Jun 04, 2018
Do you long to be free from material needs and be able to focus on the real work you want to do? I know I’ve certainly been in that situation a few times in the past, but instead have lost time doing unimportant and menial jobs in order to be able to get by financially. Talented effective altruists losing time like this is especially tragic given that a lot of cause areas are currently constrained by the amount of quality direct work being done in them.
Buildings in the seaside holiday resort of Blackpool (UK) are really cheap. I’ve bought a 17 bedroom hotel with dining room, lounge and bar for £130k. Assuming a 7% rental yield (which is reasonably high), this works out at about £45 per person per month rent. Factoring in bills, catering, and a modest stipend/entertainment budget, living costs could be as low as £5700/person/year (or lower for people sharing rooms, see budget). This is amazing value for hotel living with all basic services provided.
The idea is to invite people to live there, with all their expenses covered by donors, for up to two years. Funding is already in place (via me) for the first year of operations. The project will be managed by someone who lives on site and deals with all the admin/finances, shopping/cooking/cleaning/laundry, socials/events and morale - they will also have free living expenses, and be paid a modest salary. Note that this should be considered as a potential high impact, high prestige supporting role, for those excited to be involved in such a capacity on an EA mission. Guests will be free from concerns of material survival, and be able to have prolonged and uninterrupted focus on whatever projects they are working on. Obviously these will be largely limited to purely desk-based, or remote work. Potential people suited to being guests are those who want to:
- self-study economics, philosophy, science, AI, programming etc, in order to contribute to future efforts in various EA cause areas, without having to worry about - or waste time - getting (mostly irrelevant or menial) paid work in order to fund themselves
- immerse themselves in desk-based research/writing on an EA-related subject without having to worry about fundraising, a job, grants, teaching, tenure etc.
- work on a mostly software or research based start-up/project(/phase of a project) without having to worry about runway (be it for profit with a view to earning to give, or an EA-aligned/adjacent charity)
A somewhat out of the way location with little in the way of outside distractions most of the year, combined with fully catered living arrangements, should be ideal for engaging in deep work (usual focusing hacks applied)
Whilst a simple pledge to work on useful EA things is required (“I pledge to work towards doing the most good that I can whilst staying at the hotel”), there is no formal requirement for people to produce more value than is put in to help them. Given the low costs involved, it’s a fairly low bar to clear though - produce more value in a year than £5700 donated to the most effective charity (+ opportunity cost; for more see Value Proposition section). And just one major success will make the whole thing worth it. A useful analogy might be a catered and managed university residence (paid for by a grant), or perhaps even New York’s Chelsea Hotel, which produced billions of dollars worth of art, despite many guests not paying rent (and was an inspiration for this project). The slightly anarchic feel to it with a lack of formal structure does appeal too. Not requiring people to submit detailed grant applications is also something that may seem like a breath of fresh air to people used to continually chasing funding against the odds. This can only be fairly done though if assuming a relatively low demand. Which I expect from it being in Blackpool and not somewhere more happening like London or the Bay Area. Of course if demand levels increase to be significantly higher than supply, then this can be reassessed.
Read on for more detail, or skip to the final section (Next Steps) to get involved!
Facilities at the hotel will be fairly basic, but adequate for anyone accustomed to living in an average house-share or student residence in a European country. In fact, given that two thirds of the rooms have en suite bathrooms, it might be a cut above what many people are used to, at least in that regard. A sense of community will be encouraged through shared meals and regular socialising, but given the work focus, perhaps the vibe will lean more toward “monastery” than “party house”, although capturing some of the spirit of EA Globals would be nice.
Given the location and the aesthetics, living at the hotel will perhaps have more appeal for people who don’t care about status so much, at least in the usual ways (shiny things, cool locations, luxuries, start-up style offices etc). It will appeal more to people who care about concrete achievements, and furthering their EA goals, over signalling (counter-signalling of virtue notwithstanding!).
Having low levels of noise and general disruption most of the time will be required for the hotel to be a productive environment (evening socialising excepted). To this end, cleaning will be done at set times (say a weekend rotor, with each room being done at roughly the same time every week; weekends being when people are least likely to be either working, sleeping, or in their rooms), and sound insulation can be put in if need be. The roads adjacent to the hotel are generally very quiet, being side streets. In the summer, with many holiday makers in the area there is more noise coming from outside, but so far (a couple of weeks into holiday season) this hasn’t been too much of an issue. For working, desks will be provided in each room, and fast internet (broadband services are currently limited to “up to 76Mb”. There is reasonable 4G coverage though). There are also plenty of tables in both the bar and dining room, and seating in the lounge, for people to work at outside of meal times. These areas will also be useful for group work, meetings, workshops and events (see below). The bar (pictured below) can seat 40 people, the dining room 32 and the lounge 12. Perhaps a convention could be made for one of the large rooms to be for working, and the other socialising, outside of mealtimes, evenings and weekends. This would help people who benefit from having separate work-and non-work locations, and help keep groups on task (less distraction from other groups having a break and socialising).
EA Hotel bar (I published this post from the table in the corner)
Given zoning regulations in Blackpool, the hotel will remain nominally as a public facing hotel. Whilst in general there will be no advertising to the public (online or elsewhere), and normal prices will be set at the high end of the market, the option to host non-EA guests will be there. This will likely only be exercised in order to bolster the financial health of the project if necessary; “No Vacancies” signs feature in the front windows by default. Having the odd few outsiders stay might be good for the health of the community though, to guard against it becoming too insular.
Guests will be free to have their own guests stay in their rooms, but if they aren’t EAs doing EA work, then they will be required to contribute toward costs (at something like the cost price - £10-15/day food and accommodation. See budget). The same will apply for partners (costs for double rooms will be about 25% less per person). Most of the rooms are double rooms, and some are twin and even family rooms (three beds). Given this, EA couples, or groups of two or three good friends staying in the same room, could increase the capacity of the hotel and further boost its expected cost effectiveness. Small groups are also welcome even if not sharing a room, e.g. early stage EA startups, or already formed study/research groups (like the AI Safety Camp). If possible, they could have their own “wing” of the hotel, or even a whole floor.
There is a licensed bar at the hotel. Maintaining this could help with sustainable revenue, although having someone work on the bar could make it net negative given the relatively little that EAs tend to drink. Perhaps the bar could be open infrequently - say Friday nights and special occasions. In any case, it will be best to restrict its opening to a few hours in the evening, to minimise noise and distraction. However, after dinner events will likely be a regular feature. Expect people giving talks about their work, structured group discussions, and games (I have got a couple of old CEA/FHI favourites - Resistance and Pandemic, plus Pandemic Legacy for a twist).
The food will be all vegan, with plenty of variety and healthy yet tasty meals being provided (at a consistent quality that will likely be significantly higher than most who cook for themselves are used to - think something like this), all without guests having to plan, shop, cook, or clean up! Veganism is fairly mainstream in EA now, given the presence of animals in most people’s moral circles, so hopefully this won’t put off too many potential guests. Special dietary requirements (e.g. food allergies) will be catered for. Cleaning and laundry will also be done for guests; sheets and towels changed once a week. Basic concierge services will be provided like taking deliveries of mail and packages. Having not only free accommodation, but also free meals, and cleaning and laundry done for them, will enable guests to increase their productivity by giving them not only 1-2 hours more time per day, but also a lighter cognitive load, and less stress. Whilst not the lap of luxury - no room service, or daily fresh sheets - this is still a pretty high standard of living, for a very low cost (and free to guests).
With the all inclusive services of set mealtimes and menus, laundry and cleaning, the hotel will be more suited to people who are flexible and easy going. Options for self-service laundry, and basic food and drink preparation facilities (kettle in room, microwave in communal area) will be made available however, for people who are more particular with their eating and clothes washing. There is also cost-price meal-replacement powder available via Queal, as per a generous offer from founder Floris Wolswijk (with thanks to Remmelt Ellen). Communal mealtimes will be encouraged though, as a way for camaraderie and a sense of community to develop amongst guests. Friendships will be formed, problems, and their solutions, discussed, and some amount of fun and laughter will be had too hopefully! Also, some people may find that the inevitable discussion of work that will arise will lead to some amount of peer pressure that will aid in keeping them productive.
Such peer pressure could also work in reverse too though, causing people to dread having to talk to people, and hide away in their rooms when they are procrastinating a lot. Or maybe it will have little effect and unproductive people will end up being the most social. Which could be good for morale, but perhaps dent others’ productivity (this was me, and some other Grad Bar regulars, during most of my PhD). People slacking off/procrastinating too much is a potential problem in terms of how much value the hotel creates. I have mixed feelings about this as someone who procrastinated for the majority of my PhD. It was during that procrastination that I read LessWrong, read about proto-EA stuff, researched 3D printing and open source hardware, which became a business for me after, etc. Sometimes having that kind of flexibility can lead to things that wouldn’t have happened in more stringent environments. Giving people freedom to do what they want can be a good thing, as long as their motivations are aligned (i.e. are EA; see e.g.).
Others may respond to a more structured setting though. Having attended the AI Safety Camp in Gran Canaria, where there is some overlap between the attendees and potential guests at the hotel, I have updated in terms of potential guests being more conscientious. Camp attendees were very diligent and productive, but some of this could be attributed to the external demand of having to present their work at the end of the 10 days. To provide some structure at the hotel, having someone fulfil a role of “work coordinator” could be useful (H/T Maia Pasek). Such a coordinator would be available for people to meet with to discuss their work, and help resolve any issues they may have (connect them to helpful people, suggest strategies for increasing output etc). I think it would be more fitting with the stress-minimising free living nature of the hotel to not require mandatory meetings with such a coordinator, but if people feel they need a motivation kick, they could ask for regular meetings. The hotel manager could perhaps fulfil this role during the 3 hours of office hours timetabled for giving advice/mentoring. In terms of guarding against people becoming freeloaders (or effectively squatters), perhaps there could be a mandatory minimum of very brief (one page) reports on progress to be filed every three months. There would also be some indirect self-generated pressure from guests worrying about donors getting their money’s worth (although perhaps this will only be applicable for the more highly scrupulous). But then there would have to be a mechanism for chucking people out if they are achieving very little. The hard cap of two years on length of free stays per person will be an ultimate limiter, but it might be prudent to proceed with caution regarding taking on long term residents (perhaps a three month probation period would be useful).
Truly strong reasons for ejecting people from the hotel would be severe conflict between guests or abuse. To this end, a code of conduct, and conflict resolution procedures would be put in place. These can be adapted from what EA Global has in place, for example. Guests and staff would be required to agree to abide by them at the start of their tenancies/contracts. When it comes to the practicalities of implementing such policies, having people skilled and experienced in such matters (especially the Hotel Manager) would be ideal.
Guests who have problems with executive function and motivation might benefit from various methods of self-improvement. It is expected that these will largely be practiced in a self-organised manner amongst guests (with the encouragement of the manager), although the odd workshop (such as CFAR) wouldn’t go amiss for those who are keen. Guests with problems that extend beyond the financial and those which can be hacked away at with self-improvement methods would benefit from having understanding people around. Perhaps a counsellor even. The Hotel Manager could double as a “morale officer”, but may not have enough time for many people needing help. Having another member of staff as a full time morale officer/mentor/work coordinator would significantly add to costs, but might be worth it in terms of potential payoff. Although having said this, I think just having a strong community will be enough to keep most people motivated, in good spirits and productive.
Some guests might appreciate having companion animals around (e.g. cats or dogs), for comfort, stress relief, or maybe even to help viscerally expand their moral circle of concern. The down sides are feeding them non-vegan diets, increasing wild animal suffering (e.g. cats catching birds) and food hygiene issues (e.g. dogs eating human food in kitchen). On balance I think the default of no non-human animals might be best, but if many guests want to live with one, and there are no strong objections from other guests, then it’s a possibility.
Property prices in the north of England are very low compared to the population centres of the South-East. In particular, towns that have seen their economies decline, such as Blackpool, are perhaps upwards of ten times cheaper than London. Note that Blackpool is fairly close to Manchester (1hr drive, 1.5hr train/bus), where the newly active EA Manchester is. It has the benefits of being in a rich anglophone country with stable and relatively easy to navigate institutions. Although visas may be an issue for people outside of the EU (and with Brexit, perhaps increasingly for people within the EU too). Alternatives with similar low costs and relative stability (and a better climate!) can be found in South-East Asia (some work has been done before researching low cost locations for EA hubs). However, I have strong personal ties to the UK, and as such, as funder and instigator of the project, prefer it to be within reasonable reach.
Regarding quality of life, Blackpool may be fairly dull most of the year (outside holiday season), but there is a certain charm to the bleakness of the beach in off season, with its wide open vistas largely empty of people, the sea, and wheeling murmurations of starlings (see picture below). Walks featuring long horizons are good for thinking. The beach is just two minutes’ walk from the hotel. There is also the picturesque and award winning Stanley Park just a mile inland. The national parks of the Lake District, and Yorkshire Dales, and several Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty are also relatively nearby. And Scotland isn’t that far. Anyway, given 10-20 EAs living together, and regular visitors, a vibrant community can be built around the hotel itself. The local economy may be in decline, but that shouldn’t matter too much as we're largely independent of it in terms of the work we are doing. It’s nice to be in a place with lots going on; a big city like London, or Manchester, for example. However, when it comes down to it, many people who live in such vibrant places often fail to take full advantage of them. One of the reasons my housemates and I moved to Manchester last year was that it’s a big city with a lot going on. However, in practice we rarely left the house, so as I said a few times - we might as well have been in Blackpool! Manchester is also only an hour to an hour-and-a-half away, should people staying at the Blackpool hotel feel the need for more entertainment than Blackpool can provide.
Blackpool beach in December
Regarding Manchester, living costs are about double what they are in Blackpool, so still fairly cheap. If the hotel idea proves popular, and there are people who would live at something like that in Manchester, but not in Blackpool, then it may be worth a try doing something similar in Manchester. London is probably double the costs again, so at that point the bar is significantly higher in terms of paying for living costs being positive EV when compared with donations to highly effective charities. Assuming most people working at highly effective charities have similar “big city” living costs, it’s then more of a level playing field in terms of “is this EA producing as much value on a day to day basis as someone working at a highly effective EA charity” (although you can take off the charity’s overheads in terms of employing someone, and employment taxes. More on this in the Value Proposition section).
The Hotel Manager role is suited to someone who’s happiest when assisting others in achieving as much good as possible; someone who’s interested in playing a vital role on an important mission. If the project is successful, it will become a high impact position.
The Manager will live on site and deal with all the admin, finances, shopping, cooking, dishwashing, cleaning, laundry, socials, events and morale - they will also have free living expenses, and be paid a modest salary (£20,000/year). Ideally they will be a competent cook. All the cooking, cleaning and laundry for 17+ people is too much for one person to take on in addition to management tasks, so part time staff and external services will be hired to to do some of these tasks. The laundering of bed linen and towels is contracted out to a service that costs ~£2/guest/week (which is economical when compared with hiring staff to do it and managing them). Cleaning will be done by external contractors on weekends. Perhaps one or two guests could volunteer to help out in the kitchen for the evening meal (breakfast will be a simple buffet of cereal, toast, and fruit most days, perhaps a cooked breakfast at the weekend; and lunch will be salads, DIY sandwiches, crisps, fruit and other snacks, and leftovers from dinner the night before.) With part time staff and some small amount of volunteering and self-service amongst guests, there should be enough slack in the system for the Hotel Manager to have weekends off and a standard five weeks of holiday per year. One or two guests can also be paid to take on critical roles if necessary when the manager is away.
When the hotel was at full capacity in the heydays of the 1980s, there were four or five staff. However, most of the work was restaurant related. Having serve-yourself buffet breakfasts and lunches, and a choice of say two options for each dinner, makes the food preparation a lot easier when compared to an average hotel that has many options on the menu and is making meals individually or in small batches to order. So the job will not be on the level of full time chef and full time hotel manager in one. All necessary training, such as attending food hygiene and licensed bar management courses will be provided (the bar will probably only be open one night a week).
Ideally, it will be good to have the Hotel Manager start as soon as possible, so they can help get the hotel fixed up (some amount of repairs need doing) and meeting regulations (make sure all safety certificates and licenses are in order). There is also work to be done in setting up the organisational structure - a Charitable Incorporated Organisation, for which trustees need to be found[7a], a charter written, and incorporation documents filed (see Sustainability, risks and organisation section below) - and getting it in a position to sponsor visas for overseas guests. And backend systems for admin, like a website, booking system and accounts spreadsheets need to be built.
The role of Hotel Manager will require a highly motivated self-starter with a generalist skillset and good people skills. Hiring a competent manager could end up as a “chicken and egg” situation, whereby the project might need to be successful already in order to attract the necessary talent. I have hopes that someone from within the EA movement who sees the potential in the project can be found though. In the event that there is no one suitable candidate, the role could be split into two part time roles, perhaps along the lines of having a public facing “community manager” and a back room “operations manager”.
With two large common rooms - the bar and the dining room - and a smaller lounge, the hotel is also well-suited to hosting workshops, conferences, and research retreats, such as the AI Safety Camp, or rationality workshops. Maybe even coding bootcamps. The bar has seating for 40 people, the dining room 32, and the lounge 12. I'd say the hotel should be comfortable up to about 35 day-time participants at a workshop/conference, and 70-100 for a party. These could be run at very low cost, with the infrastructure already in place. Of course, if the hotel is full with residents, alternative accommodation will need to be supplied for some (or all) of the event guests. It should be fairly easy to have excess guests stay in nearby B&Bs if need be - the immediate area (within 50m) is full of them, and the prices are generally quite low (and the amount of excess capacity high). And even if the hotel is hosting an event, it should still be possible to feed the non-attending guests at mealtimes too if people sit in both the dining room and the bar.
The hotel was advertised as 18 bedrooms, but there are in fact 17 as there is no number 13! There are also three rooms in the basement, and two in the attic, but these do not meet regulations so are for storage/occasional/emergency use (I - and/or other Trustees - can stay in the attic if the hotel is otherwise full, and the basement can be the nuclear bunker). Most of the rooms are double or twin rooms, with a few singles and triples ("family" rooms); 35 people could stay in total if the hotel is filled to its current bed capacity with most people sharing (see “Rooms” sheet here). Even more could stay were some of the larger rooms made into 4- or 6-bed dorm rooms with the addition of bunkbeds. In this scenario, there are still more than enough bathrooms (12 rooms have en suite shower rooms, and there is a stand alone shower on each floor).
In order to help keep the hotel both well occupied and on a good financial footing, rooms could also be offered for rent to visitors from the EA community who may or may not be working on important things during their stay. People pledging to do EA work will have precedence (and of those, people requiring a free stay). More on this in the following “Value proposition” section.
Another idea for empty rooms is offering outsiders the chance to purchase a kind of “catastrophic risk insurance”; paying, say, £1/day to reserve the right to live at the hotel in the event of a global (or regional) catastrophe. When they make it to the hotel, they would then pay their share of the costs of living. In the case of a nuclear exchange elsewhere in the world, people may want to leave big cities like London, and move to stay in a safer place with known allies. They would be paying to reserve their right to do so. Also, growing the EA community in Northern England in general could be seen as a hedge against x-risk, i.e lessen the number of eggs (EAs) in the same, higher risk baskets (London and the South East). Blackpool might be hard to get to in the event of a catastrophe, but the flip side of this is that there would be a lower risk from hostile actors (mercenaries, milita), as well as lower direct damage from nukes and fallout. However, as a safe house it has the disadvantage of it’s address being public knowledge.
The cellars could serve as a nuclear bunker of moderate protection. It will be relatively low cost to keep a stockpile of long lasting food down there, which could be slowly used and replenished by the kitchen over a 2-5 year cycle. There is already bathroom plumbing down there, and other essentials could be easily added.
In terms of a value proposition, it will be hard to assign quantitative value to the outputs of this project with any precision. It’s essentially speculative investing in the EA potential of the guests. There will be compounding effects from those who successfully “level up” in their abilities (such as study and research), and from the work they produce. Future effects of the work done will also have a high variance, and involve many unknowns. This is essentially a form of “hits based giving”. And as with any hits based giving, the baseline that it has to beat is using the same resources on relatively well quantified low-risk interventions, such as those promoted by GiveWell. In this case £5700/guest/year donated to the most effective charity, plus the opportunity cost of what guests would otherwise be doing, which presumably would be fairly low in the situation where staying at the hotel is the best option. Although perhaps the opportunity cost could be of the same order - a couple of thousand pounds a year given to EA charities (10% of a median salary). Again, as with all “hits based” things, it’ll only take one major success for the whole project to be worthwhile.
If there is not enough demand from EAs wanting to stay for free to fill the hotel, empty rooms could be filled with paying guests to help cover costs. People paying cost price (~£210-700/person/month, dependent on occupancy, see budget) would keep costs the same regardless of number of paying and free guests. People paying more would reduce the cost of hosting guests for free. In the event of empty rooms being available, EAs would be welcome to stay and pay cost price, whether working or not, in order to boost community; people not committing to EA stuff are welcome to stay and pay at a markup. In the case of half the guests paying at a markup and half being hosted for free, costs for hosting the free guests would be reduced by the markup. As an example, assuming all 16 guest bedrooms are filled by a single occupant, cost price (excluding stipend) is £330/month per guest. In the case of eight free/cost price guests, and eight guests paying at a 50% markup, costs will be £165/month per free guest, or £3500/year factoring in the £30/week stipend. At the extreme, charging a 100% markup + £30/week (£825/month) for half the rooms would make the hotel revenue neutral, and there would be zero cost for hosting eight free EA guests and the Hotel Manager. This (£780/month) compares favourably to market rates of between £15 and £60 a night for hotels and similar for Airbnbs, especially considering those prices don’t include food. There may be scope to roll this out as a sustainable (non-profit) business model for EA hotels around the world.
Factoring in shorter stays with gaps, the average yield from rooms with paying guests would be reduced, so even with half the rooms set aside for paying guests, if charging a 50% markup, costs for the free guests might realistically be reduced by 10-35%. Costs could perhaps be further offset by charging for meals separately at a higher markup. Perhaps £2.50 for breakfast, £2.50 for lunch, and £5 for dinner, v.s. £2.75/day cost price for food. Separating out the room and board costs might lead to more people eating out though, and overall less revenue coming in.
For many guests, it is anticipated that the hotel will act as a stepping stone to bigger things. A free stay of up to two years should be sufficient to complete a large enough amount of work to enable good future opportunities; ones that would have not been readily available otherwise, be they jobs at EA organisations earned after studying relevant fields, or investment opportunities earned after the creation of a successful start up. The rationale for having two years as a default timescale is that it’s long enough to get deep into work, without having to plan next moves for a while, but not so long as to overly encourage freeloading or dependence. However, in exceptional circumstances the limit will be open to being extended (say a major piece of work is not quite finished, or high value independent research is being continually produced).
In order to help maximise the flourishing of guests’ potential, having an additional member of staff as a full time morale officer/mentor/work coordinator could well be worth it, not only for the guests themselves, but in terms of potential payoff in value created.
Some of you may be thinking: instead of going to all the trouble buying a hotel and starting a new organisation, why not just give people the money instead? Well, for it to be equivalent, they would have to be living (or go to live) somewhere where the costs of living are comparable, otherwise I would effectively be buying them time at a much higher cost. For example, someone frugal living in London might be able to get by on £15,000 a year. So for the same costs they would get about a third of the time; and this is before factoring in the free time-saving services (cooking, laundry, cleaning etc). So unless they were ~4x as productive as the average hotel guest, this would be a bad deal for me as a donor. Also, the community aspect of having a significant number of EAs in the same place is probably worth something too in terms of increased focus, collaboration and morale boosting productivity. Community building via deeper in-person ties is becoming increasingly important to the further development of the EA movement (see here and here).
If people were to live somewhere like South-East Asia, they could probably get the equivalent bang for their buck in terms of living expenses. In fact, I know of a few EAs who are doing this already. To be consistent I, or the organisation this becomes, should also offer grants for budding EA digital nomads. It will be even better if a group of digital nomads formed a hub so there was some kind of focal point for people wanting to do this.
When CEA was starting out, they managed group houses in Oxford for their workers and volunteers. After a while, once Oxford was more established as an EA hub, they decided it best to free up their valuable time and let their staff self-organise their own accommodation and shared houses. The same model could be applied for EAs forming hubs in cheap locations. Perhaps this project could act as an initial focal point, and manage initial accommodation in each location. Maybe the umbrella organisation could be called “EA Hotels and Low-cost Living”?
For consistency, grants should be given in general to any EA whose living costs are low enough. Would this cause perverse incentives though? All else being equal, it’s much better to give promising people an amount that allows them a lot of freedom and slack. However, this makes the value proposition proportionally lower. Providing grants only at low levels of living costs is a better investment for the donor, but it also leaves a gap for people who don’t want to - or aren’t in a position to - radically alter their lifestyles but still need their living costs covered in order to do (more) useful EA things. Given that EA (as a movement) seems to have plenty of cash at the moment, perhaps there is room for this space to grow. I can envisage a hierarchy where the bigger grants have more stringent demands and more competition. I guess this is just the current non-profit (and for profit!) landscape, but for individuals instead of organisations. There are already many such grants in the forms of prizes and scholarships at the high end, but not much at the low end, so this is perhaps where the opportunity is.
There has been some debate recently about funding people/projects at the low end and whether donors are being too risk averse. I think we’re probably at the point where there are more false negatives than false positives, so more chances can be taken on people at the low end. Scammers can be avoided, at least in the first instance, by requiring a prior history of involvement in EA and references from people with standing in the community. The bigger risk is well intentioned but ineffective grant recipients (/hotel guests) just not delivering. However, we are likely already in a situation where EAs frequently go off on their own to work on individual projects that don’t deliver, but we don't hear much about it because of selection effects/social desirability bias (though there are welcome exceptions that come to mind). The hotel scheme makes this more transparent if it is indeed occurring, and it gives us a testbed to try out interventions (H/T John Maxwell). Such failure to deliver will be mitigated by the low costs involved (meaning that there is a lower bar to what level of productivity could be considered effective), but is nevertheless something to keep in mind.
It’s worth noting that in a situation where a potential investment has high risk, but also has high upside potential, the answer to the question of how much to invest is often “a small amount” as opposed to “zero” (Pascal’s mugging does not apply when there aren’t that many similar opportunities, and certainly not enough to come close to draining all your capital. This is certainly the case with the current EA movement). There is also still the risk of “ideological nepotism” (“rewarding people solely for ascribing to the right values and knowing the right memes”) (H/T David Krueger) to contend with. To a certain extent this plays a role in any community that has shared beliefs and culture; nevertheless, being aware of it should help reduce it. The dynamics of status and prestige in the non-profit world seem to be geared toward being averse to risk-of-failure to a much greater extent than in the for-profit world (see e.g. the high rate of failure for VC funded start-ups). Perhaps we need to close this gap, considering that the bottom line results of EA activity are often considered in terms expected utility.
In line with the "hits-based giving" angle, there are large potential upsides to this project. If the project is successful and hotel residents are able to generate value in a way that's clear to other EAs, then we've got a workable pilot for decreasing EA living expenses by a large factor, meaning donor dollars can go that much further. There are also huge potential upsides in terms of community building (imagine a year-round EA Global), funding projects that are less legible to donors, and deploying donor dollars in a way that reduces perverse incentives (the possibility of perverse incentives might be a large part of what’s holding back EAs from giving money to each other) (H/T John Maxwell).
Why a Hotel? Hotels offer a high standard of living (catering, cleaning, laundry services), and are efficient in terms of resource use (catering for many people at once, buying in bulk). Whilst normally associated with holidays, they actually can be viewed as enabling high productivity in general - whether that is a high productivity of leisure, or work. This list describes the benefits, although obviously the Blackpool EA Hotel will not include everything on it. Here is a list of notable people who have lived in hotels, and some discussion. Quite apart from matters of efficient living, there is a certain romanticism about the idea of living in a hotel, evocative of mid-20th century cinema. The EA Hotel: Blackpool will be at the low end, but may inspire other projects that take it to another level (see x-risk hub discussion below).
Having a set-up where there is plenty of communal space, but also private rooms for working, gives the best of both worlds in terms of deep solo work and serendipitous collaboration, as illustrated in Cal Newport’s hub-and-spoke model.
Other options for low cost living include large shared houses, and converted warehouses. Some houses with many bedrooms in Blackpool have similar low costs per bedroom as the cheap hotels; see this list from a popular property website (it was searching on this website with a wide range and sorting by price low-to-high, and reading about the Chelsea Hotel, that gave me this idea. Along with initial priming from research into hotels for communal living by John Beshir). Large shared houses can benefit from economies of scale if tenants are highly communal in their shopping and cooking. Without explicit organisation from the outset, it is generally rare for such high levels of coordination to happen though (I have not lived in a shared house where it has, despite the best intentions of many housemates in several houses). Converted warehouses are similar to large shared houses, but have the potential advantage of significantly lower rents. There are buildings in the Blackpool area where it might be possible (given planning permission) to make rooms for perhaps as low as £3000/room (compared to £7500/room for the hotel). However, already once you are getting as low as £7500/room, effective rent costs start to become a small fraction of living costs (<20% See budget), so even reducing them to zero can only help so much.
Living costs in a shared house could be lower still than the hotel, but not by much more than approximately 35%, which is the fraction of the above costs taken up by staff wages (Staff costs are approx £30k out of an £87k annual budget). So perhaps £3500/year. Going down to absolute minimum levels of food spending (£1/day is possible with bread and margarine, peanut butter, porridge, bananas, carrots and rice), costs could perhaps be as low as £2800 a year. EAs who want more independent living can form group houses nearby, which would be open to being funded by this project. Of course living in a shared house and doing all meals and cleaning yourself might reduce productive EA hours by a few a week, so funding would probably be given at a slightly reduced rate compared to the hotel to factor this in.
I haven’t found many good examples of already existing projects that are similar to this one. Newspeak House in London provides fellowships to people who share a common cause (political technologists focusing on digital democracy); whilst fellows have accommodation provided, they largely need to provide for themselves. Historically, there has been the Chelsea Hotel. There has been much discussion in the EA community of housing projects, and forming new (low cost) hubs, but thus far, progress has been relatively slow, with a few group houses with EA, or part-EA missions coming to fruition (e.g.). The hard part of all projects of this kind is getting people to actually move! In the adjacent rationalist community there are many more group houses, many with a proportion of EA residents. No real low cost hubs have formed as of yet though.
Blackpool Tower and tramlines along the Promenade
X-risk focused EAs in the Geneva area have under consideration, as part of a wider strategy, an x-risk hub, that would both be a focal point for discussion of x-risk with wider society (plugged in to the global diplomacy scene there), and an incubator for new talent. The grand vision is for something much larger and more luxurious; a large complex for 100+ residents with games room, music room, sports facilities, kids play area etc (although it would have apartments rather than a hotel format). It would provide a pipeline for talent to level up and move on to working at x-risk orgs, as well as hosting its own x-risk org focused on global coordination and implementing the fruits of research. This might sound like a rather extravagant use of EA funding, but given the nature of x-risk the return in expected value could easily be well worth it (concerns about Pascal’s mugging notwithstanding). Also, given that OpenPhil are likely to spend a lot more on x-risk in the near future, it is a distinct possibility that something like this could get funded. Although to be clear, the people behind this 100+ resident x-risk hub idea feel that there is insufficient evidence to justify dedicating resources to move ahead with the project at this time.
The Blackpool EA Hotel could serve as a useful test bed for such a larger hub (if successful, it could increase the chances of something like the Geneva x-risk hub getting funding). With a low cost hub and a high cost hub, there could be a progression of people levelling up at the hotel, to enrolling in a structured intern program at the Geneva hub, to researching and implementing things at the forefront in Geneva, or going on to FHI, MIRI, CSER etc).
Currently this project has funding for the first year of operations (and the hotel has already been bought and paid for). Assuming the cryptocurrency markets maintain at least a third of their current value going forward, the next few years are also covered. For longer term sustainability it is desirable for funding to be covered by more than one person, not least due to the greater stability and accountability resultant from having multiple financial stakeholders. To this end, it makes sense to run the hotel as a non-profit charitable organisation. Given the business-like nature of a hotel, a foundation Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) is the best option (this is a corporate body where the only members are the trustees). This has an added benefit of saving having to pay tax on the capital gains used for funding the project (I bought the hotel with my capital gains and plan on gifting it to the CIO).
Best practice says that CIO's should have a minimum of three Trustees. Anyone interested in being a Trustee? My initial thought was that in order to avoid conflict of interest, Trustees should not be guests staying for free, or the manager. But perhaps that will lead the governance of the CIO to be out of touch. Better organisation might result if the Manager, and a representative of the guests, are both on the Board of Trustees. Perhaps then add two independents for balance. So the board would be five - me (as Founder), the Manager (as day-to-day organiser), the EA Guest Rep (relaying the guest experience first hand, and two independent Trustees (for an outside perspective).
Once the organisation is set up, people who think investing in EAs at ~£5.4k/year will produce more value than the same given to top EA charities will be free to donate to it. Options to sponsor individual stays can also be provided. To give non-fee-paying guests (FreEAs?) security and peace of mind that the rug won’t be pulled from under them, there will be a contractual obligation provided by the hotel to provide them with accommodation and food. On the part of the non-fee-paying guests there will be a counterpart to this obligation of abiding by the Code of Conduct, and pledging to work on EA things. Acceptance of long-term (over a month) non-fee-paying guests, and events, will be subject to at least four of five trustees agreeing, including the EA Guest Rep and Manager. Short-term (less than a month) non-fee-paying guests will be accepted at the discretion of the Manager (I am the de facto manager until the full-time slaried position is filled).
In terms of overall productivity, it will probably be best to limit the hotel solely to free EA places. However, In the event of empty rooms, it might be good to encourage donors and other promoters of the project to pay for rooms and stay at the hotel, for community building purposes. In general however, the emphasis will be on filling as many rooms as possible with EA guests working on important things and paying nothing (the goal of the project is hosting such people!). Allocating rooms to paying guests at the expense of such free guests will only be done if it becomes a necessity for the fiscal health of the project (say if reserves drop below 12 months’ runway). But in the extreme, charging a 100% markup on cost price - plus and additional £30/week to cover stipends - for half the rooms would make the hotel revenue neutral, and there would be zero cost for hosting eight free EA guests and the Hotel Manager.
Regarding the stipend, is £30/week enough for phone, laptop, clothes, travel, entertainment, and all other non-food-or-housing expenditure? It seems so with the calculations done in the budget, but perhaps there could be a system where people can request additional funds for emergencies. Also a separate “career progression” fund could be useful for people to attend key conferences likely to help further their work (these funds being separate so as not to increase baseline costs of living at the hotel).
Alumni will be welcome to give back if the hotel serves them well in their endeavours. Perhaps a start-up launched from the hotel might give some equity, which in future becomes worth a lot. This would be analogous to painters giving paintings to the Chelsea Hotel before they became famous, and then the paintings becoming worth millions.
What would the cost of failure of this project be? Conservatively, perhaps selling the hotel at a 15% loss (£20k), and six months of running costs (<£33k (budget) assuming no more than half occupancy if it’s failing). Round to £50k. Plus, say 250 hours of my time, and the time spent by the hotel staff and volunteers. This would need counterfactual adjustment though, which given that the project is high expected value to begin with, could perhaps be largely depreciated. Financially, one way of looking at this is that it’s no more than a bad trade on the crypto markets, of which I made more than one of similar magnitude in the process of making the money to fund this project (I made others that were of much larger magnitude in the opposite direction though!) In fact, even selling the ETH to fund the purchase of the hotel was in hindsight not ideal, given that I could’ve got double the money if I’d waited three weeks! Such “what if”s are neither here nor there though. £50k is still a lot of cash that could be spent on a lot of other good EA projects (or more established giving opportunities). This perhaps behooves more analysis for this project. Then again, it’s sometimes good to just try things and avoid analysis paralysis. Perhaps a happy medium could be struck though - anyone want to make a Guesstimate model? Funding is available to do so.
What is the risk of failure? Even at 50%, the downside (~£50k + counterfactual time) is much more limited than the upside, so it seems like something that should be done. And The Value of Information is high.
A Facebook poll shows 1-3 month stays as the most popular options. However, the most benefit might perhaps be provided to those that stay over a longer term, i.e. 12-24 months. People staying shorter times might well be more likely to have counterfactually managed to work on the same stuff elsewhere, without the free living provided by the hotel.
Antisocial behaviour and petty crime are issues in Blackpool, but hopefully this won’t be too much of an issue for hotel guests if they stick together when out at night. Statistically, it’s no worse than Manchester, and I have been fine so far living there. Given the public nature of a hotel, people not content with having their address readily discoverable should probably not stay at the hotel (at least not long term).
The Hotel Manager will need to make sure that hotel does not fall foul of any of the many regulations that apply. Failing in this regard could have significant consequences, and in a worse case scenario lead to the hotel being shut down, and/or sued. The stairs (and some floors) are a bit crooked from some historic subsidence. This will either need to be fixed (probably overly costly), or perhaps guests can sign a disclaimer accepting the (minimal) risk of using them (the lean is about 5 degrees, so it feels a little like being on a ship initially. One quickly gets used to it though).
For guests coming from outside the EU (or even inside soon, given Brexit), there will be the issue of visas. It should be possible to get a Tier 5 (Temporary Worker - Charity Worker) visa for up to 12 months if the guest is sponsored by the CIO. The CIO will first need to apply to become a sponsor.
What about the name and branding of the hotel? Something straight forward like "The EA Hotel”, or “The EA Hotel: Blackpool”? Or maybe "The Bentham Hotel”? Or something with more in-group appeal? “The Phoenix’ Nest” (H/T Ryan Christopher Augustine Thomas) has associations with incubation, HPMoR, altruism, immortality, and also the english pub aesthetic, and the trope of adventurers meeting at an inn. However, explicitly associating it with EA might not be ideal when factoring reputational concerns; given that the initial funding source comes from risky crypto investments, and the possibility of a failure to deliver in terms of impact. A recent poll on the Facebook group for this project now has “The EA Hotel: Blackpool” in second place, with “Athena” Hotel (what it's currently called) in the lead. This suggests a community preference for straight forward naming, and some caution around attaching the moniker “EA” to projects.
The hotel, with view of Blackpool Tower around the corner.
Perhaps the name could be kept as it is, but the logo could have the “E” and the second “A” of "Athena" a different colour (EA turquoise?). Something like this:
There is a danger if the community is too insular and inward looking that it will develop unhealthy “cult-like” tendencies. This should be mitigated by having a regular influx of temporary visitors from within EA (and occasionally from outside EA).
As with any project that involves moving to a new city, getting people to commit to move, and then actually follow through and move, is the hard part. There have been over 30 people expressing interest so far, but ideally there needs to be another 3-5x this amount to ensure the hotel is well populated. For some, the top consideration is who they will be living with; for them, it will be a case of seeing how the hotel is populated before deciding on moving.
In order to mitigate the risk of hiring an unsuitable manager and then being stuck with them, the job will involve a six month trial period to begin with. The job will also not continue after this amount of time if the hotel proves to be unviable in terms of not attracting enough guests. If there aren’t many guests, the manager can use their working time to focus on developing the wider idea of “EA Hotels and Low-cost Living” (which may lead to a continuation of the job in other circumstances).
For the hotel to be successful, the atmosphere needs to be inviting. To a large part this will be determined by the guests and how well they get on with each other. Also important is the quality of the projects that guests are involved with. Potential new guests will be more likely to join the higher the palpable sense of excitement is regarding the people they will be living with, and they projects they are working on. For example, a strong group of people studying/researching AI Safety should attract others with high potential for AI Safety work. To some extent this is a bit of a chicken and egg situation, but this can be overcome if a strong initial group is committed to moving at the start. Perhaps a pledge where people commit in groups to move could help. Also hosting workshops whereby participants would be welcome to stay on at the hotel afterward for free.
Mental health is an important issue to address. Perhaps there is an increased risk that guests will suffer from mental ill health, correlated with the circumstances they find themselves in (i.e. being in need of funding and/or community), or perhaps the wider community suffers disproportionately in treading the “fine line between genius and insanity”. Fostering a strong sense of community, camaraderie and mutual support should help. And as previously mentioned, a case could be made for hiring a full time counsellor.
For funding people’s living costs elsewhere to the hotel (e.g. South-East Asia), there would be the issue of verifying whether they are actually spending that amount/year, and aren’t spending more, so doing less work with the grant - i.e. if they are getting funding at £5k/yr to live but are spending £10k, then the £5k is effectively only funding half as much time. To some extent this will have to rely on trust. Otherwise, perhaps bank statements and receipts would need to be collected, but this would both add admin costs and be a potential violation of privacy.
UPDATE 09 August 2018: The website is now up at eahotel.org. It's possible to book via the Booking page, and the Wiki page has information for guests and an FAQ. People can also book video calls to talk about proposals for free stays working on EA stuff via the Contact page.
Gathering feedback from the EA community - if anyone has strong reasons to believe that this is not a good idea (or that other uses of the money are much more likely to be higher expected value), please let me know in the comments below (or otherwise).
Crucial considerations aside, whether or not this project is successful largely depends on there being sufficient demand for it, and finding someone capable and willing to take on the role of Hotel Manager. There has been some initial demand already (via discussion of the idea on Facebook), but perhaps the bulk of demand will be take a “build it and they will come” form.
To help gauge interest in this project, please state dates that you would like to stay/host an event at the hotel, so they can be added to the Google Calendar. Comment below (or PM me) with the dates (and % likelihood of them), or your email so you can be given edit access to the calendar (create an event with your name or event name. e.g. I've added an event called "Greg [100%]" from 14 May 2018 to 14 May 2020 - 14th May is the date I gained possession of the hotel).
Getting an initial critical mass of guests is important. The hotel is already open and stocked up. To register your general interest, please fill out this short form. To pre-register for a residency at the hotel, please fill out this longer form. Or PM me to arrange a video call to have a look around and discuss your work plans for your stay. If we are already friends, feel free to just drop in and have a look around/stay for a few days :)
Regarding volunteering at the hotel, helping it get set up etc, I have had a decent amount of interest in this already and probably have enough help for now, thanks for all the support! What’s really needed now is people to fill the rooms doing object level EA work (see here for inspiration), and people to fill the formal roles of Hotel Manager and Independent Trustees (EAs who aren’t likely to directly benefit from the hotel, but are interested in helping the project succeed. The board of trustees of a charity fulfils a similar role to the board of directors at a company. In this case it would be attending fortnightly meetings over video chat discussing the direction of the project and the acceptance of long term guests).
People interested in the Hotel Manager role can apply here.
People interested in becoming an Independent Trustee can apply here.
Currently we have a team of remote volunteers assembled who are stand in trustees until a formal recruitment process is completed. We are proceeding to form a Charitable Incorporated Organisation (CIO) to run the project, with the goal of moving to a five-member team of trustees made up of the Hotel Manager, the EA Guest Representative, me (as Founder) and two formally recruited external trustees, in due course. It would also be useful to have people with knowledge/experience of UK immigration law, as many people from both inside and outside the EU are interested in staying.
Those interested in following the project can join the Facebook group (feel free to ignore the sign-up questions if you aren’t considering staying at the hotel and we have mutual Facebook friends). Easier than giving specific dates for a stay you can fill in this poll in the group.
Looking forward to welcoming many of you to the hotel :)
For useful discussion, promotion, volunteering and support, both remote and in person: John Maxwell, Jessica Cooper, Remmelt Ellen, David Krueger, Maia Pasek, John Beshir, Ryan Carey, Linda Linsefors, Kelsey Piper, Toon Alfrink, Florent Berthet, Chado Nihi, Abraham Rowe, Mati Roy, Alex Dickinson, Tor Økland Barstad, Dony Christie, Ryan Christopher Augustine Thomas, Rochelle Harris, Kyle Hubbard, Simmo Simpson, Genie Yogini, Floris Wolswijk, David Kristoffersson, Liam Donovan, Charlie Rogers-Smith, Tom Rogers, Isobel Colbourn, Chris Colbourn.
 Rooms will need to be tidy ready for the cleaner.
 Guests who want to eat non-vegan food are welcome to buy their own. There will be a combi-oven (microwave, steamer, grill, oven) and toaster available for guest use. Frying and pot-based cooking by guests will not be feasible though. And obviously there are takeaways, cafes and restaurants nearby (including a hell of a lot of Fish & Chips).
 By asking people to write initiatives on whiteboards, for example.
 Perhaps we could reorder them and have room 13 as "the LessWrong suite" or something :)
 This may well be in non-monetary form if little in the way of stable currency remains.
 Still, given the current skewed cash to talent ratio in EA, perhaps it would be a good idea for there to be a program (perhaps run by OpenPhil or CEA) where someone researches the EA sphere in detail to identify bottlenecks in capacity, and competent people who are committed in those areas as volunteers, and then just gives them money to do the EA stuff full time. This would complement the EA Grants program, and would be valuable to people who literally don’t have the time or energy to formally apply for funding. I think it would have a good chance of being highly cost effective. Actually, it does seem that CEA might be moving toward this model ("we plan to move the evaluation processes even further in the direction of mostly evaluating the merits of the applicants themselves rather than their specific plans”) but not without controversy.
 These examples also illustrate the fact that even generally effective people have projects that fail.
 To a rough approximation OpenPhil has ~$10bn to spend (adding the rest of the net worth of the EA community might increase this by a factor of ~2 maybe); There were ~700 applications for the last round of EA grants. Including applicants for other grants (such as those offered by FLI) round to 1000, say with an average ask of ~$100k (probably on the high side). That’s still <1% of the cash available.
 Of course individuals can do this to an extent in terms of batching cooking and other tasks and buying in bulk, but it requires high up-front costs in terms of planning and money.
 Moving often depends a lot on timing - in terms of waiting on other opportunities, finishing projects/courses/contracts, coordinating with friends/partners/family etc.
 Were such a grand hub to also have a hotel attached (enabling even higher efficiency living, see above), perhaps it could end up as a kind of cross between Google HQ and the Waldorf Astoria, but instead of tech, celebrity and politics, the guests would be from the worlds of x-risk research and mitigation, and global diplomacy and coordination; and by rights it should become as important as those two hubs were in the mid-20th century and early 21st, going forward into the 2020s and ‘30s.
 As of 2018-06-04T17:14:09+01:00.
 A version of this would also be in the Terms and Conditions fee-paying guests agree to abide by.
 I’ve been busy over the last couple of weeks ordering supplies and useful items, and installing energy efficient white goods and LED lighting (high lumen daylight overhead lighting for day time, and lower powered warm lighting on walls / in lamps for evenings).
 Which could be possible with Brexit leading to more UK people holidaying at home, or maybe even a growing local fracking industry!?
The spreadsheet here details the budget for the hotel. Included are sheets showing fixed costs and variable costs. Variable costs depend on the occupancy of the hotel - the number of guests can be edited at the top left. Note that all the figures that are inputs to the calculations are highlighted in yellow; to play around with the numbers, please request access and make a copy of the sheet. Figures quoted in the main text assume an occupancy of 16 people (one person per bedroom, excluding the Hotel Manager). £5700/person/year is arrived at with all rooms filled by a single person. If people were to share, filling the hotel to its capacity of 35 people would result in costs of ~£4000/person/year. These figures are without factoring in amortisation of the cost of the building; this is reasonable as the building will remain an asset which should retain value (or even increase in value if Blackpool’s fortunes turn around)
Examples of costed meals and stipend spending are given to show that the allowances of £2.75/person/day for food and £30/person/week for stipend are reasonable. Utility bills are estimated usage.
Room charges for paying guests are shown on another sheet. Shown are cost prices per day, week, month and year (including a £10 admin fee per stay), and markups of 25%, 50%, 100% and 100% plus stipend, which would cover the costs of a non-fee-paying guest. Double and triple room prices are calculated based on the fraction of their share of savings from economies of scale (see calculations on “Rooms” sheet). Indeed, for paying guests, prices could be adjusted depending on the occupancy level of the hotel (lower prices the fuller the hotel is).
Also included are time estimates for admin, cleaning and other work, and sketched out timetables for workers and guests; a table showing details of the rooms; and a list of purchases made to date.