“The most tropical destination in Iceland”
Translation: Sahara Rós Ívarsdóttir
“It’s so nice to be a part of people’s experience; to not only be a roof over someone’s head but also to add a bit of magic. That’s what counts,” says Valgerður Anna Einarsdóttir, also known as Vala, the manager of Student Hostel.
The youth hostel is owned by Student Services (FS) and is located in Gamli Garður residence hall during the summertime. Exchange students who live in the dorm sign nine-month leases, so the building is vacant in the summers. Student Hostel opened in 2017 and is now being run for the third summer in a row.
Started in a hurry
“Gamli Garður was built in 1934 and was the second building on campus, following Aðalbygging. Since 1960, it has always been run as a hotel or a guesthouse during the summertime. After all, the building is perfect for it. Management of the property had always been turned over to outside entities over the summer. When those contracts expired, FS decided to seize the opportunity and try to do something on its own. I was asked to be involved with them, and the result was Student Hostel, which has been a very fun project,” says Vala.
At the time, Vala had been working for FS for just over six months, and no one with experience in the hotel industry was part of the development of Student Hostel. “We just started in a bit of a hurry and learned by doing. It may not be the best way to do things, but it turned out to be a really good and enjoyable summer.”
Wants more young people to come to Iceland
Student Hostel can accommodate 86 guests, and Vala says that they have had no shortage of bookings. “Since the beginning we’ve been at around 80% capacity and it’s looking like we’ll see similar numbers this year. At first, the people coming here had previously stayed at Hótel Garður, which was in the building before. Hótel Garður was kind of a big deal, and it was a bit of a challenge to accommodate those guests who had come before with completely different expectations. It went well, nonetheless.
“We’ve also gotten school groups through the University of Iceland, and even more of them lately, which is really fun. We have summer schools, the Gender Equality Studies and Training Program, the Snorri Program, and all kinds of school groups from the US and Europe have come as well.”
As the name of the hostel indicates, the target guests are young people. “We aim to be affordable for young people, 18 to 35 years old, who are traveling around the world, but others can also take advantage of it, including people with families. You don’t have to be single and childless to spend the night here,” says Vala, adding:
“We all want to get young people to come to Iceland. It’s difficult getting young people to come here, even though they’re traveling all over Europe. I would really love to see it be more realistic for young people to travel to Iceland.”
Reykjavík rather than Iceland
Vala emphasizes how important it is that travelers realize what Reykjavík has to offer as a destination, rather than Iceland in its entirety. “I often have people who use Student Hostel as a waystation. They come here to sleep and then go to Jökulsárlón, hike in the highlands or do the Golden Circle.
“I’m trying to develop Student Hostel as a brand and emphasize Reykjavík as a destination rather than Iceland. Tourists are often eager to travel to Iceland, but not necessarily to Reykjavík. They want to see Iceland but don’t realize how big this island is.
“We Icelanders say we’re going to pop over to Copenhagen for the weekend, but hardly anyone talks about taking a weekend trip to Reykjavík. I really want to change this mindset so that people think it’s fun to go to Reykjavík and it’s fun to stay at Student Hostel.”
One summer she had the customers of her dreams who enjoyed Reykjavík and Student Hostel to the fullest. “Last year we had a group of British dudes. There were probably 12 or 15 of them, and they were having a bachelor party for one guy. So their first day here, I’m working in my office, and all of a sudden there are thundering noises throughout the whole hostel. It was as if there was an earthquake here. They had just landed and had started playing a massive drinking game in the attic common area. I got some complaints and went to talk to them.
“But the point is that they were having a great time here. They were simply enjoying life here and were exactly the kind of guests I want to have. So I really didn’t want to go speak to them until I really had to. They filled the place with so much joy and it was so great to have a group of young boys simply enjoying life, and they were hardly disturbing anyone. This was probably the most fun group I’ve had by far and exactly the type of tourists I wanted to have here.”
Vala points out that the hostel is not only for foreign travelers. “This is not just for tourists. This is also for kids who live in Akureyri and want to come and party in Reykjavík for a weekend. If they want to go clubbing in Reykjavík without needing to impose on friends and family, then we have cheap rooms for them.
“I would even be down for having the hostel crowded with Icelanders. A family that doesn’t have any relatives in Reykjavík and just wants to drop in at H&M some weekend could also stay here. I want this to be a possibility for them as well. Icelanders should be able to travel around their own country without it being too expensive.”
Plants, insects and tigers
As can be seen in the accompanying photo, the hostel has an interesting interior. The walls are adorned with insects, and plastic parrots sit atop the tables and peek out from among the leaves of all the plants that brighten up the hostel. Rúna Kristinsdóttir is the designer, and Vala says she fell in love with her work.
“Gamli Garður was renovated in 2013 and 2014 and was closed in the meantime. With the renovation, a lot of emphasis was placed on following the original design. A decision was made to not modernize the style but restore it to how it was before and according to the building’s character. When I walked inside, I thought the design and atmosphere were amazing.
“Since I’m the marketing executive for FS and am responsible for marketing the company to the public, I decided to market Student Hostel as ‘the most tropical destination in Iceland,’ and Rúna and I sort of went off of that. Last year was our second summer, and we took the theme a step further. During the summers, we put hammocks in the attic, and we bought tons of stuffed animals - tigers, lions, monkeys, etc. - and we have lots of plants and cactuses here inside and you can see the butterflies and insects on the walls.”
Addition to Gamli Garður a reason to rejoice
Asked about the proposed addition to Gamli Garður, Vala says it will only have a positive effect on Student Hostel. “Ever since it came to light, I have been shrieking on the inside about having a bigger hostel with more rooms available. Not that I would throw everyone out of the new addition during the summers.
“I think there would be a great atmosphere here, whether the rooms in the new addition would be leased for nine months like Gamli Garður is now and I would just get a great big hostel during the summer, or whether there were students and families living here. Of course there would be some disturbances during the construction work, but that’s simply something you inform people of.”
From the way Vala talks, it’s clear that she cares deeply about Student Hostel. “I’m not unbiased, but I love this place and I have big things in mind for Student Hostel. I believe this has absolutely become an important part of Reykjavík and the university community. We are welcoming a bunch of school groups that take advantage of the classrooms in Háskólatorg and such, and I believe it would be a great loss if Gamli Garður were leased out year-round or something. I don’t think anyone has more care and concern for young people than FS and Student Hostel.”