Happy patrons have described the Hot Water Inn as a “superb location at the base of the mountain,” a “rad hostel vibe with great energy,” and “the hottest place in town.” The rave reviews are lengthy and ever growing. The young hostel has become a Ketchum mainstay for musicians, economically minded travelers, and residents in need of long-term lodging; it’s hard to believe the celebrated hub is only in its second year as the quirky hotspot for visitors near and far. For owner Mark Oliver, the first two years have been about learning the ins and outs, finding his footing, and settling in.
Opening and running a hostel that’s part venue and part long-term residence was an unexpected twist in Oliver’s plans. A freelance photographer, filmmaker and avid musician, it all began with his love of music. Oliver, 36, is a Ketchum native and a member of the local band, Sheep Bridge Jumpers. His close ties to the regional music scene led to a realization that Ketchum and Sun Valley were sorely missing available space to host acts, both local and traveling through town.
“A lot of acts I was meeting didn’t have an option to come to Ketchum because the establishments didn’t see a want or need to have independent music,” Oliver explained in a recent interview. “So from my photography and film studio in Ketchum, I started to host friends’ bands who needed a place to stay and play in-between towns.”
The makeshift studio venue grew, and Oliver realized he needed a new place. He passively began the search for a bigger home for his growing spot. Shortly thereafter, a chain of events left the Hot Water Inn’s current Picabo Street location—then occupied by Sun Valley Community School—on the verge of vacancy. Smith Optics moved their headquarters from Sun Valley in 2015; their building in Industrial Park became available; and the Sun Valley Community School then bought that building. Hot Water Inn is now located in the school’s previous spot. A chance dinner between Oliver’s fiddle player and the building’s landlords sparked an idea. Why not turn the vacant building into a hostel and venue? Oliver pondered the idea for a while, wrote a loose business plan, and decided he might as well dive in.
“I thought it was a long shot,” he recalled. “But I started looking at the other lodging options, what they were charging, and trying to figure out what would set us apart. I talked to my mentors about how to differentiate us. I knew I wanted the hostel to be a unique experience; one with entertainment, short-term accommodations, and long-term options.”
Beyond having a fun spot for the community to hear great music, Oliver was also looking to help solve a small part of the bigger affordable housing issue and affordability, in general, that’s facing the community. Oliver has watched the constant cycle of old homes being bought, then torn down and replaced with lavish townhomes out of the general public’s price range.
“It is why there is so little housing here, why there are no rentals, and why there
is no space for community to come together over art,” he said. “My big picture is
to just survive and keep this place here.”
The Hot Water Inn, Oliver hoped, could be an approachable lodging option—whether for a weekend stay or a season—with an added bonus of being a gathering space.
By January 2017, winter was well under way and Oliver was in the thick of trying to get things rolling. He had a few long-term residents and progress was being made. But by the time Hot Water Inn was fully ready to go and projects had been checked off his list, it was nearly April and Valley tourism slowed. That spring also brought heavy rainfall that left some damage, setting things back a bit more.
It wasn’t until summer 2017 that the Hot Water Inn found its footing. The rooms began to book, Oliver had more long-term rentals, and he was gaining momentum with the music scene.
“We had a great summer,” Oliver said. “Still, a year after that flooding, I was in the ‘what am I doing’ phase.’ But word on the street started to increase, referrals came in, and we started getting reviews.”
The Hot Water Inn hosts bands at least once a week in either its outdoor patio space or the indoor dining room space that moonlights as a music venue. In between, you might catch a comedy show, open-mic night, or a forum. There is a bar lined with wooden pallets. Guitars and scenic photos dot the walls. The rooms are cozy and inviting.
Oliver ramps up the holidays with lively parties. A favorite memory is the New Year’s Eve shindig he threw last year that defied the typical event with a hefty price tag. Oliver decided to throw convention out the window and host an “old-school kegger” with ample beer, three live bands, and a champagne toast for $25.
“It was unbelievable,” he said. “We had three bands play, drank all the beer, and sold more tickets than we ever thought we would. It was a good time and met that need for affordable entertainment.”
And while everyone is welcome to enjoy some tunes, have a beer, or stay a spell at the Hot Water Inn, Oliver knows the hostel is not for everyone, and that’s okay.
“We realize we aren’t for everyone,” he said. “Hot Water Inn is for people looking for a good deal and for some fun.”