No Need to Be So Hostel

They say to travel well, one must fully immerse themselves in the culture. To eat how the locals eat, to go where the locals go, to stay at the Holiday Inns where the locals stay.

Well, not quite.

To truly get to know a city, to become friends with its street corners and hidden cafes, one can’t spend their visits as a tourist.   

Hostels are a travel option usually only associated with international travel. Unbeknownst to many, the city of Nashville houses two sister hotels; Music City Hostel which opened in 2005 and the Nashville Downtown Hostel whose doors opened in 2012. They’re the first and the only in the city, and they’re both because of one man.

Owner operator Ron, who has asked to be referred to by his first name only, worked tirelessly for the past 10 years to create an environment that fosters community. Walk into either location and his work is apparent. A far cry from the ever impersonal hotel lobby, the second you walk through the doors of either location, it’s as though you’ve stepped into someone’s living room.

The Nashville Downtown Hostel is planted squarely in the downtown core. It’s so close to Broadway’s notorious honky tonk strip, a tavern took out a lease and operates on the second floor of the five-story building.

The piano sitting in one corner and a cajon resting nearby suggests an impromptu jam session among guests is not uncommon.  Board games tower in tall stacks, a large bookshelf teems with titles waiting to be borrowed and each couch looks more comfortable than the next. The pool table is offset by the multitude of potted plants and the foosball table is countered by a spotless kitchen area.

This is what a house would look like if your cool uncle moved in with your next door neighbor and then adopted a suburban housewife.

A handful of guests lounge about the many sofas and tables, sipping coffee and starting their Friday mornings slowly.

“The joy of operating a hostel is the communal aspect,” says Ron. The business has grown a lot in recent days, but before, when the hostel was just a one location, mom and pop operation, Ron made the effort to get to know each guest individually.

Now with locations in both midtown and downtown, he’s no longer afforded the luxury. That’s where the closely knit staff comes in.

“We run as a team and a family,” said Ron “Our staff and managers aim toward being exceptional quality service providers. It gives us pride.”

Much like many of the guests who stay at the Nashville Downtown hostel, Ron’s first encounter with hostels was when he was traveling alone. In the early 90s, he worked as a project manager for an engineering company and traveled the world for business.

“My experience there was go to work, come back, go to my hotel room,” said Ron. After a while, the beautiful hotels started to blur, becoming unmemorable and lacking the important element of  human interaction, said Ron.

Instead of resigning to a lackluster travel experience, Ron began checking out of the five-star hotels and into local hostels, often paying the low rates out of pocket.

“I was able to find and be with my peers whose lives and actions were much more exciting that what I would find in a hotel,” said Ron.

Several years later, a long distance relationship lead him to Nashville.

“It’s like something that’s right out of country music,” laughed Ron, recalling the events that lead to his relocation from San Francisco to the Bible Belt.

It was only supposed to be a year long trip, but things didn’t go as planned. While the relationship may not have worked out, Ron developed a fondness for the city.

The logistics of opening a hostel in California didn’t add up either, said Ron. But in Nashville? A city with a rising reputation and growing tourist scene? “It made sense for me to give it a try.”

So try he did, and now the original location has kept its doors open 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For 10 years straight.

“As you can imagine, a proprietor being tied to a business nonstop, no off days, it gets to be very difficult,” said Ron.

Thankfully it’s not a thankless job, especially if your management style is as hands on as Ron’s. Many guests who stayed at the hostel in the early days still make yearly visits because of relationships made at the hostel, said Ron. And why not? Now that they have friends living downtown, who wouldn’t want to visit again?

This is what keeps him going. “The opportunity to touch people’s lives and seeing them progress gives me joy,” said Ron.

Hostels aren’t exactly a mainstream lodging option in the U.S., so convincing zoning officials and travelers of their legitimacy took work. Getting the city on board presented its difficulties, said Ron.

But things change pretty quickly in this not-so-small city, and suddenly alternative travel isn’t so far fetched. The recent wave of vacation rentals such as AirBnb has opened the door for people to think about other options, said Ron.

More than just a hotel room, the hostel provides a space for those moving to the city to transition to life in Nashville, said Ron.

“Nashville has really grown significantly and our hostel has grown right along with it,” said Ron, “We celebrate differences, we celebrate different cultures, we celebrate individual expressions.”

Though often associated with youth, Europe and pickpockets, the Nashville Downtown Hostel and Music City Hostel  take strides toward creating a safe environment for those of all ages to experience.

Each hostel attracts a different crowd. At the downtown location, the type of guest is split pretty evenly between domestic and international travelers, said Ron. It’s true that guests are mostly younger and traveling solo, but the facilities are by no means exclusive, said Ron.

“Recently we had a European lady who was well into her 70s staying at the hostel and she told us that it keeps her young,” said Ron.

Because of its proximity to universities like Vanderbilt and Belmont, the midtown location houses many international students and those enrolled in summer classes, as well as those traveling on business.

A diverse group of people stay in the hostels and they’re offered a diverse range of lodging options within the hostel.

Guests can choose from private rooms, male or female only rooms, or co-ed. Condo style spaces are available for extended stays, and large groups can sleep comfortably in the spacious rooms.

It’s not uncommon to walk into the common area of the midtown location and to see business people on work trips, students studying nearby or musicians in town to record at the studios down the street.

It is called “Music City” Hostel, after all.

“This is probably unique to Nashville, but we get many international artists. Some aspiring, some emerging, and some well known and well established,” said Ron.

Remember that piano that sits in the corner? It doesn’t get much of a chance to collect dust. Many an evening is spent gathered around it in an open mic fashion. People who were strangers in the morning are playing and singing together by night, said Ron.

It’s too easy to go somewhere different, intent on trying new things, of stepping out of one’s comfort zone, and then to only see the impersonal and often expensive tourist traps.

That is the exact opposite of what hostels are all about. Or at least these hostels. They’re specifically intended for travellers of all walks of life to get to know our city.

“This allows those with open minds, those with adventurous spirits, those with youthful spirits, those with  friendly spirits to come experience the city in a way that’s even better than if one were to stay in a hotel,” said Ron.

The only prerequisite? You have to be willing to try something new.