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 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. 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 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. As the continent emerges from lockdowns, and travel restrictions are lifted, hostels are reopening their doors.
Hostels draw backpackers and budget travelers for whom globe-trotting is as much about the people you’re meeting and the money you’re saving. While the primary market has always been the young, hostels attract all demographics. Many have made concerted efforts to appeal to families as well as solo and younger travelers.
“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. “Now you have to be so careful, like who can go where and how close.”
Disinfectant and hand sanitizer are now common sights around hostels. 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 distance. Whether masks are required indoors is dependent on local ordinances. In Croatia, 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. Amsterdam’s ClinkNOORD hostel features a cafe, bar and even a dance room. At full capacity, it sleeps up to 800 guests. Now, in an effort to maintain social distancing, 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 aesthetics, 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, Coppola said. “Considering the low occupancy we have now, it is bearable,” he added.
Other hostels are faced with the same challenge. In the months they were closed, many connected with others through social media. Linda Martinez, who with her husband owns the Beehive in Rome, conducted some classes on Instagram and Facebook, but as they begin ramping up for business again, Martinez wonders: 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,” she said. Classes will likely run at half-capacity.
Yet smaller hostels like 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,” Martinez said.
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.