What is the key to recovery for hostels?

Hostels are the most approachable accommodation you can imagine. So why do they have such a bad reputation? It's time for that to change.

 PATRONS OF Tel Aviv’s Abraham Hostel. (photo credit: MOTTI VERSES)
PATRONS OF Tel Aviv’s Abraham Hostel.
(photo credit: MOTTI VERSES)

Which hospitality accommodation is most frequently considered dirty, noisy, hazardous, shoddy, rundown or crowded? A hostel? It presumably has the worst reputation for lodging. Add to that the 2008 horror movie Hostel, produced by Quentin Tarantino, about the tortures and killing of kidnapped tourists, and your mind becomes even more negatively driven.

This is a good time to discover one of the most revolutionary hospitality industries – the upscale hostel. Thrifty travelers can pick cool hostels complete with designed rooms, award-winning bars, pampering bath products, bedside laptop sockets and personal reading lamps. Some even offer a “social stay” program, where guests – via social media – can see who will be sleeping alongside them before booking a room, reducing the uncertainty of sharing a room with strangers.

Solo travelers, mainly Millennials, have refined tastes when it comes to where they want to lay their heads at night when on the road. They find hostels to be the perfect option. These dorm-style accommodations are apparently the best places on earth to meet people. Individual tourists will never feel alone in a hostel. Most individuals who stay in hostels are also single travelers and are eager to socialize. Hostels are the most approachable accommodation you can imagine. They organize group tours or pub crawls and endless activities with these solo foreign adventurers, who will also probably be sleeping in the bunk above one another.

Does Israel offer those revolutionary tempting lodging options?

Absolutely. The upper floor of the British Mandate-era central post office building in the heart of Jerusalem is now home to the Post – a stylish urban hostel. It is characterized by an eclectic and contemporary blend of design, and culture. Several varying accommodation options are offered: dorm rooms (up to 12 beds), to private double/family rooms (up to five guests), and include an adjustable sofa-bed and lounge chair for maximum comfort and flexibility.

The public area at the Post Hostel, Jerusalem (credit: PR)The public area at the Post Hostel, Jerusalem (credit: PR)

Steps from Tel Aviv’s beach, travelers will find the trendy vivacious Spot Hostel. Located in the port complex with a variety of options, it offers sleeping choices, from dorms to tents and private rooms to pods for one or two. They all pair with a unique design. Rooms are equipped with air conditioning and free WiFi. Every bed comes with its own lockable storage cabinet, USB and power outlets and bedside lamps. Private rooms include TV.

Abraham Hostels are famed among travelers arriving in Israel. Its facilities in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv are ranked as Tripadvisor’s market leader in the hostels category. Abraham Group CEO Gilad Shauloff welcomes guests with biblical sandals and a T-shirt with the inscription: “Abraham – the first backpacker.” He points to three drawings of Father Abraham that are hanging in the main lobby and takes me to the bustling heart of the Tel Aviv premises – the lounge, with the size of a basketball arena. 

With four hostels in Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Eilat and Nazareth, Shaulof strongly believes in the hostel product and talks about his business philosophy. 

"We want our guests to feel our country and the city they travel to in the most positive way. We want guests to experience the city and locals to enjoy our hostels and meet the guests during parties, entertainment, trips, cultural events and our environment-friendly rooftop area and bar. Our public areas have no fences or boundaries. As a business we must be responsible for the environment we live in and our community involvement is king,” he says.

SELINA IS AN emerging global brand, developed by Israeli entrepreneurs, built to address the needs of Millennial and Generation Z travelers. Aiming to be a market game changer, it offers designed accommodations with coworking, recreation, wellness and local experiences. In Israel, the brand owns nine properties in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Mitzpe Ramon, Kinneret, Beit Oren and Farod, with four more in the pipeline. 

Shahaf Ohana, Selina’s head of Israel operations, is reluctant to define its product as a hostel. With casual dress and hiking shoes, he walks with me at the newly opened Selina Beach Tel Aviv, showing me rooms that are far from the hostel’s stereotype. 

“Our brand is a home for local culture. Selina is a movement for travelers. We offer a communal experience using a digital app that guests log in and immediately contact fellow guests, informed on daily endless activities, from Pilates lessons, daily organized trips, happy hour drinks to a cool party on our open-air posh roof. We offer a variety of accommodation options, from standard personal rooms, hybrid rooms and dorm rooms with up to eight beds. Our guests are here for sociability and not for the blanket and pillow. In fact, our success is measured by 80% positive answers to the survey question: Did you make new friends? Less than that is not accepted by our standards,” he says

A 2017 study by WYSE Travel Confederation estimated that nearly 100 million travelers stayed in hostels worldwide that year. For many, bunking in hostels is a rite of passage. Hostels offer people freedom and the chance to explore the world affordably. Suddenly, the pandemic dominated our life. No other lodging sector was so severely affected. According to this month’s survey held by Hospitality Net, considered a leading trusted travel global news portal, hostels remain the least favorable accommodation type. Some 57% of respondents said they are less interested in this accommodation now than before COVID-19.

How do hostels in Israel survive this challenging period?

Selina’s Shahaf Ohana is optimistic. He believes that "revenge travel" – the phenomenon that created lockdown fatigue – is taking over. “Now people rush to travel to make up for the lost time. We never closed our lodging facilities in Israel during the pandemic. Since Passover, when the skies were opened, we see positive signs and growing occupancy. We keep daily cleaning and disinfecting our guests' rooms, together with daily changing of beddings and towels. Our guests, ages 22-40, want to spend the travel funds they saved during the pandemic and compensate for the sociability they missed so much,” he says.

Abraham Hostels’ Gilad Shaulof reveals that the pandemic forced management to change their vision and strategic planning. 

“Our hostels never closed. We discovered the Israelis. Families with children became our customers and we began to offer activities in Hebrew. This was never done before. We kept rooms and dorm doors sealed, cleaned and sanitized. Only when guests requested cleaning, service was provided in order to let guests feel safe. Today we are back to normal with an extra cleaning policy. We started to pursue joint ventures with local renowned food and bars vendors and involve them physically in our hostels, as a lesson of the pandemic,” he says.

Shaulof believes that sociability is a necessity for every human being.

"We just can’t function without it. People want to meet new friends, learn about different cultures and exchange experiences with travelers like them. Nothing will stop that and hostels will continue to remain the hub for that everlasting need”, he says. 

The pandemic is not a hurdle nowadays. A new obstacle arises for our hostels to go back to numbers of 2019 – the economy. Enjoying expensive Israel is now a challenge. Prices in restaurants and for activities are rising. We noted guests are preferring to prepare their food within the hostels, and less of what the city has to offer. Many of our 18-44 age solo travelers contacted us saying that they might experience Greece this summer, a less expensive country. This is now the hostels will be tested – how to overcome this disturbing hurdle,” he says.

The writer is the publisher of Travel Flash Tips.