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His Hostel Home

posted Feb 23, 2011, 6:13 PM by Mathew Dietrich   [ updated Oct 14, 2011, 10:14 AM ]

University District venture starts simple - in one bedroom of the owner's duplex - but he has big plans for next year

Thursday, January 6, 2011  02:51 AM

THE COLUMBUS DISPATCH

Mathew Dietrich felt an urge that he can liken only to the ethereal whisper in the movie Field of Dreams - a socially minded motivation that, unlike the film, involved no backyard ballpark:

If you open your home; furnish it with Ikea bunk beds; offer towels, guitars and a hookah pipe; serve bagels for breakfast; and show Pineapple Express on a projector-screen television, they will come.

The curious vision soon became a concrete plan.

During the summer, after some research and $6,000 in renovations to his University District home, the Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel began welcoming visitors from throughout the world.

"When I opened in August, I had my first guest three days later," said Dietrich, 23, who used no promotional efforts, except for a paid presence on several hostel-reservation websites.

"After that, I was pretty much booked solid."

Each patron of the humble red duplex on Indiana Avenue pays $15 nightly for the accommodations.

Male and female guests sleep in a single room, dormitory-style. The hostel has a full bathroom on the second floor and a lavatory in the basement. Fraternizing with the host and other travelers is considered the norm - with little, if any, obtainable privacy. The sparse interior decor, though tidy, resembles an off-campus bachelor pad.

The arrangement, Dietrich maintains, is nothing to fear.

"I think people associate hostels with homeless shelters or halfway houses or something," he said. "Modern hostels are clean, friendly, safe places."

Such lodging is particularly valuable to budget-minded travelers.

The Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel offers free, unlimited telephone calls within the United States and to Canada. No-cost wireless Internet is provided, as is a desktop computer. Use of a washer and dryer in the basement is also complimentary.

Dietrich serves as concierge, housekeeper, cook and, when manageable, chauffeur.

"In some hostels, people behind the desk don't have the time of day," said Emily Campbell, 22, a nurse from Melbourne, Australia, who spent two nights in Columbus in the fall. "Mat was warm, welcoming and approachable. He even drove me to the airport."

A dry-erase board in the common area features similar testimonials, some scrawled in French, Italian and Spanish. Other praise is found on sites such as www.hostelworld.com, with guests from Costa Rica and Singapore describing their respective central Ohio stays as "helpful" and "sweet."

Dietrich has experienced few problem visitors (loudness after dark and a reluctance to clean dishes rank among the worst offenses). Individual lockers for valuables are available.

The maximum length of stay is 21 days; most visitors use the hostel for one to three nights.

Although most patrons are in their 20s and 30s, the Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel - which can host a maximum of six - has housed older guests as well as retirees.

Hostels, which originated in Germany in 1912, are commonplace in Europe and some American cities.

Because many ventures - including Dietrich's - operate independent of an association, keeping an accurate head count is difficult, said Mark Vidalin, marketing director for Hostelling International, a British-based consortium of youth-hostel associations in more than 80 countries.

The number of hostels worldwide has reportedly declined, particularly in the United States, but domestic bookings among Hostelling International affiliates rose to 1million overnight stays last year and has risen annually since a substantial drop in 2001, Vidalin said.

Area inquiries have also increased.

"We used to have none - now, I'd say we get one or two a month," said Scott Peacock, spokesman for Experience Columbus, the city's convention and visitors bureau. "It's nice to have somewhere to send them."

Hostel advocates maintain that the properties attract creative people and are key to boosting a city's arts scene. (Indianapolis, Dietrich noted, has two hostels.)

Columbus hasn't had a functional hostel for almost a decade, when the Heart of Ohio - which opened in 1984 in a former fraternity house at 95 E. 12th Ave. - closed because of financial struggles, according to Dale Lofland, 84, a North Side resident who was a volunteer liaison for the hostel.

Dietrich, who received a business degree last year from Ohio State University, is no stranger to the industry: His parents, Steve and Jane, have run Deer Creek Bed and Breakfast in Litchfield, in Medina County, for nine years.

As a teenager, Mathew cooked for guests and joined in late-night Monopoly games.

"He's a very social person," said Mrs. Dietrich, 48. "I'm just happy he's doing something he enjoys."

The family's entrepreneurial spirit compelled Mathew to purchase his $167,000 duplex in 2006 as a college sophomore. He rents out four of the six bedrooms to full-time roommates - including Isaac Laughbaum, who lives on the same side as Dietrich and the rotating hostel visitors.

"I didn't know what to expect; I had just seen the movie," said Laughbaum, 22, referring to the 2005 horror flick Hostel. "It's never boring."

Dietrich, when available, is happy to pick up travelers at Port Columbus or the Greyhound bus station Downtown. And, depending on their itinerary and interests, he is likely to take newly arrived tourists out for a burger or a few beers.

Last week, he drove four visitors from Quebec to Nationwide Arena for a Columbus Blue Jackets game and met the guys afterward to hit the bars on nearby Park Street.

"You don't meet anybody if you go to a regular hotel," said Montreal native Max Richard, 24. "(A hostel is) always a lot friendlier. We can discover stuff about the city."

Having logged 65 guests since August, Dietrich is already looking ahead: He plans next year to transfer ownership of Wayfaring Buckeye Hostel to Delaware entrepreneur Ray Domire, who aims to open a 60-bed hostel Downtown - with Dietrich serving as the live-in manager. The Indiana Avenue operation would dissolve.

The two are looking at the vacant upper floors of the Swan Cleaners building at 247 S. High St., where they hope to open by summer. Tentative plans include a rooftop garden and a hot tub.

Domire, 61, a nonprofit executive and longtime hostel frequenter, cited the venture's "great potential," but declined to provide details.

For Dietrich, though, the response to a modest investment has been impetus enough.

"This was a great way to test the water," he said. "I get a general sense that Columbus will support it."

kjoy@dispatch.com

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