The Broken Shaker Bar in the Freehand New York. Picture: Freehand Hotels
The Broken Shaker Bar in the Freehand New York. Picture: Freehand Hotels

How hostels are shedding their grungy image

By Melanie D.G. Kaplan Time of article published Nov 22, 2019

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Washington - Budget sleeping has never been so cool.

So cool, in fact, that some hostels are now self-identifying as hotels.

When I wrote about them five years ago, the gist was that hostels - where guests typically pay for a bed vs. a room and share bathrooms, kitchens and other common areas - were trying to ditch their reputation. 

Historically, the hostel is known as a bare-bones and predictably grungy spot for funky (and I don't mean hip) backpackers to sack out in Europe. But it's been undergoing an extreme makeover. 

Hostels are growing in popularity in the United States, with properties that are squeaky-clean and rich in amenities, so artfully designed you could imagine them in a Dwell spread.

A desk in a shared room at Kex Portland. Picture: Kex Hotels

Those trends have only grown in the past five years, and I'm not surprised now to hear of hostels with swimming pools, handcrafted cocktails, art shows, live music, rooftop bars, curated tours, yoga classes and luxury suites. 

Kex, an Icelandic brand that opened a 29-room property in Portland, Oregon, earlier this month, has a 12-person sauna and a complimentary European-style breakfast with housemade preserves and freshly baked bread. Like other properties in this new batch of hostels, Kex wants to attract travelers of all stripes, not just the backpacker, so it's dealing with the image problem by avoiding "hostel" altogether, calling itself a "social hotel."

Generator, the affordable luxury European brand with 14 locations, including in Amsterdam, Berlin and Paris, once had "hostel" in its name, but dropped it when the company launched its first US property last year in Miami's South Beach.

"The name 'hostel' limited us too much," said Alastair Thomann, Generator's CEO. "I'm not sure if we'd kept it in whether Generator would have been as successful." (He noted that the 2005 horror flick "Hostel" has done real damage to the perception of the hostel.) 

Generator has been so successful that in October, its parent company spent $400-million to acquire Freehand Hotels, a small US hostel chain with a slightly more grown-up, intimate vibe than Generator. 

The Pillow Room, a common area at Generator's Miami location. Picture: Generator

Both brands are known for their stunning, design-focused properties in hip urban neighborhoods; they're boutique hotel-hostel hybrids with trendy restaurants and bars where guests can stay in bunk rooms or luxury private suites.

Regardless of the sleeping arrangements, Thomann said, all guests share the same experience. "You feel the hostel vibe when you walk in. Like-minded people meeting and exchanging stories."

The best hostels help travellers feel like locals, offering pub crawls, neighborhood walks and ways to experience the culture, always through connection with others, always on a budget. This ethos has even led industry giants to respond by rolling out properties with shared or linked smaller rooms and larger common areas (though neither is priced like or called a hostel). 

A shared room at Freehand L.A. Picture: Freehand Hotels

Marriott's Element launched its new communal living room concept (four private guest rooms and shared space where guests can cook, collaborate and relax) at hotels in Scottsdale, Arizona, and Boulder, Colorado, earlier this year. Motto by Hilton will open its first location in the District in 2020, featuring efficient guest rooms and the Motto Commons, a community hub that can accommodate food stalls, bars and local vendors.

San Francisco's Music City Hotel offers amenities such as daily housekeeping and fresh towels, complimentary toiletries, and larger bunks. General manager Brian Davy said if Music City were called a hostel, business and older travelers might never discover the property; as a hotel, it welcomes many of both. 

Of course, if you're nostalgic for the pre-luxury scene, you can still find the hostel magic without artisan fare and glam dining rooms. When I stayed at the bustling HI New York City Hostel this fall, I rode the elevator with a chatty man who had just flown in from Egypt, and stretched in the austere fitness room with a senior from Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Washington Post

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