Brief History of Florida Hostelling

As Remembered by John Stevens and Jim Coppens Submitted by web volunteer Mansa Pryor:

By John Stevens:

When the various volunteer councils started back in the 80’s, HI hostels generally consisted of small independently owned hostels. The concept of the councils was to promote small hostels in their area, talk to prospective hostel owners, inspecting existing ones, and promoting the concept of hostelling and the hostels within the council area. This resulted in a good amount travel in the beginning.

Then National discovered more money could be made with ‘big box’ hostels in gateway cities. The concentration then changed to building large hostels and phasing out the small locally owned units thus resulting in the elimination of the local councils. The councils could, and some did, survive by changing their focus and dissolving the affiliation with National. Some, like the Florida Council now called Florida Friends of Hostelling, started Conversation Cafes where like-minded people could get together. Any funding from National went by the way of the Dodo bird. During this change in direction, Florida which had around 5 hostels throughout the state, went down to NO hostels in the state. HI is seemingly unaware that Florida is the number one tourist destination in the world.

John Stevens first became aware of the existence of Florida Council when he saw a small ad in the local newspaper at Avon Park, Florida, about a meeting to be held at the then downtown Orlando hostel. Stevens went and met Charlotte Maas and the other board members present. They gave a short history of hostelling in general and Florida council in particular. This was my first introduction to hostelling. When they heard of my position with my then employer, they immediately wanted to me to serve as treasurer. Shortly thereafter Stevens assumed that title, a position Stevens held until the dissolution of the council.

Charlotte was instrumental in putting on bicycle riding events and when Stevens came on board there was some $60k in funds that had been raised for the purpose of starting and maintaining a hostel owned by council. My recollection is there were no significant fund-raising events of any consequence after Stevens came on board. There were a few bicycling events in the Orlando area that we assisted in to help the entity sponsoring the event.

Since the board members lived throughout the state, mostly from Orlando to the Miami/Key West area, the board meetings were held at various places where they lived. The board would stay at hostels in the area. After several years, around 1998, Bob Condon from the Cape Canaveral area took over as president. He continued having board meetings throughout the state and set up a number of plans and processes for the future of the council.

Ray Plato was elected president after Bob Condon (around 2000) and we continued meeting throughout the state for the board meetings. When board members from south Florida completed their term, and dropped off the board, new members were elected, generally along the I-4 corridor. Meetings were then held in Orlando, Tampa, or St. Petersburg areas. Due to changes in funding structure of National, travel seminars were held periodically at various locations in order to get funding.

When inquiries were made about starting hostels in the Florida Council area, one or more of the board members would meet with the prospect. Ray met with several people who were interested in starting an HI hostel in the Tampa/St. Petersburg area. One did open in downtown St. Petersburg for a short period of time. He also was very close to having a hostel started in Tampa.

One time there was a non-affiliated hostel in St. Augustine that was interested in becoming a member of the HI network Jim Coppens and Stevens made several trips there to promote HI and even provided information to HI about location, room sizes, and facilities available. Sometimes the cost of upgrading a hostel to HI standards was deemed excessive and the hostel owner would then decide not to become affiliated. During this time, expenses of board meetings throughout the state consumed a substantial amount of the funds that had been available for purchasing/starting a hostel. The funds received from HI were not adequate to cover the costs of these activities.

Jim Coppens took over as president of the council around 2004 after Ray Plato had been president for 5 years and has been the president since then. John Stevens had introduced Jim to the Florida council in the early 90’s while Bob Condon was still president and had been an active member of the board for several years prior to taking over from Ray Plato. The council may well have disbanded had Jim Coppens not been willing to take over the presidency. There was no one else on the board that was willing or able to assume that role.

Jim continued his relationship by spearheading the spinoff, Florida Friends of Hostelling. Jim Coppens has instituted procedures to ensure that funds that existed at the time he took over, as well as funds received from other sources, were conserved. At the same time, Jim was proactive in getting board members, volunteers, putting on the travel seminars, and other items to promote hostelling with the help of others.

He also started the Conversation Café in 2008 that has been meeting for several years in the Orlando area. This meeting is held monthly where one can go for conversation and presentations about items of interest as well as the travels that various members had been on. Anyone can attend these informal friendly get-togethers. Well worth attending. Jim was also proactive in working with the local Girl Scout group when National had an affiliation with them. Also contacts with several educational institutions of higher learning.

Without his dedication to the Florida council in recruiting, volunteers, etc., the council and Florida Friends would probably not be in existence.

Added by Jim Coppens:

After 2 years as Southern Region Vice President, when Ray Plato stepped down as Council President, I took a demotion and did not run for regional vice president, but became Council President. About the time I got the Council running smoothly (2011), and had a Board of Directors, National Reorganized the organization and consolidated all the Councils into National. They asked me to continue our Travel Discussion Group, Our website, and our bulk mailing system for Florida Members, so I created the Florida Friends of Hostelling. We are proud to say that our Travel Discussion Group, Conversation Cafe, has been meeting continuously since May 28, 2008, with excellent attendance, and meetings enjoyed by all. We look forward to continuing the Florida Friends of Hostelling for many years.