In 2009, while planning for a trip to Rio de Janeiro, Oneil Williams and his travel companion were looking for gay hostels to stay at during their trip to Brazil. He didn’t find any gay hostels—only “gay-friendly” ones. But he did find a business idea. When he returned to his home in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, he started developing the concept for Thrust Hostels, a chain of LGBTQ-focused hostels marketed to LGBTQ millenials—a group of travelers who are generally looking to spend less on accommodations and more on local experiences.
“LGBTQ travelers on a budget have very few options where they are not sacrificing either quality, security or convenience,” he says. “Thrust will provide these travelers with a world-class experience, giving them access to a best-in-class platform for booking their stay along with chic, secure and high-tech facilities where they will be eager to share selfies.”
While Williams developed the idea in 2009, Thrust remained a “shelved project” until 2014, when he attended an LGBTQ marketing conference. “That’s when I really decided to make the vision a reality,” he says. “Now, with a very solid business plan, platform prototype and team in place, we’re ready to turn this vision into a reality.”
Williams and his team have been meeting with angel investor network groups and individual investors to secure seed capital. He anticipates having funding in place within the next six months. The first locations of Thrust Hostels will be in Florida—Fort Lauderdale, Miami and Orlando. Williams has plans for eventual expansion into gay-friendly, metropolitan cities in the United States and abroad.
Williams admits that funding has been a challenge, especially since the startup straddles real estate and tech.
“For us, we’ve faced significant hurdles in securing funding because we’re not entirely a tech venture,” he says. “We do have a platform through which all of our transactions will be managed, however, we need significant seed capital to develop the real estate for our physical hostels. Finding investors who can provide this level of seed funding has been challenging. However, we’ve switched our focus from pursuing tech investors to real estate investors and are finally making some traction.”
Despite the slow go, Williams says he and his team stay motivated by the positive feedback they’ve received. “The fact that just about everyone we’ve talked to at conferences, gay pride events and other venues believe this is an idea whose time has come,” he says. “The validation of our business model from investors, incubators and others has really helped us feel confident that we are on the right path.”
Williams is also confident that Fort Lauderdale is the right place to put down Thrusts’ roots.
“For Thrust, the Fort Lauderdale metro area is the perfect place in which to launch our venture because the city desperately needs more lodging facilities and has an LGBTQ-focused department within its Convention and Visitors Bureau,” he says. “Best of all, the metro area is also home to Wilton Manors which has been ranked the 2nd gayest city in the US and is the headquarters of the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association.”