While Phoenix might not quite yet be a popular travel destination, Phoenix resident Amber Harrold is trying to put it on more travelers’ radars. The 33-year-old owns CamelBackpackers Hostel, one of only two hostels in Phoenix, with an occupancy rate of 18. The hostel has a full kitchen and events board, and it was Harrold’s own experiences staying in hostels that inspired her to open one of her own here in the Valley last summer. Read on for how she became a hostel owner, as well as five reasons why she loves living in the Valley.
What brought you to Arizona?
I’m originally from Nebraska, but I joined the Army when I was 17, and that helped me put myself through college. I got my commission in the Army and went to Germany for 6 years, and after I was done with the military, I came back to the U.S. and job hunted. I interviewed with Pepsi in Texas, and they told me to come out here and check out their Phoenix location. I did, and they took me out on the city, and I instantly fell in love with it. The weather was great, and I thought I could definitely live here. I’ve been working as a production supervisor and logistics supervisor with Pepsi for 6 years now.
When did you first conceive the idea for CamelBackpackers Hostel?
When I lived in Germany, I got a 4-day weekend every month, so I was also exploring and going to different cities, and I was always staying at hotels. Usually, I didn’t have friends who could come or who had as flexible a schedule as I did, so I started to get lonely in hotels, so I started to stay in hostels. I met amazing people and really started to have fun, so I started traveling everywhere and staying in hostels. I quickly realized, no matter the price, I definitely preferred the social interaction of a hostel versus the isolation of a hotel.
Where were some of the hostels you traveled to in Europe?
My favorite one was in Amsterdam. It was a big hostel called the Flying Pig. They had a restaurant and bars downstairs and 200 beds, but you’d never notice because the rooms are all pretty small, and there’s so much going on.
How did CamelBackpackers get started?
When I moved to Phoenix, I focused on working at Pepsi, but I knew I wanted to find a location for a hostel. I started doing all the research I could, and there’s a website called hostelmanagement.com that has blogs and information and forums. I started doing research and went down to City Hall to see what zoning and permits I would need. It took me 3 years to find this location. I looked at probably over 60 different places. I originally started looking in Scottsdale and Tempe, because that’s where I first moved to the Valley, but their zoning laws are so strict, it’s really difficult. Downtown Phoenix has an Adaptive Reuse Program that made it a lot easier. I found this property that had the right zoning already, so I just had to apply for the right use permit.
Was it hard to get into the process of learning about all you needed to do to open this?
Yes, and it still is. We’ve been open since July, and we’re still seeing the ripple effects. What they originally told me I needed, and what they’re telling me I need now, are two different things. It’s definitely been a learning curve, but I meet with the city a couple times a month, and we’re constantly going through the permit process to make sure we’re fully legal.
What is the hostel scene like here in the Valley?
There are two hostels — the Metcalf House that’s been here for 30 years on 9th St. and Roosevelt, and then there’s us. Phoenix is the sixth-largest city in the U.S., and most of the other top 10 cities have 15 or more hostels — some of them have more than 100. There’s definitely room and a need for space and affordable accommodations.
What do you attribute to the lack of hostels here?
Definitely the zoning process. It’s not easy, and every time you go to City Hall, there’s a different answer or different department that has different rules. It’s definitely been frustrating, because I thought I had checked all my boxes before we opened and took down everybody’s name we had talked to, got everything in writing, and then months later, they said no, now we need to look at this or change that. They’ve been really helpful in getting us a timeline that’s feasible for us. It’s definitely possible, it’s just a lot to work through.
Who stays at your hostel?
Most of our guests are international. We were at 90 percent when we first opened, but now 30 percent of our guests are American. That’s an exciting trend for us, but most of our guests are from Germany, England and Australia and come from as far as Asia and Africa.
Why should people stay at your hostel?
We’re a brand-new facility. I can’t name too many hostels that have nice granite countertops, and our beds are so comfy. We spent money on the extras that people care about, like the lights they can use as flashlights, and places to plug their phones in at night. Most of the reviews talk about our staff. All of our work exchange employees, we take them out and show them what Phoenix has to offer. We’re located to some amazing things, like Bikini Lounge, Sidebar and Encanto Park. I think our staff is our number one selling point.
Do the people staying here tend to hang out with each other?
That’s the great thing about staying at a hostel. If you were staying at a hotel, it’d be awkward to ask the person next to you if they want to go out to dinner, but that’s a normal thing here. People will say, ‘Hey, I’m going here, does anyone want to go?’ all the time. It’s also not uncommon for the staff to take the guests out and show them around.
How do you think your experience in the military has helped you as a business owner?
The military taught me discipline. It taught me I can do anything. Those organizational and discipline skills have really helped me.
What have been the biggest challenges you’ve faced?
The most challenging has been with the zoning. Also, I work full-time about 60 hours a week, so for me, it’s been having to delegate more and give up a lot of the responsibilities. The startup phase was pretty stressful, because it was my little baby, and we were trying to work through everything, but now, I’m a lot more independent, so that’s great. Also, the Office of Tourism has been a challenge, because when people hear about Phoenix, it’s not on an international map. People don’t really travel just to Phoenix — it’s usually a stop for them on the way from California to Texas. I think our tourism department could really do a lot to hit on that huge segment of international travelers that is out there. When people hear Phoenix, they think of resorts and golf courses, and our city has so much more to offer than that. I really think we have a huge possibility to get on that international map and let people know Phoenix is not just a big metropolitan city — there’s a lot to do here.
How could the Office of Tourism do a better job?
When you see the commercials and look through the pamphlets, you see the resorts and golf. We have so many great local restaurants, bars and events. The majority of our travelers are 18-35, and that market is really missed there. Letting them know there are so many great, inexpensive things to do, like hiking. They can travel to Flagstaff or wine country or visit a ghost town. Phoenix is really a hub, and I wish our travelers knew that — they find out after the fact, and they’ve already booked their bus or flight for the next day. They arrive and say, ‘Man, I wish I would have known.’ A big challenge is putting Phoenix on the map as a destination spot.
What have been the most rewarding aspects to owning the hostel?
As for most rewarding, I get to meet these amazing travelers who have traveled the world and want to know what to do in my city, what my favorite restaurant, bar, museum is. We’re not a party hostel, but every night, there’s great social interaction. I never come home to an empty house, and I get to meet great people all the time.
Why should people stay at a hostel instead of a hotel?
About a week before Christmas, it was our first holiday at the hostel, so we didn’t know how people felt about Christmas and didn’t want to push our religious beliefs on them, since we had some guests who weren’t Christian. A couple of our guests said they really wanted a Christmas tree, so we said OK and went to the garage and got the Christmas tree and started putting ornaments up. Somebody was like, ‘We should make Gluwein, a mulled wine from Germany.’ A couple minutes later, a French pastry chef showed up and started making crepes. Another guest made several hummus and cashew dips that we put in the crepes, and we all sat around all night eating and playing card games. It’s just an amazing exchange — whatever you’re looking for, you’ll be able to find it at a hostel. A lot of my friends and family have stayed at hotels here and were very disappointed in the concierge not being able to tell them how to use the public transit, or places to go and the events in town, and at a hostel, you have a local’s perspective, so they can tell you everything you want to know about the city and more.
What advice would you have for someone who has never stayed at a hostel?
Know what you’re getting into. We had two gentlemen arrive last night, one who had been to multiple hostels, and one who had never been to a hostel. He was tired and had driven 14 hours in 1 day, and all he wanted was a place to sleep. Although hostels are a place to sleep, that’s really not the main focus — it’s on that social interaction. In that case, he would have been better at a hotel where he could have privacy and just sleep. People are coming and leaving at all times of the day, and it can be noisy. Hostels range from huge to small, from clean to dirty, and they’re all a little different. As long as you come with a good attitude and a pair of earplugs, you’ll probably be fine.
Who have been some of your memorable guests?
We have so many, and we joke we should write a book about the people who stay at the hostels. I think we’ve had about 700 guests now, and I’ve met about 650 of them. If somebody mentions their name, I still know who they are, and I think that speaks volumes about what the personal experience is like at a hostel. Our first guest, Joram, from the Netherlands, arrived on our second day. He was only planning on staying one night, but he said he loved this place and had been traveling too long and was going to be in America for 10 more days and was going to stay here. He wasn’t afraid to give us his opinion, so since we were brand-new and didn’t quite know what we were doing yet, he gave us all his feedback on what he loved and what we could change. We had a group of Australian guys show up one night, who barbecued all night and made a feast. They wanted to go to a strip club, and one guy didn’t end up coming back because he had met someone. There was a guest, Emily, from Australia, who showed up for 1 day, and we ended up hiring her on as a work exchange employee for 3 weeks. She had been traveling for 10 months. We pride ourselves on having a home environment that’s welcoming and laid-back, and people really get that vibe when they come in.