Words by Ryan Millar
Photography by Hunter Lawrence
It’s a Thursday morning in Denver, CO. I wake up too many minutes before my alarm clock, and I need coffee. Preferably black, most likely strong. My monthly calendar is littered with appointments and events while my feet would rather find themselves buried in some warm tropical sand. Instead, they find themselves inside a pair of worn out leather boots and into my car. On my way, signs from shipping container coffee shops and rooftop cocktail bars vie for my attention, but I pay them no mind. I’ve seen them before, and I have someplace to be. Hostel Fish, to be exact; a new “Poshtel” experience in the heart of Denver.
Within minutes of parking, I can tell that this isn’t going to be the morning I was expecting. A neon sign spelling out the word “HOSTEL” in cursive letters greets me while I take in the scene.
A historic three-story building, which hosts Ophelia’s Electric Soapbox on the ground floor, almost gets lost beside the breweries and restaurants that inhabit the block. I climb the bright stairwell up to the second floor and take in my first view of the place. There is a buzz of energy as I’m greeted by the concierge and ushered into the main community room, which comes equipped with a full bar. Is 10 A.M. too early for an Old Fashioned? I sit down with the one and only Chad Fish; owner, and big-picture dreamer.
“This is a traveler’s space,” he says, looking around the room. “Nine years ago, I hit 55 cities in 15 countries. We stayed in some really good hostels & some really bad hostels. But regardless of how good they were, I always came back to how the communal space created this atmosphere where you can meet people from all over the world.”
He goes on to describe one of the first evenings after Hostel Fish opened its doors to the public. A group of a dozen or so strangers, all visiting from different parts of the globe, shared drinks and stories on the hostel’s patio. They later teamed up to explore the city, as a unit, a new family with common interests and ambitions. “They got to see Denver the way I got to see so many cities in Europe. Almost from a local’s perspective, but experiencing it together as travelers for the first time.”
The historical Hostel Fish building has been brilliantly remodeled, but the walls of this 1889 structure tell quite a story. While originally built as a hotel and saloon, the building also had its run as a peep show, adult bookstore, and brothel before it was condemned for 40 years. Chad and his design team have paid tribute to the past through subtle head nods to the building’s history; sections of original wallpaper can be spotted throughout the space, playing nicely alongside some bold, modern design choices. Eight different designers collaborated to create some truly unique dorm rooms and common areas. Stay a night in the Vintage Biker Room or rest your head on some custom DENY Design pillowcases that perfectly accent the Graffiti Room mural.
We spoke with Chad in further detail about the hostel’s story and current happenings. Read onward for the full interview:
Why did you pursue opening a hostel in Denver? What was your motivation?
This all stemmed from falling in love twice. I fell in love with the concept of a hostel while traveling and wanted to bring a high-end version of that to the city I fell in love with where I wanted to plant roots. As far as motivation goes, that came in waves of encouragement that continually pushed me to explore the concept further.
I found that Denver sees less of a seasonal downturn when it comes to tourism in the winter more than most US cities, so that was a big motivator. Then there’s the partnerships and support I found here in Denver; with Paul Tamburello and Jack Pottle, and the City’s Office of Economic Development. I found people that truly believed in the idea and in my ability to make it work, which was a huge leap of faith on all their parts, as I had never done anything remotely like this before. On top of all that, I was lucky enough to have unwavering support and encouragement from my wife, my parents & in-laws, and my SCORE mentor, Steve Shaffer. They all served as motivation to take this idea and keep pushing to see if I could make it happen.
You had quite a year leading up to the opening the hostel, made complete with the birth of your daughter. What was it like for you and your family having a newborn while in the midst of such a demanding project? Any other challenges stick out to you during the process of opening up the place? How did you overcome these challenges?
It was one of the more exhausting chapters I have experienced so far. The birth of our daughter, Chloé, coupled with a regular 8-5 job, meant that working on the hostel had to happen during countless late nights, and made sleeping a luxury that I rarely saw for more than a couple hours at a time. My wife, Emily, has been an absolute angel and trooper, and thankfully was as passionate about the hostel as I was.
The big challenges early on in the project were mostly funding based, which took nearly two and a half years to overcome. It turns out it’s not super easy to talk people or banks into giving a 27-year-old (with no experience) a bunch of money to try something out that hasn’t been proven, in an industry with a notoriously high failure rate. Who would have thought? All in all, I pitched 33 banks and six credit unions and heard “no’s” from 33 banks and six credit unions. After getting past that hurdle, there's challenges stemming from the question of, “how do we preserve this beautiful building, turn it into a rad upscale hostel, and do it all on time, and on budget?” The answer to which has been a series of creative re-engineering, re-fabing, and re-prioritizing. Often, it seems all you can do is look at the challenges that present themselves as speed bumps rather than roadblocks and simply choose to keep pushing.
What's your favorite thing about the hostel and why?
The travelers. Without question. It’s so amazing to have dreamt about a place for so long and to finally have it open and full of people from all over the world. The different languages and accents. The new friendships being formed. It’s unbelievably gratifying and makes it all worth it.
Any other current updates or exciting things/stories happening at the hostel?
Our bar, The Exchange Rate, just opened. Which has been a lot of fun! We are also hosting all kinds of great activities, like pub-crawls and tours, all focused on creating opportunities for our guests to meet each other and then go out and see this great city together. We’ve also begun planning our second location, which will be here in Denver and have some fun twists.
After hearing Chad’s story, I stood alone next to the bar and thought about this space: walls with such rich history and high hopes for the future of those who enter them. I began to think about the city that I call home and the early morning drives that have since grown old. The parks I no longer sit at and the same three restaurants I frequent. The art museums I pretend I want to visit someday and my apathy towards sharing a drink with a stranger. I wondered how I would view this city if I were a traveler staying at the Hostel for a weekend. Making friends with an open mind and exploring a city without expectations. My morning spent with Chad Fish challenged me to see my city with new eyes—the eyes of a traveler.