don’t want to, but the option is there. It is 10 storeys high, is spotlessly clean and run by hotel professionals. Even with all this, their staff training involves pure professionalism in the background but a genuinely fun, friendly and casual attitude with all guests. There is no hotel stuffiness here and the staff are actually encouraged to socialise with the guests. This is the attitude difference that is so noticeable in all hostels.
Traditional hotel users are jumping ship in their droves and experiencing the new style of accommodation that modern hostels are offering. Hotel companies are realising this and following suit. For example, Accor Hotels, the global hotel company with brands such as Mercure, Novotel and Sofitel among many others, have dived in headlong with their Base Backpackers brand and are already well established in New Zealand and Australia. They are acquiring properties at a rapid rate and are rumoured to be entering the Asian market very shortly. Don’t be surprised if you see them all over the world within a decade or so. With a company the size of Accor getting into this market, you can bet that other major hotel chains are about to follow suit.
So next time your on-line booking your holiday accommodation, don’t just limit yourself to the traditional hotel web sites. Try doing a search for hostels in your chosen destination (try www.hostelworld.com or www.hostelbookers.com) and take the plunge. Not only will you save a bundle, you’ll have a whole lot more fun too. And let’s face it, isn’t that what holidays are all about?