Last week, I sat down with the owners of International Travelers House (ITH), Bobby and James, to learn more about their properties and their journey. As an international software company, Cloudbeds gets to work with some pretty cool people all around the world. And sometimes, they’re even in our backyard. ITH has four properties located near our San Diego office, so we popped over to have a chat. We talked about their journey, their triumphs and struggles, and a lot about travel.
Hostels often get a bad wrap in the United States. They’re often thought of as dirty, outdated, and only for the extremely budget-conscious. Bobby and James met while working on the management team at a corporate hostel in downtown San Diego. At this hostel, they only allowed international guests. Upon arrival, each traveler would need to have a passport to prove their status. And if a hostel does accept US residents, they would likely need to prove they’re from out of state.
The well-known hostel culture most travelers see in Europe and other places around the world, doesn’t exist in the US. And that’s exactly what Bobby and James have set out to change.
Bobby and James saw these restrictions as a barrier for hostel culture in the United States. In the months leading up to opening the first ITH location, Bobby and James lived on a boat in Coronado, a small island across from downtown San Diego. They say their close living quarters created a sort of “think-tank.” They were constantly brainstorming and coming up with ways to launch their new business.
Opening a hostel in the United States is the farthest thing from smooth sailing. Bobby and James say their biggest struggle was to find someone who was willing to let them use a property for hostel purposes. They had so much trouble in fact that they dropped hostel from their name altogether.
The hostel industry’s reputation is so poor in America, that businesses weren’t even willing to talk to them. It was then that they created the name International Travelers House, dropping hostel all together.
They eventually found someone who was willing to lease them space, and their first property on Front Street was born.
Their journey since opening the first property has been quite astounding. They quickly opened a second, and then a third property here in town. Bobby and James say they’re often asked how they’ve been able to grow so quickly without a significant amount of capital. They say it’s all about staying bootstrapped and focused. Or as James put it, “It’s about keeping your hand out of the cookie jar.”
Their thrifty nature has helped them stay focused on providing a great experience. From the outside looking in, it seems to be working.
What sets ITH apart in the United States is exactly what would make them fit in abroad. Bobby and James’ goal was to bring international hostel culture to San Diego. To them, this means a few different things.
As an independent hostel in the United States, they are able to lax their travel restrictions and allow more than just international travelers experience hostel culture. Bobby believes that hostel culture has thrived in Europe because geographically, younger travelers can more easily get around. When you live in the United States, it’s harder to experience European or Asian hostel culture because it’s much more of a time and financial commitment.
Hostel culture refers to dormitory-type of accommodations, shared common-areas, and typically a younger-skewing crowd. Because hostels are usually cheaper, it allows people to travel for longer periods of time and experience more. ITH wants to bring that vision and vibe to the United States, and are succeeding in doing so.
With hostels often comes a sense of community. Bobby and James strive to help travelers meet one another and help them find the best experiences. That’s why ITH offers free daily excursions to the most interesting places in San Diego. Led by Bobby, James, or one of their staff members, ITH freely provides activities which are highly unique to San Diego or Big Bear. From hiking the mountains, to sailing into the sunset, or even a day-trip to Mexico, ITH wants to make sure that their guests have a good time.
ITH differs from other hostels in the United States because they encourage all types of travelers to visit, not just foreigners and people from out of state. They’ve managed to bring the energy and vibe of European hostels to the United States and build a sense of community.
As avid travelers, Bobby and James know what an awesome experience staying in a hostel can be and they want to bring that to America.
Their core mission is “Spreading Peace Through Knowledge of Culture” and breaking down cultural barriers. James’ says, “It’s hard for Fox News to tell you how to think about something if you’ve actually met it.” When you know people from a certain culture, it’s hard to be persuaded by mass media and misleading information. The current international climate is tense, and it’s easy to generalize and lump people into groups. As many travelers know, information gets lost in translation.
It’s all about exposure and James feels that after travelers stay at their properties, they’re better people because of it.
The very nature of a hostel helps guests meet one another. Traditional hotels are much more private than hostels. Of course guests have private rooms, but even in common areas, hotel guests are much more likely to stick to themselves. Hostels have a way of bringing together diverse groups of travelers regardless of age, nationality, ethnicity, etc. Hostels have a different set of societal norms, so people feel more comfortable interacting with one another on a personal basis. Many people who stay at hostels travel alone, but can find a “travel buddy” once they arrive.
Bobby says that being able to share his knowledge and give a local’s perspective is one of his favorite parts. Unlike most hotel concierges who only promote local attractions that pay them a commission, Bobby, James, and their team only recommend attractions they have personally experienced and approved. And often, guests get to experience places that they wouldn’t have heard of otherwise.
“We’re passionate about living in a city, and knowing where to go, and feeling confident in our recommendations. That’s not something you get everywhere.”
ITH’s quick growth has presented its own set of unique challenges. They’ve needed to create and implement new systems in order to ensure a smooth operation. When they only had one property, there wasn’t a need for formal systems. But with four, it becomes essential.
“It’s like having a party at your house but you’re not at the house, and you’re trying to tell other people how to run that party,” said Bobby. “Systems help make sure that each of their properties delivers the same experience and level of hospitality. It requires constant tweaking because no one wants a surprise when they arrive at the property.”
“The attempt to replicate things and make things streamlined and redundant…. how do you do that without becoming stagnant and stale… like, corporate,” said Bobby. They want to remain authentic, fun, and funky as they grow. It’s all about the people, and that’s why hiring is important.
ITH uses the full Cloudbeds suite at all of their properties. When asked how it’s impacted their business, they’ve found that a cloud-based software is almost a need-to-have at this point. Because all their properties use the same software, it’s easier to train people.
“It’s the first system that has a very user-friendly front-end, making it easy to train people repetitively, even if they don’t speak the same language… The back-end further compliments this with good reports, which are so important for the banking and housekeeping sides of things. Since we transferred to Cloudbeds, we’ve gained a lot of efficiency, which is huge for a business. Labor hours and efficiency really affect the bottom line.”
As with the majority of Cloudbeds clients, Bobby and James are well traveled We’re always interested to hear their favorite spots. James says Books Hostel in Rio, run by Filipe, the hostel’s host, was amazing because of the great energy. Bobby says it’s all about the host and finding someone who can take you around. He also added that “There’s always one good aspect of a hostel, and we always try to take something away from the experience, good or bad.” That’s definitely the sign of a passionate traveler.
James looks forward to traveling back to South America and wants to backpack the “whole thing.” Both Bobby and James are interested in the evolving South American hostel industry, especially the eco-friendly, self-sufficient properties. They hope to open up a farm alongside the hostel here in San Diego. Right now ITH has a garden with chickens to help the hostel stay as organic as possible. They’re constantly working to be more sustainable and self-sufficient.
It’s always a joy to sit down and talk to people who have true passion for what they do. In a few years’ time, James and Bobby have opened four hostels in the San Diego area and show no signs of stopping. Their passion for hostel culture and ambition to bring the industry to the United States is admirable. If you’re ever in the San Diego area or up at Big Bear in the mountains, we highly encourage you to check them out.