Three foreigners huddle together on the No. 16 tram heading south of the city toward the sea. Melbourne is delivering cold grey skies and drizzling rain on this day of September, and their blank faces suggest they’re not the least bit pleased. They are young, early 20s perhaps, all with dark hair, olive skin and good looks. South American, I speculate, hearing Spanish minus the lisp.
Our tram approaches Carlisle Street and the three stand up to alight. Yet none carry the 75 litre backpacks with clips and long straps I had expected, but rather compact suitcases with small wheels and pop out handles. Their clothes too look fresh and expensive, showing no sign of ‘wear and tear’ from rugged journeys. They cross the road, luggage wheeling behind them, and enter the sleek red building on the corner that is Base St Kilda.
Generation Y has arrived. And with it, the new breed of backpackers that now fill the rooms of Melbourne’s modern youth hostels. Post Y2K, and backpackers in Melbourne display all the hallmarks of what has so far been said of this generation: like Gen X, they too have been labelled as ‘lazy’, but unlike their predecessors, these new kids on the block are cashed up and ready to spend (even if that means maxing out their credit cards).
They demand lavish surroundings and high quality facilities, and in an industry that one insider tells me now “makes considerable money”, hostels across Melbourne have been quick to comply.
Youth hostels of the 1980s and even early ‘90s in the ‘culture capital’ of Australia were typically gritty and run down. Customer service was “ordinary”, to say the least, and a mouldy shower was simply part of the expected package. It seems fitting that these hostels largely accommodated the 18-30 year olds of this era who were supposedly a bunch of pessimistic slackers – the “why bother? Generation” – that did too much complaining.
Gen X had low expectations of the world, and therefore the world of them (or so the mantra goes). Perhaps this is in part why many youth hostels during this period spiralled into the dilapidated ‘shit-holes’ that much of them ultimately were.
“Gen X backpackers didn’t give a damn,” it was suggested to me recently; “so neither did the hostels (management)”.
A decade or so on though and the entire industry has clearly taken a dramatic change of direction. Expectations are now higher than ever, and the days of a ten-buck a night dorm bed in less than comfortable surroundings are long gone.
Despite the foul weather, the streets of Melbourne are filled with pedestrians. It seems a peculiar paradox.
“Look at all the people on the street,” a middle-aged American woman remarks with a bemused mid-western twang, “it’s just like Vegas”.
Later, walking into the headquarters of Base St Kilda behind the three aforementioned ‘backpackers’ (with suitcases), then meeting the man running the Base show, I find myself thinking the same thing – “it’s just like Vegas” – but for different paradoxical reasons.
David Fitzpatrick, General Manager of Base St Kilda, strides out of his office as if on a mission from God. He wears black close fitting jeans and a pink-tinged check shirt. He appears fit, healthy and focused, and with his neat haircut, is the picture of a modern man working hard at a modern business.
And he runs a sleek machine; one that seems about as well oiled as Terry Benedict’s Bellagio Hotel. But this is a long way from the Las Vegas casino strip, and David is probably not a guy “worth three-quarters of a billion (dollars)”; despite the lucrative nature of the business.
Base is however, one of the growing numbers of über-trendy, high-class youth hostels – aptly dubbed the “flash-packers phenomenon” – that are rapidly becoming the norm in this thriving new-look industry.
“If you’ve got a big hostel I think that you have to provide the creature comforts,” Fitzpatrick tells me, “because it’s a really competitive market. I think there will always be a market for a small hostel that offers great atmosphere and great staff, that might lack in ‘resources’, but the days are gone where its all like, 20 people in the one room and no carpet on the floor…”
We take a tour of his hostel so I can view some of Base’s ‘resources’ first hand. It is a world of kitsch modernity. Blood-red benches sit at unlikely angles and reflect the light from their plastic contours. Black leather lounges are strewn about in arrangements that are supposed to look ‘sporadic’. They serve aesthetic purposes indeed, but aren’t quite the kind one might typically plonk down in with a good book. And then there’s the technology.
A two point five metre wide television beams football and other ‘cable’ programming 24/7 from the corner. It obscures the view from the large windows behind it, but the guests don’t seem to mind. They find the television more interesting than the mundane pictures of inner St Kilda that the windows provide. Plasma screens overhead provide up to the minute information on the ‘happy hour’ prices of Jaeger bombs at the hostel’s bar. And computers of course, are in abundance.
The place is buzzing. Youthful staff in funky clothes multi-task at reception: they punch keys on keyboards, talk (semi) professionally on mobile phones, and render distracted assistance to the steady flow of human traffic (the guests). Melbourne electro-pop group Cut Copy is the soundtrack of choice here today. “Life and music is on my mind…” It plays loudly for a rainy afternoon. There is certainly a kind of electricity in the air at this modern incarnation of the youth hostel, but as I survey my surroundings, I wonder if this energy is more literal than I had initially expected.
Base St Kilda opened in May 2004, and David Fitzpatrick has been calling the shots ever since. With 250 beds, he tells me its considered “average to medium” in size, which is made up of both private rooms and mixed-dorms. Uniquely though, the hostel also includes an all-female level – the ‘Sanctuary’. With pink walls, full-length mirrors, ensuite bathrooms with hair-dryers and hair-straighteners – it’s ‘secret women’s business’ in these parts.
Each ‘Sanctuary’ guest also receives a ‘pamper pack’ (facial creams, hair products etc.) upon arrival, and a complimentary bottle of sparkling wine is provided each evening (David says “champagne”, but I’m confident he must be mistaken).
Base is lavish. It is also though, very much a reflection of the modern, tech-savvy 20-somethings that are travelling the world in 2010. We are (of course), in the age of the Internet, where information and entertainment are just a mouse-click away. But what sort of affect does this pervasion of technology have on the new generation of backpackers?
“From a cynical perspective, I guess you might say that people are doing less of the experience and more of the watching and reading through their laptops,” Fitzpatrick explains.
“The adventure side of backpacking has changed a lot”.
He also tells me that the industry has seen a sharp increase in travellers that are “coming for shorter amounts of time and spending more cash,” and these people, he adds with a degree of puzzlement, “are all travelling with laptops. It’s a sea of laptops.”
This is undoubtedly a world away from the humble origins of the youth hostel concept, which last year celebrated 100 years. In the hills of southern Germany, in August 1909, the first hostel of this kind was founded by a schoolteacher, Richard Schirrmann, who was keen on the idea of creating a safe, basic and communal place for young people to stay at overnight, whilst hiking about in the countryside. Such ideals were largely upheld for my most of the ensuing century.
Backpackers routinely participated in daily chores in earlier versions of the youth hostel. It was said that these not only helped ‘build character’, but also reduced expenses for both guests and hostel management alike. Interestingly, many hostels also locked their young guests out during daytime hours, to encourage them to “get amongst” the places they were visiting. Times have changed.
A few days later I take a trip over to Greenhouse Backpackers, down on Flinders Lane in the heart of the city. I’m interested to see how this current trend in backpacking is applied by this youth hostel, which has won a host of state and nation-wide awards in recent years for its ongoing success in the industry.
I find General Manager Steve Gaff sharing a joke with a few of his younger staff members behind the reception desk. He’s dressed comfortably in a pair of jeans, runners, and a knitted brown jumper. And as we make our way over to the ‘common room’ couches for a chat about modern backpacking, I’m surprised at how different Greenhouse is from Base St Kilda.
Jazz plays gently on the stereo as background ambience. Photos dress the colourful walls, along with nostalgic posters of classic Hollywood films from the ‘50s. The pace is easy; the vibe relaxed. “We (Greenhouse Backpackers) just focus on getting the real basics right: good customer service, cleanliness, and a little bit of sleek,” Gaff tells me. He also mentions the importance of “a good mattress and warm water” – basics indeed.
“I love it passionately,” says Gaff, when I ask him about his interest in the industry. He’s been involved in the running of youth hostels for the past 17 years – 11 of which he’s spent with Friendly Backpackers, the company that own Greenhouse.
“I’ve always had this thing about budget, he says, “and I just really love working with young people”.
In 1999 Steve Gaff used his knowledge of the industry to form the Backpacker Operators Alliance of Victoria. Forty-three members (hostels) were quick to sign up, and as a result, the association was able to obtain a number of important collective buying deals for its members.
It was also a key advocate of the United States-Australia visa program, which has since been successfully negotiated. And in July 2000, Gaff helped Greenhouse Backpackers open its doors for business in downtown Melbourne. He says it “quickly gained a pretty good reputation,” and this is not an exaggeration.
“‘Shit-packers’ – the market of 10 bucks a night and crap – is finished,” says Steve Gaff. He explains that one of the larger hostels in Melbourne tried this recently at a second location, as a cheap alternative.
“But it completely backfired,” he says. Greenhouse Backpackers might not be quite ‘flash-packers’ material, as say Base St Kilda is, but according to Gaff, it is nonetheless “pretty good at the basics”, and he’s happy for it to stay that way.
Results speak for themselves. Greenhouse Backpackers has averaged a “very impressive” nightly occupancy rate for the past four consecutive years; “one of the best occupancy rates in Melbourne,” Steve says proudly. Part of this, he believes, is due to the hostel’s promotional efforts, which have continued to target a number of markets most other Melbourne hostels leave vacant. “We go to everything,” he says with enthusiasm, speaking of international travel conventions.
High on the list of Gaff’s priorities too is a “family-like atmosphere”. He’s worked hard over the years to establish a warm relationship between his staff and the hostel’s guests, and this might be another contributor to Greenhouse Backpackers’ success. “We’ve found the right staff to fit in to (the) culture,” he says. “Because you can’t train it – either you’ve got it or you don’t.”
But what of the vibe between the guests themselves? This it seems, has recently become more complex. “Since the ‘laptop revolution’ they’re not talking to each other” Gaff laments. “You’ll be sitting here some nights and find that nobody’s talking”. He calls it their new drug of choice. “You should see the panic set in when the net goes down,” he says, “it’s like they’ve lost their drug”.
The phenomenon began about six to nine months ago according to Gaff, and he can confirm that each night now there are more than 100 people connected to the hostel’s free ‘Wi-Fi’ Internet service. This is in a hostel with 258 beds. “We had to get a bigger router because we just couldn’t cope”.
The so-called ‘laptop revolution’ has had such an effect on Greenhouse that it has recently invested in more storage facilities, to allow the backpackers to keep their laptops ‘safe’. That is of course, if they even venture out of the hostel. Back at Base St Kilda, David Fitzpatrick wasn’t sure if this was even still happening.
“Many of the backpackers would prefer to stay here and have a glass of wine, and just sit on their laptop all night” he told me.
Steve Gaff and David Fitzpatrick, together, seem to have one foot in the past – the idealistic Richard Schirrmann kind – but also one foot firmly in the present. They are different kinds of men, running different kinds hostels. Yet they are both doing what they can to keep up in a rapidly evolved industry, now dictated by a generation of backpackers that have grown up with the world at their fingertips.
As I wind up my conversation with Steve Gaff at Greenhouse, we walk past a silent group of travellers staring blankly into the light of their computer screens.
In the 21st century we want more, and we want it now. And youth hostels are learning to adapt.
“It’s not day by day around here,” Steve says, it’s “second by second.”