Magic on WhatsApp: A Case Study

Magic on WhatsApp: A Case Study

Case study

Estimated reading time: 6 min

An ephemeral travel community I’ll never forget, by Casa Pancha

I just came back from two weeks in Mexico, and I took a vacation vacation. No work, no meetings, and I only had my email on so I could delete everything that was coming my way.

During the last two days of my trip, this “not working” thing was becoming really difficult, because everywhere around me, I was surrounded by eco-friendly community-building reminders!! What?!!?

After my friends left me at the end of our catfish Airbnb, I meandered on the solo part of my trip and checked into Casa Pancha.

It was a lovely little building nestled in La Condesa, a picture-perfect tree-lined neighborhood in Mexico City. This place had a 9.8 rating on Hostelworld (out of 10), and that is a Very Big Deal.

I read the reviews, but I wondered what could possibly be so great about this hostel…

(Spoiler alert and you should know it by now: community!)

The view from Casa Pancha
The view from Casa Pancha

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First, redefining community

There are a few definitions of Community I turn to often, including Carrie Melissa Jones’s: “A community is a group of people who share an identity and a mutual concern for one another's welfare.”

(By the way I got accepted to her work-study program for Engage Your Online Community and I’m literally starstruck 🤩)

Anyway, until now, I’d always assumed these definitions imply some sort of longevity.

After my magical Casa Pancha experience, I realized… nowhere in these definitions does it say “a community is a group of people that hangs out for a long time.”

My biggest lesson from Mexico City: community can be ephemeral. Short-term communities are valid communities.

Short-term communities are valid communities!

What’s a short-term community?

Here’s my stab at a definition:

A short-term community is a group of people who share an identity and a mutual concern for one another's welfare. These communities have been organized for a specific, time-bound purpose.

Here’s how this looks at Casa Pancha:

  • Shared identity — 25-40 year old professionals who love to travel on a budget and meet other people
  • Mutual concern — As we live “together” and do activities together, mutual concern is a pre-requisite for any healthy hostel environment. Casa Pancha has signs and reminders everywhere to treat the place like it’s our home, and show respect to those around us
  • Specific, time-bound purpose — You’re here in Mexico City at Casa Pancha from the time you check in to the time you check out, and you want to make the most out of your experience (maybe while working “from home”)

Ok but what made this a “real” community?

There are a LOT of hostel “communities” that are not communities. This is for a few reasons:

  • Shared identity isn’t specific enough. If you’re a party hostel, own it. If you’ve got a great co-working space, say it. My most community-feeling travel experiences have been specific and it’s not enough to say our shared identity is “loves travel”. One reason I booked Casa Pancha is that it seemed geared towards people my age, instead of newly-graduated high school and college seniors looking for all-night ragers. (And hey, if you’re looking for that, that’s fine!)
  • No clear format to display mutual concern or enact the purpose. The architecture of the environment determines the vibe. If a stated purpose is to make travel friends to go hiking together, this has to be prioritized in the venue — both online and offline. So here’s Casa Pancha’s secret:

Casa Pancha has a WhatsApp chat that you join when you check in, and leave when you check out. ‼️‼️

Before I get into the WhatsApp chat, some other things Casa Pancha had that facilitated true community-building:

  1. Friendly people at check-in that show you where to go. I checked in early, and one of the first things I was told after all the logistics was that the top floor is a community space where I can hang out. I was primed to head up there and meet people, instead of simply left to my own devices.
  2. Free breakfast. Yes I love food in general and am a sucker for free things, but here, there is a designated hour Where Stuff Happens. From 8am to 10am, if you go up to the common area, you know there will be other people there who likely share your interests.
  3. Organized events… by staff. They had yoga multiple times a week (even multiple times a day!) as well as walking tours and Lucha Libre (I went; it was WILD). The big difference here was that these excursions were organized and led by staff/hostel volunteers instead of outsourced to a random tour guide, which has been my previous experience at most hostels. The first night I got in, there was a communal movie night! We all picked the movie together (well, I was in the shower and when I got back it was a horror movie, and someone tried to prank me into staying by saying it was a comedy) and it really felt like a movie night with friends despite me not knowing any of their names.
  4. Clear things to care about. Everyone wants to make a difference, and at Casa Pancha, they proudly displayed their various eco-friendly initiatives. They had signs to turn off the lights, save water, and manage waste appropriately with recycling and compost. This compels guests, whether they realize it or not, to take ownership of their environment. Because we’re all given a clear responsibility, we feel more tied to our temporary home.

I’m a big believer in the concept of orchestrated generosity. Casa Pancha attracted the right people and brought out our best traits through the various structures, and it was SUCH a cool case study in community building!

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How the magical WhatsApp chat works

A screenshot of our WhatsApp group description (text is written below in the body of this article)
A screenshot of our WhatsApp group description (text is written below in the body of this article)

The only thing lacking here is that I wasn’t immediately added to this chat at check-in, but I’m not griping.

I was upstairs talking to one of my roomies who asked me if I was “part of the WhatsApp chat”. When I looked at him in confusion, he wrangled the admin to add me.

Here’s the group info:

Hey family! This group was made for sharing all events going on IN Casa Pancha & OUT of it. We’ll add you @ check in and you can leave the group @ check out. From yoga, to ceremonies, walking tours, family dinners, parties & get togethers Please RSVP if you wanna join any happening or if you have any plans to share with us :) Thank you for choosing us & enjoy the city 🇲🇽

That’s it! That’s how the magic happens!

I think this chat worked so well because it is:

  • Time-bound, and it’s acceptable to leave at anytime
  • Welcoming to anyone who wants to post, not just hostel leaders
  • Clear about what goes on within it
  • Casual

With the combination of this magical chat and the community feel throughout the hostel, it’s easy to make travel friends and friends you can stay in touch with for a long time.

So that’s the story of how I ended up going to Lucha Libre with five new friends on my last day in Mexico!

Me with some friends I met at Casa Pancha
Me with some friends I met at Casa Pancha

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