Goncalo Castanho, Gallery Hostel, Porto Portugal
With a theme of connectedness that runs through the entire business, Gallery Hostel completely integrates itself and its guests into local society. STAY WYSE spoke to Gonçalo Castanho, the Founder of the Gallery Hostel about his move from high end hotels to this award winning boutique hostel in Porto, Portugal.
I started working in the resorts on the Algarve when I was seventeen, and my experience took me to five star hotels across the globe. But when the time came to open my own business, a hostel was what ultimately appealed to my soul.I loved the level of customer service that a five star establishment provided, but I envisaged running something that was more informal, that took a more relaxed and yet more intimate approach.
I wanted an environment without any obvious distinction between staff and guests, but rather one where guests and staff could interact almost as friends. I also wanted to create a business that would give me the opportunity to offer my guests the chance to really immerse themselves in Porto itself, to provide a genuine and authentic connection with the local history, art, and culture.
SW: Gallery Hostel is a hostel fused with an art gallery. How did this concept come about?
The gallery hostel concept served three purposes; unique and local decoration for the hostel itself, connection between the hostel and the local community, and an opportunity to connect guests with the art culture of Porto and Portugal.
The hostel building is located in a street which hosts the majority of the art galleries in Porto, and it hosts special events throughout the year to celebrate the art culture and showcase new artists. By incorporating a gallery into the hostel, we were able to really become a part of the street and connect with our neighbouring businesses.
It also enabled us to offer a unique experience for guests, especially for art lovers who can experience local art from their accommodation itself rather than just while visiting the galleries in the street.
We now have six exhibitions in our gallery each year displaying art works predominantly by local Porto artists, including photography, illustrations, street art and abstract paintings.
SW: The hostel building itself is a restored ‘Porto House’. How important was the building in achieving the gallery concept?
The building itself dates back to the mid-19th century, and the layout was quite unique, with a long floor plan split over two floors, one which was below-ground level, with quite small rooms.
This could have been a real challenge to convert to a hostel, but it actually worked perfectly for a boutique style hostel-gallery concept, with a mix of private rooms and smaller size dormitories.
We also restored as many historic features as possible during the conversion process, which ultimately enabled us to have a building that is a feature in itself, as much as the artwork on the walls. A number of the walls were adorned with ceramic tiles, a style very particular to old ‘Porto House’ buildings, and we were able to restore these to their former glory.
We also worked to retain over 85% of the original wooden flooring, and configure the ensuites in the bedrooms to preserve the ceiling roses. Preserving the architectural heritage of the building itself really complimented the gallery concept and the cost and effort was definitely worthwhile in creating the luxury feel.
SW: you advertise a number of environmental initiatives at the Gallery Hostel. Given the costs of incorporating green energy and into a heritage building, especially when added to restoration costs, it must have been a something that was really important to you. Why?
The environment is a real issue these days and considerations about environmental impacts are of growing importance to people. We also know that environmental issues are particularly important to the younger generations, and we have heard that a number of guests choose our hostel because of our green efforts.
When setting up the hostel we reviewed the certification requirements to become officially recognised as a ‘green’ business, and we took all the necessary steps to achieve this. Ultimately we were unable to achieve the green certification because of the legal situation with respect to hostels, such that we were not classified in the same way as a hotel and thus didn’t qualify for the certification.
This was disappointing for us, as the law doesn’t seem very logical or fair, although I sense that the situation is now slowly changing.
We therefore branded our initiatives under the title ‘We Care’, and ultimately I think those words reflect what being green is about. Doing our bit to preserve the environment was something that we felt was important for everyone; not just for our business, but for our guests who can minimise their environmental impact, our staff who have the satisfaction of working for a company that is trying to help the situation, and the greater global community as a whole.
We really strive to create an atmosphere of connectedness, between ourselves and the guests and between the guests and the city itself. We believe that this allows our guests to leave our hostel feeling like they’ve had a genuine and authentic encounter with Porto.
We take whatever opportunity we can to showcase Porto and Portugal to our guests, such as through the design and decoration of the building, and the incorporation of top quality local food and wine in our meals. Our staff are trained to be knowledgeable about the local food and beverage options and the culture and history of the city, so they can be tourism advisors when asked for advice.
We also run our own walking tours of the city, which enables us to take guests to the places that we see as our ‘secrets of Porto’, places that aren’t on the standard tourist trails and the feedback we get is that people are really amazed by our tours.
Inside the hostel, we treat our guests like they are family or close friends. We aim to provide attentive five star service, but we break down the formal barriers to make a personal connection. For example we run dinners every night in the hostel, where our staff and guests sit down to share a traditional home-cooked meal together. It’s this intimacy, this opportunity for guests to sit and dine with our staff who are locals in the city, that forms part of the ‘real’ experience we try to deliver.
SW: One repeated observation that stands out in your online reviews is not about the facilities or the rooms, but about the staff at the Gallery Hostel. One reviewer declared “best staff ever”. How important are the right people?
My time at a range of five-star establishments fostered my passion for hospitality and tourism, and delivering a superior customer service. I came to fully appreciate the importance of placing the guest at the centre of the business if you want someone to leave with a positive experience.
I wanted to carry that five-star attitude across to the Gallery Hostel and I believe that our staff therefore lie at the success of our business. A good hostel is not just about providing inexpensive beds, but rather it is about the experience the guest has when they stay.
For example, we train our staff in the business itself but also in knowledge about Porto, about its culture, its history and its local restaurants, so that our staff can act like tourism officials as required by guests.
Training and skilling our staff ensures that they are capable of delivering the service that guests need and want, but also gives our staff experience and expertise for their own careers. By making this investment in our staff, we also are fortunate to have a low turnover of staff.
SW: you don’t advertise it, but you pass commission earnings opportunities on to your guests. Why would you do that?
We believe that the success of our business is strongly linked with the success of the city. We have relationships with certain businesses that enable us to make a commission through sales or referrals.
But when we really believe in the product or service that someone is offering to our guests, then we make a business decision to pass these small commissions on to the guests themselves.
Ultimately we see it as an opportunity where everyone wins. Relationships are critical and we see that developing a good rapport and a positive long term relationship with our customers and our neighbouring businesses is going to be worth more in the long run than a few euros here or there.
The local business benefits from guests that we send their way, the guests tend to receive a higher level of care and attention because they are referred by us, and we benefit from happy guests and positive relationships with other local businesses which drives positive reviews, referrals and more guests.
SW: speaking of reviews, scrolling through Trip Advisor suggests that you take the time to respond to every single guest review. This must be a time consuming endeavour.
Where we can, we do try to respond to all reviews. We are always looking at ways that we can improve, and so we genuinely seek guest feedback. If a guest has taken the time to review us online, then we think it is only fair that we acknowledge their review, thank them for their comments or address any concerns they expressed.
The challenge we sometimes face is the anonymous reviewer, as it is impossible to address someone’s concerns if we do not know who they are. This is unfortunate and I think this is something that the industry could do better.
SW: something else that you don’t publically advertise is your relationship with local charities.
Similar to our desire to support environmental initiatives and other local businesses, we also believe it is important to help those individuals in the community who need extra support. We work with a local charity here in Porto that provides food, psychological and other support to people suffering from homelessness and poverty. Every two weeks we allow the charity to come in and use our kitchen to prepare meals for the homeless. We have had such a positive experience with this that we are looking to increase it to every week.
We also get involved in other events where we can, collecting clothing or running small activities to collect donations. It is something we would like to explore with the guests in the future as well, but there is also something special about it being a ‘locals helping locals’ initiative too.
SW: what do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing the youth travel and hostel industry in the near future?
Locally, the extent of the bureaucracy here in Portugal because we lack proper hostel legal classifications here. Unfortunately hostels are not really seen as a proper part of the tourism industry, which makes things complicated and we find ourselves burdened with excessive administration. It can be enough that local entrepreneurs cannot get off the ground, or indeed cannot survive.
The other issue is the unfair competition from unregulated or unlicensed establishments from short term apartment rentals. As a licensed establishment, we have costs of compliance with regulations and an obligation to submit documentation to the authorities. But these same issues don’t seem to apply to the apartment owners, and so it is not uncommon to see low cost apartment rentals undercutting the price of hostel accommodation. These are some things we are trying to address with local tourism boards and other local channels.
More broadly, there are issues with OTAs and the commissions they take. I’ve heard of businesses where the amount of commission paid to an OTA is equivalent to the costs of hiring another staff member. I would like to see the hostel industry get more organised in this regard, to have more power as a unified voice to deal with this issue.
SW: Why is STAY WYSE membership important to Gallery Hostel?
We are members of a number of local and national organisations, but STAY WYSE is really positive for us because of the connections we gain within a network that extends beyond Portugal. It offers real opportunities for us to make meaningful connections with organisations and potential partners abroad.
To get the most out of membership, you do need to invest time in it. To date, we perhaps haven’t done that as much as we would like. But we believe there is a lot to really explore with STAY WYSE, and have shifted our priorities somewhat to really look to do more with STAY WYSE this year.
SW: things seem to be going exceptionally well for the Gallery Hostel. What’s your vision for the future of Gallery Hostel?
We are about to launch ‘Gallery Home’, which is basically an expansion of the Gallery Hostel into a building across the road. We have a lot of demand for private rooms, and this will give us another five rooms, that are a little more exclusive, a little quieter and little more upmarket than our existing private rooms, while still offering the service, amenities and benefits of the Gallery Hostel.