Welcome to Austin
Travel fanatic opens doors to hip new hostel in the heart of East Austin
The story of Matt Kepnes' life is the stuff dreams are made of. From world traveler to co-owner of a beautiful new Austin hostel, Kepnes had no idea how his life journey would unfold.
Growing up in Boston, his family didn't travel much. Kepnes was 23 when he took his first trip overseas — after which he settled into the life of a typical college graduate. He got a job with the standard American "two weeks a year" of vacation time.
For his first vacation, Kepnes went to Costa Rica. That trip sparked a passion for travel, and he was hooked. However, he was now on the corporate America grind, and didn't know how to get out or travel longer. But in 2005, he went on another vacation to Thailand that changed his life. In Chiang Mai, he met five backpackers who were living life on the road, very inexpensively, and Kepnes realized that one didn't need to be rich to travel: that, in fact, long-term travel was often far less expensive than the two-week vacations, and he could find ways of making money on the road.
Thus, Kepnes began living the dream that haunts so many of us. He quit his cubicle job and, after finishing his MBA degree, set off in July 2006 for an adventure around the world. He started a blog — one of the ways he makes money while traveling — and has become quite well-known as "Nomadic Matt."
"I've been traveling the world because I realized that I could," Kepnes says. "Traveling wasn't just for the rich. A guy like me could make my way around the world, pretty easily actually. And I could do it for less money than it cost to live at home and go to my boring desk job all day. Once I figured that out, all I wanted to do was explore."
After six years of traveling solo, Kepnes started feeling like he wanted a better balance in his nomadic life.
"While floating around the world is great, I started to long for some roots," he says. "2012 was an internal struggle between knowing I was ready to settle in one place and my desire to hold on to my backpacker lifestyle. I never regret the solo travel I’ve done in the past and never felt alone or bored during those years, but what I want from my life now doesn’t involve any more late nights on the backpacker trail."
Toward the end of that year, Kepnes made New York City his home base and leased his first apartment in years. He still traveled for eight to 10 months out of the year, including to Austin for South by Southwest.
"I love the vibe (and warmth) of the city. The music, the food, the people. I love everything about Austin. It's a really awesome city that's on the move and changing."
But it seems that Kepnes is someone who never does anything just a little bit. While he transferred his home base from New York to Austin — "I want a city without winter with more access to the outdoors" — he took it a step further. With his friend Brent Underwood as a business partner, Nomadic Matt opened a hostel in Austin.
HK Austin, located in a historic 1892 Victorian mansion on the thriving east side, is a co-living space with a creative and collaborative environment. "After having stayed in probably close to a thousand hostels since I started traveling, I’ve seen what makes a good (and bad) hostel … and I’ve also seen what makes for a truly mind-blowing one," Kepnes says. "I’ve been wanting to help make a world-class hostel that gives travelers an amazing experience and a good night’s sleep for years."
Underwood previously ran a hostel in Brooklyn for three years and made the perfect business partner. He is also a traveler, having experienced many hostels in 20 different countries. "I fell in love with the atmosphere and energy within a hostel and really wanted to recreate it back home," says Underwood. "I think the most important part of a hostel is fostering an atmosphere where everyone is comfortable and able to enjoy the city they are visiting."
Opened in August 2015, HK Austin offers two six-bed dorm rooms and a private double room, all with brand-new comfy mattresses and access to amazing showers. The bunk rooms go for $34 per person per night, while the private room is an inexpensive $64 per night total. The HK space features a beautiful old-fashioned porch, a large indoor common space, Wi-Fi, laundry facilities, a modern kitchen, on-site secured parking, and events for guests.
"I love fulfilling dreams of mine and this has been a 10-year-long dream that has finally come to fruition," says Kepnes. "I'm also excited to create something psychical that contributes to the traveling community. I'm a lover of hostels and travelers, so this is a passion project for me."
But don't think that Nomadic Matt is going to give up his vagabonding lifestyle anytime soon. "I'll spend a few months in Austin, but I'm not quitting traveling anytime soon. I'm hosting a group tour in Europe next week, I'll be traveling in Southeast Asia in November, and in the Philippines over Christmas."