Among the trendy hotels and not so trendy motels that fill downtown Richmond, and host visitors in the city’s growing tourism scene, an old elevator factory on North First Street seems an unlikely spo
Among the trendy hotels and not so trendy motels that fill downtown Richmond, and host visitors in the city’s growing tourism scene, an old elevator factory on North First Street seems an unlikely spot for a visitor to stay the night.
However, Hostelling International’s newest space in Richmond does just that.
Hostelling International, the largest non-profit organization of hostels worldwide, opened Richmond’s first hostel in September and has already hosted travelers from around the world. The hostel, a type of accommodation popular among backpackers and budget travelers, opened just in time for the 2015 Union Cyclist International Bike Race, which saw a big influx of foreign travelers to the city.
The hostel was constructed with the intention of providing a place for those looking for a different way to experience Richmond while they visit. Amenities include group excursions and community outreach as well as shared living and socializing space.
Zach Sneed, the hostel’s community engagement coordinator, looks for ways to bring the guests of the hostel into the Richmond community and give a more local feel to their stay. Sneed coordinates tours, community dinners and bar crawls in order to get the hostel’s guests a truly unique and Richmond-y experience.
“I’m finding out that in a community sense this isn’t just somewhere that we’re hosting people who are traveling the country or from another country,” Sneed said. “It’s a place for people within the community as well to come and learn about their own city that they might not have known as well.”
Sneed said local volunteers and community outreach is a big part of what makes the idea of hostels unique. People visiting the area are invited to these events to develop relationships, not only with the people staying at the hostel, but also with the people living in the area.
“Our overall mission is for individuals to gain a greater understanding of the world through travel,” Sneed said. “I think it’s good for us being here in Richmond because it’s a very tight-knit community.”
The space for the hostel was purchased in 2007, in a building that used to serve as an elevator factory. Ethan Ashley, the hostel’s general manager, was hired when the hostel opened to facilitate its initial business and growth. Ashley said that the money to continue the purchase of the building and start the project came from a council of hostel-goers from the Richmond area that helped Hostelling International fundraise.
“I would say hostelling is for people who are wanting to really get the local culture of the city they are wanting to visit,” Ashley said. “By staying here and being an independent traveller they get to meet people who live here and are visiting for similar reasons.”
Ashley said the hostel’s staff finds that a lot of guests are visiting Richmond to take advantage of the city’s outdoor activities. The hostel provides a place for these visitors to congregate and learn more about these opportunities, as well as joining together with other guests looking to explore the outdoor activities Richmond has to offer.
“We’ve had a lot of domestic travellers,” Ashley said. “This hostel was built with travellers in mind who are probably doing recreational things like biking here or hiking. There’s a lot of recreation down by the river so we figured there’d be a lot of demand for that, which there is.”
Inside the building’s unimposing exterior is a space inspired by Richmond’s history and with guest interaction in mind. The common space is decorated by a framed American flag and maps of the Richmond areas, around a space of couches and tables that are situated in front of the check-in desk. Upstairs, guest rooms consist of shared dorms of six beds to a room, as well as available private rooms. Throughout the hostel space, guests are constantly given opportunities to congregate together and get to know their fellow travellers.
The trend of hostels grew in popularity originally in the big cities of Europe for backpackers traveling on a budget from one place to the next. The first recorded hostel was a place for young travelers to go in Germany, started in 1909. The founder, Richard Shirrmann wanted to create a place for the youth of the country to escape the conditions of cities during the industrial revolution, according to a brief report on the history of hostels by Hostelling International. The trend caught on in Germany, where more communal housing meant for young people to experience nature flourished during both the World Wars before spreading to the rest of Europe.
In recent years the idea has spread throughout the world and is more recently gaining attention in the American tourism industry. Hostelling International’s annual report for 2014 stated that the U.S. saw a six percent increase in hostel residents that year. Ashley said the new hostel in Richmond links the north and the south of the east coast by providing a place in the center for these travelers to stay.
“We’re also now kind of a gateway to the South for people that are traveling from the North down,” Ashley said. “They used to stop in D.C. and then sort of barrel on through to somewhere else, but people are staying here now because it’s less crazy past [Interstate] 95.”
Seven months after opening, the hostel has gotten their name out as a viable place to stay when visiting Richmond.
“We’ve had people from all over,” Ashley said. “I think our first guest was French. We’ve had a lot of people from France, Germany, the U.K, Australia, New Zealand, and different Asian countries. Basically every continent except Antarctica has stayed here so far.”