I’ve been in my room at the Hollander in Chicago about three minutes when I realize I’m not alone. An exaggerated sniffling noise comes from the top bunk, just over my left shoulder, startling me.
The fact that there’s someone in my room isn’t as alarming as it might seem. It’s a newly opened hotel-hostel hybrid, and I’ve booked a night in a women’s room with six bunks. I thought I was poking around unobserved — turning on the individual lamps by each of the bunks and preparing to snap a photo of the lofty shared space — when she announces her presence.
“Oh, I’m sorry!” I say. “I didn’t know anyone was in here!”
She doesn’t respond. She doesn’t even look at me.
Slightly rattled, I head to the lobby to get a cup of coffee and consider the irony of her silence. The shared rooms at this swanky new lodging are promoted on the website as a “social stay.” That applies to social-media interactions; guests are given an opportunity to share their Instagram handle when booking the room to see with whom they’re staying, although there were none posted the night I’m there. It also implies “social” in the more traditional sense — interacting in the room you’re sharing with others and in the common areas, such as the lobby, combo bar and cafe, and laundry.
Whether the social experiment works or not, there’s something else at play at the Hollander that I find far more intriguing. Its interiors, designed by a French firm, feel more boutique hotel than hostel, with wraparound booths, low-lying woven chairs, paint peeling just enough on the walls to look intentionally industrial chic. The bar serves coffee, craft beers and bottled cocktails; a bike shop is in the works, and a rooftop pool and bar with restaurant will open in the spring. In addition to the eight social-stay rooms with en-suite bathrooms, where beds start at $25 a night, there are 12 private rooms that sleep three to four and start at $105 a night. Social or not so social, one thing is clear: This isn’t your hippie backpacking hostel.
“Poshtel” is the cutesy name occasionally given to places like the Hollander, and according to Feargal Mooney, chief executive of Hostelworld Group, an online platform for booking rooms in 33,000 hostels around the world, the upscale appeal is becoming widespread throughout the hostel industry.
“The majority of hostels now are high-quality products,” Mooney says. “They’re offering a combination of private rooms and shared rooms, they’re offering restaurants and bars, they’re offering free WiFi, they’re offering 24/7 reception desk and security. So that is the norm in the industry now.”
While renting a bed in a shared room with strangers may not appeal to everyone, a hostel’s private room option presents an enticing and affordable hotel alternative. According to “Global Hostel Marketplace 2014-2018,” a report commissioned by Hostelworld and conducted by Phocuswright, a travel industry research firm, 9 out of 10 hostels have private rooms. I’d happily book a private room with my husband in a hostel for a more local, down-to-earth overnight. For those traveling with a group, filling one of the shared rooms with three or five friends would be a blast — an inexpensive one, at that. The Hollander, in particular, has an awesome location in Chicago, surrounded by the restaurants, bars and music venues of Bucktown and Wicker Park, about three miles from downtown, where most hotels are.
Take a quick glimpse around the globe, and it’s easy to find Instagram-ready hostel-hotels with spas, pools, bars, restaurants, art galleries and microbreweries. Urban House , in Copenhagen, boasts a tattoo studio and bike shop, and hosts live music nights and movie nights throughout the week. At the Yellow Hostel in Rome, there’s an underground club, an on-site bar and Italian restaurant, bicycle rentals, a stage for live performances and a rooftop terrace; a salon and co-working space are planned. The wellnessHostel in the Swiss Alps resort village of Saas-Fee flexes its well-being muscle with a spa, indoor pool, fitness center and a restaurant serving regional fare.
The United States has long lagged behind much of the world when it comes to hostels, Mooney says. The United States and Canada are home to just 3 percent of hostel properties, accounting for 10 percent of global hostel revenue, according to the report. Compare that to hotels, where the United States draws 28 percent of global revenue. There’s significant room for U.S. growth in the $5.2 billion hostel industry.
To capture a piece of that pie, the Hollander and other properties are dangling tried-and-true hipster magnets, like, well, avocado toast. About four miles northeast of the Hollander, in the tony River North neighborhood, is the Freehand hotel. Here, amid the private and shared rooms, the on-site restaurant, Café Integral, serves $9 avocado toast. The bar, Broken Shaker, whips up a Cracker Jack Old Fashioned — “popcorn washed mellow corn and Old Forester whiskies stirred with salted molasses and ballpark peanut bitters”— all in a sophisticated setting designed by the New York firm Roman and Williams. Freehand also has a location in Miami and will open one in Los Angeles in February and in New York in fall 2017. The Wayfarer Hotel in Santa Barbara, Calif., which opened its downtown doors in 2014 with 27 private rooms and four shared rooms, hosts regular social events including pool parties, pub crawls, cooking demonstrations and live music nights. It also has a heated outdoor pool, free breakfast and WiFi, and bike rentals. And Generator, a beloved European outfit that bills itself as “design-led hostels,” is opening its first U.S. location, in Miami, in fall 2017.
Mehmet Erdem, an associate professor of hotel operations and technology at the William F. Harrah College of Hotel Administration at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, says that the appeal of modern hostels touches on a couple of buzzwords that resonate with younger generations: “sharing economy” (you’re sharing a room, after all) and the “experience economy.” Why sleep in a boring, beige cookie-cutter hotel room when you can book a bed or a room in a funky, renovated warehouse?
“The focus is more on creating memories. . . . There’s an underlying element of luxury, but it’s not so much on the forefront. And the emphasis is on the experience,” Erdem says. “They want to experience something unique so they can get back on Facebook and share it with their friends.”
Mooney of Hostelworld is quick to point out that it’s not just the bells and whistles that are helping hostels fill rooms. It’s also that social aspect that the Hollander is going after — something that’s especially appealing to young travelers (70 percent of hostel guests are millennials, according to the report) and solo travelers, which make up 72 percent of hostel guests in the United States.
“What they’ve got that’s different from a boutique hotel is a very vibrant social experience, and they’ll all have a common area where customers would go to interact and engage with other international travelers. That’s really what makes hostels different than a hotel or any other form of budget accommodation,” Mooney says.
And that’s something that will need to take place organically in due time, judging from my experience at the Hollander. I think back to my phone interview a week earlier with Carlos Couturier. Couturier is co-founder of Grupo Habita, the Mexico-based hotel developer that operates the Hollander. He was lamenting the fact that those of the younger generation seem to have forgotten how to talk to one another. They walk around with headphones on, he said, and stare at their phones.
“We’ve lost our patience to interact and connect, and we have to do something about that,” he says. “So this is how we’re trying to do it through hospitality.”
While I don’t have any other interactions with guests (at 5 o’clock on a Friday evening, two men and one woman sit strategically far from one another in the lobby, staring at their laptops), I chat with the warm staff at the front desk and the bar, and get an excellent recommendation for dinner that night.
Later, when I return to my room at about 10 p.m., the lights are off and the sniffler in the top bunk is asleep. I climb to my own top bunk as quietly as I can and try to doze. Around midnight, another woman enters the room and crawls into a bottom bunk. In the dark, I can hear occasional snores, coos and stretching sounds coming from the other bunks — intimate sounds, now laid bare for strangers.
The latecomer’s alarm goes off at 6 a.m. She pushes snooze, and it goes off again at 6:10. She shows no sign of getting up, and I harbor no hope of falling back asleep, so I use the flashlight app on my phone to gather my items and tiptoe out.
The social part of me — were it to be called upon, after all — doesn’t really do mornings.
Silver is a writer based in Chicago.
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