Today, the so-called 'creative class' and the members of urban subcultures are shaping new behaviours in the areas of consumption, work, and leisure, says Borovskaya*. A key feature of this new behavioural model is an intense desire to communicate.
Companies respond to this need by providing an infrastructure for communication, such as ‘anti-cafes’ designed primarily as places for socializing, as well as coworking spaces for freelancers, and other types of spaces for creative interaction. Borovskaya notes, however, that the tourism sector, despite its close links to the 'creative industries', remains virtually unaffected by this new trend. Perhaps the one exception is the hostel – small budget-oriented hotels where guests, including strangers, share a dormitory, a living room, and a bathroom, a situation which is likely to satisfy the new need for interpersonal communication.
Borovskaya argues that affordability is not the main selling point of hostels. "Hostels are special in that they do not only provide cheap accommodation, but also support certain values and a culture of communication." In fact, by encouraging communication, hostels involve patrons themselves in providing the services they seek.
Hostels are relatively new to Russia, dating back just over 20 years, while elsewhere in the world hostels have been in existence for more than a century.
There is a vibrant hostel industry in St. Petersburg, with some 200 hostels currently open, and the industry has increased by by 50% since last year.
The HSE's Laboratory of Cultural Economics in St. Petersburg has been collecting data on local hostels to study:
Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews with hostel owners, managers, and administrators, and surveyed hostel guests, based on a sample of 86 hostels out of the 189 existing hostels in St. Petersburg (all hostels willing to participate were included).
Until recently, hostels in Russia faced problems due to the lack of a legal definition. According to Borovskaya, "In the autumn of 2013, amendments to the Civil Code were proposed officially defining hostels as a form of accommodation; without this definition, hostels had to operate semi-legally."
There is also an 'ideological' issue. Some hostel guests – mainly Russian tourists – are unpleasantly surprised to learn that they have to share a living space with strangers. Indeed, owners struggle with describing hostels for advertising purposes; should they position them as an innovative business model, a cheap dormitory, or a mini-hotel?
Borovskaya describes two hostel management models.
In the first case, the hostel owner is not involved in its operation and instead hires a manager to run the business profitably.
In the second case, owners are actively involved in running the hostel. "They interact with guests, organize events, and create the atmosphere of the place, which is the reason why hostels were created in the first place," Borovskaya says.
The researchers identified an interesting subtype within the second model – ‘creative hostels' combining the original design of the space with specific management practices. Some 25, or 10-15% of all St. Petersburg hostels belong to this type, and despite this relatively small number, they are shaping a new hospitality culture, according to Borovskaya.
Running a 'creative hostel' requires each element of the 'space-staff-guests' triangle to facilitate interaction. Room design should encourage communication among guests; thus, additional common space is provided, such as a living room or veranda, and equipped with board games, musical instruments, etc.
But providing a space is not enough, and hostel owners hire staff trained in getting people to communicate. While staff at expensive conventional hotels are required to be both helpful and unobtrusive, hostel staff need to be just the opposite – outgoing, good communicators, always willing to interact with guests, and perhaps even looking like some of the guests, e.g. members of certain subcultures. "Hostel staff initiate all sorts of activities, such as tours and parties, to engage and entertain guests," Borovskaya explains.
But even the right room design and staff efforts won't help if the hostel guests are not inclined to communicate. According to Borovskaya, guests mainly choose hostels because they seek companionship. "They are looking to interact with their own kind and to have fun while learning about the local culture and meeting tourists from other countries," she says.
But the hostel’s role will be lost if the guests refuse to interact. Therefore, hostel guests as well as staff go through a selection process, usually via the internet. The entire model only works when the right links are in place between the staff, the guests, and the space. According to Borovskaya, this type of hostel represents a special business model which is shaping a new hospitality culture.
* Professor Daniil Alexandrov, Head of the HSE's Research Laboratory of Sociology in Education and Science (St. Petersburg) contributed to the preparation of this research.