The founder of Crashpod puts her hopes in the Desert Hot Springs hostel
In a quiet neighborhood of Desert Hot Springs, Sarah Phan watches chickens peck in the ground between the sugar cane.
A few guests cavort in front of the Crashpod Hostel, a rustic stopover for travelers who want to experience the Coachella Valley cheaply. Phan, a career secretary and temporary worker, has placed her dreams of a stable, more fulfilling career on the company.
Crashpod operates out of a 1,200-square-foot house on Via Corto 16-530 that Phan said was formerly a Jehovah’s Witness church. It has 20 dormitories and four private rooms formed by wooden partitions in the only long room that previously served as the building’s prayer room. Three full bathrooms are shared by all guests.
Phan rents the dorms for $ 35 a night and the private rooms for $ 50 for most of the year. Guests have free access to eggs laid for breakfast by the hostel’s chickens, can smoke weed on the 420-friendly terrace, and are occasionally treated to fresh sugar cane juice when Phan decides to harvest one of the many stalks that surround the Property grow.
The facilities are run by volunteers – from broke international travelers to the homeless – doing minor chores in exchange for free, short-term accommodation.
Crashpod is a rare find in the Coachella Valley that has almost no hostels despite a booming hospitality industry that powers much of the local economy. Phan started the company with limited real estate knowledge from her previous temporary work and no entrepreneurial experience, and planned to learn on the fly as it set up.
“What I realize in retrospect is that you really don’t need that much courage and actually don’t have to know that much,” said Phan. “You just have to start and then … the answers will come to you along the way.”
Phan grew up in Orange County. There and in New York City, she has done a number of temporary employment jobs, including for a property manager and a house builder.
The longtime secretary said it had become increasingly difficult to find work as the years went by, and she eventually “bottomed out” on a temporary employment job at New York University when the chief of staff abruptly fired her one day by silently shaking her hand held.
“I was like, ‘Yeah, that’s demoralizing,'” Phan said. “There just has to be a better way. I have to be open-minded here.”
Phan moved back to Orange County, where she lived with her partner in a motor home near Little Saigon, Westminster. Phan said poor insulation made the little house freezing cold in winter and piping hot in summer.
“I couldn’t even buy a portable AC power supply because of the wiring,” she said. “It was terrible to be so scared of losing money, not having money.”
This experience made Phan desperate to find a way out of temporary work. She began attending personal finance and entrepreneurship events based on controversial personal finance guru Robert Kiyosaki’s series of “Cashflow” educational games. Despite numerous media Criticisms from Kiyosaki for promoting sometimes dubious get-rich-quick programs, Phan says the community of entrepreneurs and investors surrounding his job helped her develop a business plan.
The idea of starting a hostel came from Phan’s decision to combine her limited knowledge of the real estate industry with an enthusiasm for travel that she had for most of her adult life.
“We always went to hostels. That was the only way we could afford to travel and see the world,” she said. “It was incredible to have this privilege. Otherwise we would not have been able to travel.”
While her main goal was to gain financial stability, Phan said that it was also important to her to do something that she believed made sense. “If you do it for the money, (when) little hurdles (come up) you will just be wiped out. They will just stop,” she said.
Phan said she contacted and interviewed other hostel owners to find out how the business works.
Then she found several “silent partners” through the cash flow community to financially support the hostel project. She says they chose Desert Hot Springs as a relatively affordable, high-demand place in the Orange County’s “backyard”.
Phan declined to provide further information on the partners. She is the only name listed on the business registration for Crashpod Hostel LLC – the company that owns the hostel according to property records. Phan bought the property in her own name in late 2019 for just under $ 180,000, according to public records, before transferring it to Crashpod LLC in February 2021.
After months of renovation that saw the addition of partitions and beds to create the dorm-like hostel space, Crashpod opened in early 2020 – just in time for the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It definitely affected us,” she said.
Though business slowed significantly at certain points, Phan said the hostel never closed completely during the pandemic. She said Crashpod complied with all local regulations and that much of the pandemic would require social distancing, masking, and temperature controls.
Phan said a wide variety of people have taken advantage of the cheap accommodation over the past year, including college students, backpackers exploring Joshua Tree, people looking to the area for full-time jobs, and even some people experiencing homelessness. The world map in the front hall of the hostel contains pins from Canada and Great Britain to Brazil, Nepal and Angola. Phan says that everyone was brought there by a visitor from that country.
“We actually got a lot from Africa,” she said.
Phan said people who don’t have the money to pay for a room, including overseas and domestic travelers, are doing chores around the property in exchange for free accommodation. One of those travelers, Cait Cinque, 36, said she spent about a month cleaning, watering, and other chores in the hostel to get a vacant spot for her and her four-year-old daughter.
“The owners were very helpful,” said Cinque. The young mother, who is originally from New York, said she was staying with friends in the Inland Empire when she ran out of money. She said she became aware of Crashpod while searching for cheap accommodation online. Cinque added that she was “very grateful” to the hostel overall for allowing her and her daughter to stay.
An untapped market?
Not everyone who stays at Crashpod gets rock-bottom prices.
Phan said she plans to make moderate price increases during peak demand times, such as the Stagecoach and Coachella music festivals in the spring. She said she wasn’t sure how accurate the rates would be during those time periods, but on Memorial Day weekend rates rose to $ 45 per night for dorms and $ 69 per night for private rooms due to high demand.
The hostel entrepreneur said she hoped her business would attract visitors to Coachella Valley looking for cheap accommodations when the area’s big events return.
Why there aren’t more hostels for this type of customer in Coachella Valley is an open question. Scott White, head of the regional tourism promotion group Visit Greater Palm Springs, said he doesn’t know of any other hostels in the area. Phan said she thinks the answer could be in the amount of work it takes to run a hostel compared to other accommodation companies.
“The impression I get from (speaking to) short-term rental providers is that it is a lot more labor intensive than renting the whole house to a family,” she said.
Phan lives full-time as an on-site manager on the property, though she hopes to hire someone to take on that role in the near future. If things continue to go well with Crashpod, she is even considering opening a second hostel in the future. The place for this, she said, could be as close as any other town in the Coachella Valley or as far as Puerto Rico.
Desert Sun’s photojournalist Taya Gray contributed to this report.
James B. Cutchin works in the Coachella Valley. Reach him at [email protected]