On any given night at The MadHouse hostel in Prague, as many as 30 guests and staff would sit together for a family meal. Songs from English and Australian musicians like Arctic Monkeys, Rufus Du Sol and Gang of Youths would stream from the speakers. Playing rounds of beer pong or Devil’s Dice — a twist on Kings, the cards-based drinking game — was the pregame tradition before outings to the city’s bars and clubs.
Now, MadHouse is quiet, more like a museum, one filled with memories of more boisterous days. And while it officially reopened in late May, the party hostel had hardly any guests: Bookings are mostly for July and onward.
“It’s not going to be a normal summer,” said the co-owner Kraig Cooper, who opened MadHouse in 2012.
Hostels around Europe have sat quiet and empty the past few months, absent the roars and chatter that make these accommodations landmarks in their own right. As the continent emerges from monthslong lockdowns, and travel restrictions are lifted, hostels are reopening their doors.
Owners and managers must now do the math on how to operate post-lockdown without subtracting sociability — arguably one of a hostel’s most important factors. Like many in the travel industry, they are encountering a new world with new challenges.
And they are doing so just as the European Union updated its travel restrictions banning American tourists, who make up 18 percent of the overall tourism market to Europe.
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Hostels draw particular crowds of people: backpackers and budget travelers for whom globe-trotting is as much about the people you’re meeting and the money you’re saving as the place you’re visiting. While the primary market has always been the young — these days, millennials and Gen Z backpackers — hostels attract all demographics. In recent years many have made concerted efforts to appeal to families as well as solo and younger travelers.
A 2017 study by the WYSE Travel Confederation estimated that nearly 100 million travelers stayed in hostels globally. Particularly for Europeans, Canadians and Australians, backpacking and hostel-going is a rite of passage.
For many, hostels present a kind of freedom, the opportunity to experience the world in an affordable way. And the price point isn’t the only draw. What makes a hostel worth the gym mats moonlighting as mattresses or the bunk mate who snores so very, very loudly is the people you encounter. Hostels are built on the idea of community and sharing, from the rooms to the road. Travelers never know from one day to the next who they’ll meet or where they might end up.
Which is why social distancing in a hostel is like wearing a snowsuit to Miami Beach: It’s the exact opposite of what you’re meant to do.
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“We want to bring people together. We want to give them a good time,” said Tina Sarajlic, 35, manager of Swanky Mint Hostel in Zagreb, Croatia, which accommodates around 90 people at full capacity. “Now you have to be so careful, like who can go where and how close.”
Disinfectant and hand sanitizer are now as common a sight around hostels as they are in doctors’ offices. Dorms that once slept as many as 12 or 15 people will now bunk half as many, with guests distributed across top and bottom bunks to ensure there’s several feet of distance between them. Whether masks are required indoors is dependent on local ordinances. In Croatia, for example, masks aren’t obligatory, but Swanky Mint does provide them. Staff wear masks, but they don’t wear gloves (unless they’re handling food).
Another obstacle: shared spaces like the common areas and the kitchen, which serve as meeting points and a means of saving money while on the road. Amsterdam’s ClinkNOORD hostel features a cafe, bar and even a dance room. At full capacity, it sleeps up to 800 guests, spread across a variety of room options. Now, in an effort to maintain social distancing across its grounds, much like many other public buildings around the globe, it has markings on the floors (even the dance floor) to measure out appropriate distances between people and directional arrows to steer foot traffic. With the help of some opera-singing guests, ClinkNOORD created a video to showcase some of these updates.
At The Yellow Hostel in Rome, no more than three people can be in the kitchen at a time, and guests have to maintain social distance elsewhere in the building. Though they’ve tried to match their signage to the hostel’s design aethestics, Fabio Coppola, a co-founder of Yellow, said the environment isn’t quite the same. “It looks like an airport,” he said.
Guests have to wear masks in common areas. At the moment, things are running relatively smoothly with all the new rules in place, Mr. Coppola said. “Considering the low occupancy we have now, it is bearable,” he added.
As hostel owners cross their fingers that backpackers will soon be coming through again, they’re also thinking about what the seasons ahead might look like and how the pandemic might alter other aspects of the hostel experience.
Veronika Karac and her husband are the owners of Caveland, a hostel in Santorini, Greece, a prime destination for American and Australian travelers. At Caveland, Ms. Karac helps organize tours, offers yoga classes and plans group dinners at local restaurants, among other things. But she wonders: Will restaurants do group dinners? If they do, they’re likely to forgo the tapas-style servings, giving customers their own plates.
“That’s not the way we eat in Greece, and our aim is to show how it looks like in Greece when Greeks go out,” she said.
They’ve thought about movie nights in the yard, but also recognize that travelers who come to Santorini don’t want to just sit and watch a movie. They should do something unique to Greece, she said.
Other hostels are faced with the same challenge. In the months they were closed, many did what other businesses around the globe did: Connect with others through social media. Linda Martinez, who, with her husband, owns The Beehive in Rome, conducted some classes on Instagram and Facebook, including storytelling events, but as they begin ramping up for business again, Ms. Martinez is wondering: When and how will they keep offering their cooking classes, like pizza making or pasta making? Classes used to draw as many as 15 guests.
“We like to socialize through food and conversation, so we used to really enjoy our dinners,” Ms. Martinez said. One recent guest did ask about classes, but The Beehive isn’t offering them at the moment. They’ll likely run at half-capacity to ensure people are properly distanced.
Yet smaller hostels like Ms. Martinez’s have a greater ability to pivot to the new normal. They don’t need to be fully staffed as they wait for tourism to tick up. The Beehive isn’t a party hostel, and very rarely does it have hordes of guests lounging on top of one another in the common room.
At a time of year when they have as many as 50 guests per day, they’re getting one booking every few days. “We can kind of fly by the seat of our pants right now. We don’t have to have a business plan,” she said.
Some hostels are thinking about how to appeal to domestic travelers. At The Beehive, Italians account for maybe 5 percent of their guests, and they always book private rooms, so Ms. Martinez and her husband are examining other markets.
“We have been looking into long-term stays,” Ms. Martinez said, adding that there’s a spot on the website for those who might be looking to stay for a few weeks or more. There have been some nibbles, but ultimately, no big bites until fall, and no one knows what the situation will be like then. Ultimately, Ms. Martinez does think hostels will spring back more quickly than hotels.
Hostels “ have people who are eager to travel again, and they’re ready to start traveling again, as soon as they are able to,” she said.
Marie Le Marié, a 33-year-old co-owner of The Lights Hostel in Málaga, Spain, agrees. “Our travelers are resilient,” she said.
Among those who are trickling back into hostel life is Tomas Polansky, a 23-year-old university student from Slovakia who has been studying in the Netherlands. This past semester was the “hardest of his life,” he said. He was cooped up in his dorm, studying day and night. After finishing his exams, he headed to Germany to visit a friend, before traveling to Amsterdam for a holiday.
He’d always stayed in hostels before. “Normally, I am fine if I go to a room where there is 12 or 14 people,” he said. But because of the virus, he wanted to go with a safer option. He looked at Airbnbs, which were too expensive for him and more difficult to find, and hostels, mostly their private room options.
For his first night in Amsterdam, he did book a dorm room — the smallest available, with just six beds. When he arrived at the hostel, it was about midnight. He was given his own room instead, because there was someone else in the dorm, and the hostel had so few guests. Mr. Polansky could see a sprawling common room, a cool bar, lots of books and games, like chess and table tennis. The only thing missing were the people.
“If it was normal time, there’d be people drinking, hanging out,” he said. “But there was no one. The lights were off.”
“You won’t meet 20 people in one night,” Mr. Polansky said, adding that it was a “pity,” but “necessary.”
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