Crashpod Founder Pins Her Hopes on Desert Hot Springs Hostel
In a quiet part of Desert Hot Springs, Sarah Phan watches chickens peck at the dirt between stands of sugar cane.
A few guests stroll outside the Crashpod Hostel, a rustic stopover for travelers looking to experience the Coachella Valley on the cheap. Phan, a career secretary and temp worker, has staked her dreams of a stable and more fulfilling career on the company.
Crashpod operates out of a roughly 1,200 square foot house at 16-530 Via Corto which Phan says was once a Jehovah’s Witnesses church. It has 20 dorm beds and four private rooms formed by wooden partitions in the only long room that once served as the building’s worship hall. Three full bathrooms are shared by all guests.
Phan rents dorm beds for $35 per night and private rooms for $50 most of the year. Guests have free access to eggs laid by the hostel’s chickens for breakfast, can smoke weed on the 420-person-friendly terrace, and occasionally are treated to fresh cane juice when Phan decides to harvest one of the many stalks growing around the property.
The facilities are maintained by volunteers – ranging from broke international travelers to homeless people – who do minor work in exchange for free short-term accommodation.
Crashpod is a rare find in the Coachella Valley which, while home to a booming hotel industry that drives much of the local economy, has almost no hostels. Phan started the business with limited real estate knowledge from her previous acting job and no entrepreneurial experience, planning to learn on the fly as she built it.
“What I realize in hindsight is that you really don’t need that much courage and in fact you don’t really need to know that much,” Phan said. “You just have to start and then… the answers will come to you along the way.”
Phan grew up in Orange County. She held various temp jobs there and in New York, including for a property manager and home builder.
The longtime secretary said work became harder and harder to come by over the years, eventually leaving her to ‘hit rock bottom’ in a temp job at New York University when the chief of staff told her. abruptly fired one day raising her hand without a word.
“I’m like, ‘Yeah, that’s demoralizing,'” Phan said. “There must be a better way. I have to be open-minded here.”
Phan moved back to Orange County, where she lived in a mobile home with her partner near Little Saigon in Westminster. Phan said poor insulation left the tiny house freezing in the winter and hot in the summer.
“I couldn’t even buy a portable air conditioner because of the wiring,” she said. “It was horrible to be so afraid of losing money, of not having any money.”
The experience left Phan desperate to find a way out of the temp job. She began attending personal finance and entrepreneurship events based on personal finance guru Robert Kiyosaki’s controversial “Cashflow” line of educational games. Despite many media Criticisms of Kiyosaki for promoting sometimes dubious get-rich-quick schemes, Phan says the community of entrepreneurs and investors around her work helped her focus on a business plan.
The idea for a hostel, Phan said, was born out of a decision to marry her limited knowledge of the real estate industry with an enthusiasm for travel that she has had for most of her adult life.
“We always traveled in hostels. It was the only way we could afford to travel and see the world,” she said. “It was amazing to have this privilege. Otherwise we wouldn’t have been able to travel.”
While her main goal was to gain financial stability, Phan said she also felt it was important to do something she felt was meaningful. “If you’re just going to do it for the money, (when) little hurdles (come), you’re just going to get erased. You’re just going to quit,” she said.
Phan said she contacted and interviewed other hostel owners to figure out the details of how to run the business.
She then located several “silent partners” through the Cashflow community to financially support the hostel project. She says they chose Desert Hot Springs as a relatively affordable location with high demand in Orange County’s “backyard.”
Phan declined to provide more information about the partners. She is the only name on the business registration for Crashpod Hostel LLC – the entity that property records show owns the hostel. Phan purchased the property in his own name in late 2019 for just under $180,000, according to public records, before transferring it to Crashpod LLC in February 2021.
After several months of renovations, adding partitions and beds to create the dormitory-like hostel space, Crashpod opened in early 2020 – just in time for the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It definitely had an effect on us,” she said.
Although business has slowed considerably at times, Phan said the hostel was never completely closed during the pandemic. She said Crashpod had complied with all local regulations and that social distancing, masking and temperature checks were necessary for much of the pandemic period.
According to Phan, a wide range of people have taken advantage of the cheap accommodations over the past year, including college students, backpackers looking to explore Joshua Tree, people looking in the area for a place to live full-time and even some homeless people. The world map in the hostel lobby has pins in locations across Canada and the UK, Brazil, Nepal and Angola. Phan says each was placed there by an individual visiting from that country.
“We actually had a lot of Africa,” she said.
Phan said people with no money to pay for a room, including foreign and domestic travelers, do chores around the property in exchange for free accommodation. One such traveler, Cait Cinque, 36, said she cleaned, watered plants and did other chores at the hostel for about a month in exchange for a free place for her and her daughter of four years.
“The owners were very helpful,” Cinque said. Originally from New York, the young mother said she was staying with friends in the Inland Empire when she ran out of money. She said she discovered Crashpod while looking for cheap hosting online. Cinque added that she was overall “very grateful” to the hostel for letting her and her daughter stay.
An untapped market?
Not everyone who stays at Crashpod will get rock bottom prices.
Phan said she plans to raise room rates moderately during peak periods, such as during the spring Stagecoach and Coachella music festivals. She said she was undecided on what exactly the rates would be during those times, but rates over Memorial Day weekend increased to $45 per night for dorm beds and $69 per night. for private rooms due to high demand.
The hostel entrepreneur said she hopes her business will attract visitors to the Coachella Valley looking for budget accommodations as major events in the area begin to return.
Why there aren’t more Coachella Valley hostels for this type of guest is an open question. Scott White, manager of regional tourism promotion group Visit Greater Palm Springs, said he was not personally aware of any other hostels in the area. Phan said she thinks the answer may lie in the amount of work it takes to run a hostel compared to other accommodation businesses.
“The impression I got (from speaking with) from short-term rental management companies is that it’s a lot more labor intensive than renting the whole house to one family,” he said. she declared.
Phan lives on the property full-time as an on-site manager, although she hopes to hire someone to take over this role in the near future. If things continue to go well with Crashpod, she said she’s even considering opening a second hostel in the future. The location for it, she said, could be as close as another city in the Coachella Valley, or as far away as Puerto Rico.
Desert Sun photojournalist Taya Gray contributed to this report.
James B. Cutchin covers business in the Coachella Valley. Contact him at [email protected]