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What a Miami hostel portends for the future of American hospitality

20 November 2013

There’s a three-foot Japanese ice saw hanging behind the Broken Shaker bar at the Freehand Miami hostel in South Beach. Bartenders don’t actually use it to cut custom-size ice cubes for cocktails, it’s just there for show. They find it quicker to use a chainsaw. This is required because normal ice cubes inside spirit-heavy drinks like Old Fashioneds melt too fast, thereby diluting the drink, so it’s better to use one big cube.

freehandThat’s just one example why a seemingly simple hostel is creating so much buzz in a destination defined by its long lineup of screamingly hip hotels.

Due to the success of Freehand Miami and its Broken Shaker outlet, New York-based Sydell Group is opening Freehand Chicago in early 2015. The burgeoning “hip hostel” concept—offering cool design, great food and a high percentage of single rooms—is a growing hospitality sector worldwide. The private accommodations attract young professionals seeking an affordable room in trendy neighborhoods where existing hotel rates are unapproachable for them.

One block back from the beach, a private king room at Freehand Miami during January high season runs as low as $139 per night, significantly less than the most affordable beach hotels. Aside from the cost factor, the Broken Shaker and its outdoor seating area lined with coconut palm trees lure a steady local following. So the overall vibe is incredibly eclectic with a mix of area residents, professional types booking the private rooms, and all of the globetrotting backpackers filling the multi-bed rooms.

The multicultural, creatively charged atmosphere can’t be found anywhere else in Miami for the price. In fact, even guests who can afford the beach hotels are booking Freehand for the local experience. That is exactly what the Sydell Group, who developed the trendsetting Ace and NoMad hotels in Manhattan, among others, wants to duplicate with the 218-room Freehand Chicago.

Speaking with mixologist Virginia, she seems very enthused about the quality of ice blocks delivered to Freehand Miami on a weekly basis. She says, “The ice is frozen slowly so there’s no air bubbles or fissures, which makes it really clear. The ice cubes come out beautifully.”

Food is another brand differentiator for Freehand. Try the Berkshire sausage hotdog with nutmeg, jalapenos and house mustard.

Skift asked Roy Alpert, brand director of Freehand, the following questions to learn more about Freehand’s DNA.

Skift: What is the mission of Freehand?

Roy Alpert: For us, it’s about creating a sense of community through the convergence of locals and visitors, and offering programming and amenities you wouldn’t typically find in a hostel experience. There is a misconception that hostels are just for backpackers, but we’ve found that Freehand also attracts young professionals and travelers of all kinds, who in the past may have chosen a traditional hotel, but like what we’ve created here.

Skift: How do you define your market?

Roy Alpert: The way young people live their lives today compared with ten years ago has changed and affects how they travel. Our demographic, which is primarily guests between the age of 21 to 35, are settling down at a later age, taking longer to finish their education, establish careers, marry, and become financially independent. Having fewer commitments gives them the freedom to travel, but in many cases, they are still budget-conscious. Low-cost accommodations that provide a social experience without sacrificing thoughtful design and style are a perfect solution for this group.

Skift: Aside from price, how does Freehand cater to them?

Roy Alpert: Freehand creates a destination focused around what we find our guests value when they travel—a place where they can meet new people, tap into local culture, and enjoy good food and drink—in an environment that reflects its location. The Broken Shaker has become a very popular local hangout, so guests staying with us are immediately a part of what’s happening in the city. We also have a lot of events happening for guests, both onsite and off, like BBQs, yoga classes, art classes, movie nights and mixology events. All of our event programming is focused on delivering a truly social experience for our guests.

Skift: What is the overall vibe of Freehand, and how does that contrast with other hostels?

Roy Alpert: The overall vibe is laid back, friendly and a little quirky. People from all over the world hang out on our backyard patio area, sipping cocktails and playing games. We’ve got everything from ping pong to Jenga to bocce ball. We also have a swimming pool, which is rare for a hostel. But what really separates Freehand from other hostels is the crowd. It’s a true mix of guests and locals. This has been important to our success and creating an authentic experience for visitors.

Skift: How would you describe the value in terms of price and experience?

Roy Alpert: We offer great value for guests looking to travel with friends, alone, or with a significant other. You can share a quad room with three friends or take a bed in one of our large Super 8 rooms and meet new people. We also have private king rooms for those who aren’t into sharing. Beds are about $45 depending on the time of year, and our king rooms generally go for about $150. While this is pricier than other hostels in Miami, the facilities and amenities Freehand has go beyond traditional hostel offerings, and in some cases hotels.

Skift: How significant is the role of design and F&B in Freehand’s success?

Roy Alpert: Both have played an integral role in our success. Our designers, Roman and Williams, did a brilliant job of creating the communal spirit and laid back vibe at Freehand, taking inspiration from the idea of a tropical summer camp. F&B has played a critical role as well. The Broken Shaker is where most of the guest interaction takes place, and having a great bar on property attracts guests to stay with us.

Skift: What was the motivation behind choosing Chicago next?

Roy Alpert: Chicago is an international gateway city that we felt would work perfectly for Freehand. We found a great location in Chicago’s River North area, which has an interesting assortment of restaurants, bars, boutiques and galleries, and is also the center of Chicago’s tech scene. We thought it was a logical place to capitalize on the rising trend of domestic travelers staying in hostels. About 50% of the rooms in Chicago will be singles, which is slightly more than Miami.

Greg Oates covers hospitality trends and next generation hotels. He has participated in 1,000+ hotel site inspections in over 50 countries.

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