Among all the businesses that have had to adapt to a new way of life due to COVID-19, hostels have faced a particularly formidable challenge. In the age of social distancing and self-isolation, staying in a house with a bunch of strangers doesn’t quite seem like a logical choice.
But despite the bleak outlook for their industry, many Portuguese hostels are hoping to stay afloat by offering long-term accommodation deals during winter.
Some places are taking it one step further by rebranding as coliving spaces: a combination of accommodation and coworking that allows like-minded people to live and work in a shared space over an extended period of time.
Maura Rolo is the co-owner of 33 Hostel in Ferrel, near the surf mecca of Peniche, Portugal. She and her husband, Paulo Duarte, envision the small hostel as a place where backpackers, surfers, and solo travelers can find a sense of family and a home away from home.
In 2020, that vision was threatened: “With the pandemic, we were concerned with social distancing restrictions… Most of our guests are looking for exactly the opposite in a hostel; they look forward to meeting people that can become travel buddies and lifelong friends,” Rolo tells Atlas.
When international travel restrictions were lifted last summer, 33 Hostel was able to reopen for guests with new health and safety measures in place. But as the low season approached, Maura and Paolo devised a plan to make it through the colder months. Their new coliving packages offer a 35% discount on the hostel’s standard rates for stays of at least 30 days.
“On the west coast of Portugal, hostel occupancy is very low in winter. Considering the increasing demand of digital nomads, remote workers, and remote students, we saw the opportunity to offer an attractive package for medium- or long-term coliving at 33 Hostel,” says Rolo.
Another hostel that has adjusted its business concept this winter is Lost Caparica Surf House in Costa da Caparica. Owner Luis Paulo Ferreira tells Atlas that after a summer when business seemed “almost normal,” they started receiving requests for longer stays.
“I thought about making a coliving house for the winter, but in the end the requests came in naturally. Most of them were from people who already knew us, and just wanted to escape,” says Ferreira.
Lost Caparica Surf House is currently offering a 15% discount on stays longer than two weeks, and a 40% discount on stays of one month or more. All of the hostel’s long-term guests are from other European countries, such as Sweden, Germany, Austria, and the Netherlands.
Ferreira says that he will likely offer similar deals in the future, reserving at least a few rooms for coliving in the low season (October through March, and in particular January and February). But he plans to revert to his regular business model as soon as tourism returns — and he’s optimistic that 2021 will be a better year for the industry.
Ferreira also predicts that the coliving market will grow due to the rise in remote working, thanks in part to the pandemic. He foresees larger chains of hostels capitalizing on the digital nomad trend to offer deals that let travelers move between countries (such as Selina’s Nomad Passport, which includes a month of flexible travel at any of Selina’s hostels around the world).
Not everyone is convinced that coliving is the way of the future, however. Jackson Irwin is the community manager for CoCasa, a new project that’s transforming what used to be one of Lisbon’s most successful hostels (Oasis Backpackers Mansion) into a collaborative project.
Before COVID, Irwin had been talking to the hostel’s owners about launching a new concept that focused less on transient travelers and more on a flexible community space. The pandemic provided the pause they needed to fully commit to the transformation.
CoCasa’s ultimate goal is to combine coworking, events, workshops, and more to create a community based around innovation and connection. They plan to offer everything from skill-sharing sessions and studio spaces to language lessons and cooking classes.
Originally, coliving wasn’t going to be part of the equation. But when the latest lockdown measures were announced, Irwin and his partners decided to rent out five rooms in the building until the lockdown ends (they’re expecting six to eight weeks, starting in February).
The result will be a temporary coliving space and “COVID bubble.” Some residents are also offering their services to support the project in exchange for reduced rent. But after lockdown, the concept will shift yet again.
“The coliving and coworking model is already becoming outdated, before it’s even really begun. People want to actually move to new cities now for longer periods, and collaborative communities are starting to emerge. We want to be part of the next wave — not just the reaction to COVID, but the post-COVID wave,” Irwin tells Atlas.
According to Irwin, the hostel industry was headed for trouble even before the pandemic began (although some research suggests otherwise). But there’s no question that COVID-19 has worsened the situation, and forced all kinds of tourist accommodation — from Airbnbs to luxury resorts — to rethink their strategies.
Hostels aren’t the only establishments that are repurposing their spaces. In November 2020, the Portuguese government announced that hotels would be allowed to temporarily function as offices and coworking spaces without losing their tourism licenses, as reported by Público.
Hotels can also offer long-term accommodation and host meetings, exhibitions, cultural events, educational activities, and more, allowing them to diversify their income as the tourism industry continues to suffer.
In October 2020, Idealista reported that there were 166 hotels for sale in the country, reflecting the pandemic’s outsized impact on the industry. And in November, Portugal’s tourist accommodation industry saw huge losses, with more than 75% fewer guests than in the previous year.