As their traditional customer base – groups of school children – shrinks, Germany’s hostels are trying to woo a new market: whole families. In places like the Baltic Sea island of Rügen, some hostels have transformed themselves into affordable, kid-friend
For a long time, "youth hostel" conjured up an image of noisy kids on school trips staying 10 to a room, with shower and other facilities shared by the whole floor and peppermint tea for breakfast. That doesn't exactly sound like a vacation. But times have changed. Hostels are now marketing to families – and, according to Knut Dinter, spokesman for the German Youth Hostel Association (DJH), "more and more families are staying at hostels every year." Families generally account for about a fifth of the total number of guests, and in some areas of the country it's as much as a third.
Obviously, hostels are not going to appeal to all families, since a certain amount of sacrificed comfort is inevitable. "There is often very little space to put suitcases and clothing , sometimes just a locker you can't fit a lot into," says Torsten Kirstges of the Jade University of Applied Sciences in Wilhelmshaven. "And instead of double beds, the parents have to sleep in bunk beds." Plus, there are only a few rooms with their own toilet and shower.
DJH speaker Dinter agrees, but points out that – with the family market in mind -- hostels are making big investments to upgrade bathroom facilities. Winning the family market is increasingly important to the establishments since class trips are no longer as routine as they once were and hence the traditional market is on the decline.
Hostel owner Kerstin Krause says that is indeed the case. Together with her husband Ronald, she has spent the past 17 years running the "Waldkater" hostel in the town of Thale in central Germany's Harz region. "When we started out, we mainly got school kids and college students staying here," she says. But things started to change in the 1990s, and now the hostel has an unusually high number of family guests. Says Krause: "In 2011 for the first time we actually got more families than school classes." And that trend continues to snowball – when one family has a good experience they tell friends, who often then decide to book a holiday with their families.
The 200-bed "Waldkater" hostel now has a number of families as regular customers. The facility offers packages for families that include children-friendly activities like movies, mini-golf, hikes. It even employs its own director of kids' activities.
Baltic Sea vacations, at a bargain
Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, the German state with the longest stretch of coastline along the Baltic Sea, has 28 youth hostels that together counted some 480,000 overnight stays in 2011. "The hostels are often located in very attractive places," says Tobias Woitendorf, spokesman for the state's tourism office.
Top locations include Binz, a favorite resort on the island of Rügen, and Zingst, Kühlungsborn and Heringsdorf, where there are hostels near the beach. The Prora hostel that opened in July 2011 is located in a huge, seaside complex under heritage protection.
Ursula Tempel has been the manager of a hostel in Wyk on the North Sea island of Föhr for 21 years. Her hostel too boasts proximity to the sea, and she has seen the number of families increase – they now account for some 20% of guests at her establishment, she says. And while there are many reasons for this, not least that hostels are kid-friendly, cost is definitely a major factor: she charges 26 euros per person per night.
No wonder then that space in her 162-bed facility is sought after. "We start taking reservations for the following summer in September," says Tempel. "The 10 rooms with their own WC and shower are the first ones to be snapped up." She advises early booking, and points out that the DJH reservations system on www.jugendherberge.de indicates immediately where and when there are still vacancies.
The German Youth Hostel Association is a not-for-profit, national umbrella association uniting 14 state associations – which adds up to 535 hostels and a total bed count of 75,700. Anyone wishing to stay in a hostel must first become a member of the DJH. Annual membership costs 12.50 euros for "Juniors' (under 26 years of age), 21 euros for individual members over 27 and as much for a family membership. Every family member receives their own membership card so that they can plan trips in different constellations.
Read the original story in German
Photo - Kleiner Waldkater