By Hannah Sampson
The Miami Herald
---- — If the collection of National Geographic magazines in the lobby and ping pong tables out back don’t give it away, then the $40-a-night bunk beds surely will: Freehand Miami, one of the newest lodgings in town, is in every way a hostel.
But this hostel, which opened in December, has a way of turning the stereotype of scruffy backpacker hangout on its head. Freehand is the creation of New York’s Sydell Group, which owns the NoMad Hotel in Manhattan and developed the Ace hotels in New York and Palm Springs, Calif.
Sydell Group has plans for Freehand locations in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago and Washington, D.C., but Miami Beach came first.
Bathed in light, trimmed with wood and decorated with bright collages and a funny map of Miami Beach, the lobby of the 1936 building looks like an Instagram photo. The bar out back, Broken Shaker, was recently named a 2013 James Beard Foundation awards semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program.
And the buzz has reached a level that some full-priced hotels could only dream of, with mentions in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, GQ and New York Post, which called the hostel “truly the new hipster hotness.”
Diana Morley, a 31-year-old marketing professional from London, didn’t know about any of that when she set out to find a calm place “that was not a big glitzy hotel” to stay after attending Miami’s Winter Music Conference with two friends. She searched for boutique hostels, not even sure if Miami Beach had any kind of hostels.
Last week, Morley and friends Nicola Doran, an attorney, and Virginia Draper, who works in banking, relaxed by the Freehand’s pool, having found their bliss.
“I’m incredibly impressed with it,” said Doran, 29, also of London. “Whoever came up with the style concept for this place is genius.” She described it as retro, cool and vintage, but “not overdone.”
New York City design firm Roman and Williams — made up of a pair of former Hollywood production designers and art directors — is behind the hostel’s look, which includes touches of summer camp and nautical chic.
Sydell Group CEO Andrew Zobler said the company became interested in creating a “premium hostel” brand a couple years ago, believing that U.S. customers, especially young travelers without deep pockets, would respond to the product. The inspiration came from well-designed, thoughtful properties that have opened in Europe, Asia and Australia.
“We thought it was inevitable that hostels would get better and we wanted to be out there in front of it,” Zobler said.
Mark Vidalin, marketing director for Hostelling International-USA, said the trajectory, especially in the past 10 years, is that the hostel experience has improved as markets have become more demanding.
“People are looking for more privacy, more amenities, things like Wi-Fi, just in general things you know at home and expect elsewhere,” he said.
“And I think that expectation has reflected upon new hostel development.”
Hostels can be profitable, too, said Karine Bourget, hotel and leisure consultant with the investment advisory at Nordic Hotel Consulting.
“Hostels are typically less cost intensive as a budget hotel for instance as they require less staff, less amenities, etc.,” she wrote in an email. “Revenue are calculated per available bed instead of available room, which maximizes revenue.”
The company paid $12 million for the old Indian Creek Hotel in January 2012. About $8 million is going into renovations, including work that continues on a restaurant in an adjacent house, guest kitchen area and annex with more sleeping space that should be ready in early fall.
For now, the property has 62 rooms with about 250 beds. The cheapest are $35 a night in rooms with eight beds. There are also $40-a-bed quads, private kings that start at $150 and bungalows with kitchens for $250 a night.
Zobler said occupancy has been running close to 90 percent since opening.
Roy Alpert, brand director for Freehand, said part of the success is due to local appeal. He recruited Broken Shaker managing partners Elad Zvi and Gabriel Orta to open the bar as a pop-up last January, which generated early interest even before the property was renovated.
“There wasn’t a place in Miami where you could just go, no velvet rope,” Alpert said.
Zvi and Orta will bring their laid-back, artisanal vibe to the hostel’s restaurant eventually; last week, Broken Shaker started serving food in the courtyard at night, and lunch bites will follow soon.
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