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Plans for Grand Rapids hostel still in the works, but ideas are evolving

Founders of the anticipated Stay Hostel are learning and rolling with the punches as they struggle to get vision off the ground.
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The logo for the anticipated Stay Hostel, which would be the first hostel in Grand Rapids

The logo for the anticipated Stay Hostel, which would be the first hostel in Grand Rapids

In March 2012, I came to the same conclusion that I'd realized when I was a teenager: I wanted to be my own boss. That's when like-minded friend Tom Damitio and I decided that we would open a hostel here in Grand Rapids. Ever since, we have billed ourselves as the co-founders of Stay Hostel: on our resumes, our Facebook profiles, our LinkedIn pages, our Twitter feeds, our business cards, and our email signatures.

It's been a little more than a year since we set out on this venture. Looking back, it seems like much longer. I'll be the first to admit that we were pretty optimistic - naïve, in fact - when we began. We thought we'd be open by fall 2012, in time for the hostel to be jam-packed with people of all ages visiting for ArtPrize. For the record, Stay Hostel will not strictly be a "youth" hostel, but it is very likely that our core group of patrons will fall under this label. According to the World Trade Organization, the youth travel market (comprised of females and males between the ages of 20 and 24) spends the largest proportion of its total income on travel. We believe that our target market should and will reflect this.

Well, we've learned a thing or two in the past year.

As soon as we started working on this project, we ran into several hurdles. Issue #1: Neither of us have a background in business or hospitality. Both GVSU graduates, Tom received his degree in Political Science with a minor in Chinese and I acquired mine in Anthropology. Issue #2: We have no capital.

Optimistic as we were, we knew there was a lot of hard work ahead of us. It's spring 2013 as of this writing and we have little to show for all of our work. That's what a lack of money can do to a project. We've met with countless people, attended tons of local events for networking, and stayed at hostels throughout the Midwest. (Most recent visits include Chicago Getaway Hostel and the Wayfaring Buckeye in Columbus.) We've been in touch via Skype with individuals in similar situations (looking at you, Pittsburgh Hostel Project). The research and planning is well underway but there is still so much to do to achieve our goals.

Initially, we planned to operate as a nonprofit, educating the community about the value of travel and the cultures of the world by attracting people from all over. In addition to this sentiment, there are the economic benefits of having a hostel, which can be measured in something we all understand: dollar signs. For instance, a new hostel in Boston is expecting to infuse $16 million into the local economy. Obviously, we're not Boston and we understand this. Still, such information has given us hope that this is a worthwhile endeavor for reasons outside of education, culture, and community - topics that are all valuable in their own right.

There would be a lot of benefits to going the nonprofit route: Tax-exempt donations can be a major contributor to a project with low-or-no funding. The nonprofit Hostel Detroit opened with the assistance of such donations, something that we wanted to emulate. Recently, Hostel Detroit was seeking more donations to help them purchase a building, a move that we have considered. And yes, this does mean that we have looked at potential locations. We have our sights set on the area around the intersection of Wealthy Street and US-131. This is for several reasons, including the nearby locations of transit centers (Amtrak and Central Station), Founders, and the new Downtown Market. It's also a short walk from downtown. We toured the Horseshoe Bar building. It is gorgeous, it is lovely, it is ideal, but it is also expensive (about $600,000).

A month or so ago, we received correspondence from the IRS telling us that we would not hear about our tax-exempt status until March of next year; this cast a shadow over our desire to go nonprofit, leaving us disheartened and honestly confused for a couple weeks. Rather than let our wheels spin for another 365 days, we decided that we would reexamine our situation and retool so that we could begin operating sooner. This means withdrawing our 501c3 application and refiling so that we can become a for-profit corporation. This also means that we will be seeking investors in the near future.

Needless to say, every bit of this journey (which is far from over) has been a serious learning experience. Regardless of how we approach Stay Hostel, our values will remain the same. We want residents of Grand Rapids and West Michigan to know the wonder and wisdom that comes with traveling the globe while simultaneously opening up our fine city to citizens of the world in a new way. We think this is it.

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