Bulgarian Experiences: Running a Backpacker Hostel
By Graham Bright
First published in Stara Planina Properties newsletter on 19th December 2008.
As most young people I did the usual thing of taking a gap year to travel the world and explore far flung places, staying in backpacker hostels, meeting people and discovering different cultures. On returning to England and embarking on a career I never really felt settled: I would always make the most of my 22 days holiday allowance per year but never felt it was enough. One day I thought back to places I had been, and one thing that struck me was the lack of memorable hostels; very few stood out as being anything above ordinary. With this in mind my future was set; I was to open a hostel that was a cut above the rest and provide backpackers with what they want; a decent place to stay at a fair price.
One summer I had used my precious 22 days on a swift jaunt through Eastern Europe, taking in the Baltic’s, Poland, Romania and Bulgaria. Of all the countries Bulgaria was the least equipped for foreign backpackers; having only one hostel in Sofia. With this, my mind was made, and choosing a location within Bulgaria was easy; Veliko Tarnovo stood out head and shoulders above any other destination owing not only to its beauty, but also its location; at a crossroads on the main Istanbul-Bucharest, and Sofia-Varna train lines it lays in a strategic position for maximum footfall.
So I returned to Veliko Tarnovo, not knowing the language, the laws or the requirements for a hostel etc. There were times when things were difficult and I thought how easy life was back in England. But I persevered, finding a suitable property, and more importantly understanding the municipality requirements for opening and running such a business. Then the lengthy process of renovating the place began. The property I had bought required a new roof which would also allow the attic to be utilized as further living space, aside from this the rest of the place only required the standard re-wiring, re-plumbing, re-plastering and decorating throughout. I chose a local contractor to undertake the work after inspecting previous examples of his work. His initial time frame for completing the entire works was 8-10 weeks, which seemed reasonable and after 3 weeks all seemed to be on track; the old roof removed and new one in place. But then things slowed down considerably and instead of 4 workers coming each day it was only 1 or 2 and then every other day. It was extremely frustrating because the quality of the work was good and also the price, but when you are trying to open a business time is money. After several talks progress did speed up, but it was still 19 weeks in total for the works to be completed which resulted in me missing the majority of the peak summer season.
The overall finish was how I had envisaged it, original wood doors and floors remained giving character, bespoke bunks with built in lockers and individual reading lamps offer the budget traveller comfort, but the real wow factor was in the attic space which had been transformed into the communal lounge and kitchen and works so well providing the decent social space that so many hostels lack.
Following all the municipality checks I obtained a license and was up and running, the instant turnover was phenomenal which was largely down to good relations with the local Tourist Information Centre, this was key to getting the place known. I also sent fliers to hostels in other cities, developed a website as well as a listing on all major hostel booking sites. All this paid dividends as numbers were continually increasing and a researcher for the Lonely Planet Travel Guide stopped by. The following year the hostel was the first listed in the new guide book; which backpackers rarely leave home without! This saw occupancy figures rise further and really had the place on the map.
The day to day running of the hostel has been improved over time which comes with experience; to begin with it was largely trial and error to see what worked and what didn’t. With all the hiccups ironed out the operation runs smoothly, although it can be a bit of a mad house over the peak season, especially on rainy days when the majority of the guests don’t venture out. The large lounge with a generous selection of board games, books, magazines and Wi-Fi internet access usually provides enough entertainment though.
Feedback from travellers has been great; many say it’s the best hostel of their trip, I feel proud of my achievement and that I have fulfilled my original goals.