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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

THOUGHTS ON RUNNING A HOSTEL

HOSTELS

Disclaimer: Some of this stuff may be incorrect. I don't claim to know everything about...well...anything. But I thought I'd put down some thoughts for others. Also, I want to state that this is not a criticism of any specific hostel I've stayed at. I'm just setting down what I've found thus far.

One thing that has always struck me as bizarre is the number of hostel owners who have never been traveling and stayed at other hostels. I am baffled about this. To me, it is like someone announcing they will become a dentist without ever seeing a tooth. Like opening a burger joint (restaurant) without ever having eaten a hamburger. Saying 'sure, even though I've never been to a hostel but by God I know what is needed to run one' always confuses me.

These lessons came from the mighty Adam (who runs the kind of hostel you want to live in for awhile), some from living in hostels for several months and some from working in a hostel.


CLEANING

If you hate cleaning up other people's shit, don't own a hostel. Most of what you will be doing revolves around cleaning up extremely messy people's trash, bathroom mess, dishes, leaking juice containers in the fridge, etc. You will be cleaning every day, often multiple times a day. If you want to hire other people to do it, you will cut down on your already narrow profit margin and they won't do as good of job as you want. If you are a somewhat sloppy person, this will be reflected in your hostel and then in your ratings and then in your profits.

Whereas the hostel itself should be clean, the bathrooms should be sparkling. This is the messiest place potentially in the hostel. I've asked a lot of travelers what part of the hostel should be the cleanest and thus far the unanimous response has been 'the bathroom'.


START UP GEAR

Buy beds with gear lockers under the bottom bunk. I came across these in Serbia. Having a storage space easily capable of storing your entire pack filling the unused space under the bed gets rid of the 'we don't have space for gear lockers' excuse. A lot of hostels have gear lockers 'for just the valuable stuff'. I believe that the gear lockers under the bed are superior to these. If someone gets robbed at your hostel - no matter how great their stay was up to that point - your hostel becomes forever labeled as 'the hostel they got robbed at'. Don't be cheap here - get the beds with the lockers under them. Slat beds are for chumps. Most hostels seem to use them because they are a bit cheaper, easy to disassemble and reassemble, etc. I personally hate them because they are really uncomfortable as opposed to a solid piece of wood. Also, I've noticed that penny pinching hostels don't have extra slats - if one breaks they simply space out the others further. Also, as a bed gets more worn, it tends to bow allowing the slats to fall out. Then, you have to ratchet it back closed again. Pain in the ass.

The formula for how many sheets to own seems to be double the number of beds you have. Possibly more if you are trying to do them all yourself to save money. Plan on the laundry service you are using to be late in getting your sheets to you. Nothing looks more unprofessional than saying "We're out of sheets to a prospective guest." Even if you don't mind looking unprofessional, word gets around. Guests who might have stayed and filled a bed (and your pocket) for a week are gone after day day.

I don't recommend couches in the common room. You'll find people sleeping on them and they encourage physical intimacy. These are things you don't want or need in a hostel. Chairs - lots of chairs - are better.

If there is a surface capable of being sat upon, it will be. Having tables, chairs, radiators with a flat top (seen one broken in Bosnia), etc that aren't sturdy will result in these things being sat on and broken - even if amble chairs abound.

Parking is something that the hostel owner need not really concern themselves with. Very few of your clientele (outside of the USA) will own vehicles and those that do will fend for themselves.

Bug killer/bug zapper - get one. Bugs really make a hostel look dirty. Also, hearing the high pitched screaming of a bug as it is electrocuted give a high level of satisfaction.

Advertisement - do not advertise in local papers and such. You don't want that business. You'll get people who have gotten kicked out of their homes by spouses (usually for good reasons), people intent on partying and tearing up the place, etc. Hostelworld, Hostelbookers, etc are the only advertisement you must have. I would go so far as to say if you aren't on every hostel site you can find, you are not in business. Those places will take the pre-booking money (10% of the rooms cost) but it is totally worth it. That is the resource people who do not pre-book use to find you.

Most hostels have towels in the bathroom. My guess is to prevent needless waste of toilet paper. My personal formula for determining how many towels a hostel needs would be BATHROOMS x DAYS TILL LAUNDRY IS REGULARLY DONE ON THE OUTSIDE x 2. You will need to replace towels on a daily basis. It is well known that some backpackers don't bother to carry a towel despite Douglas Adam's excellent advice on the matter. They will use the small hand towel in the bathroom to dry off with. Stock extra, change that towel daily. Also, some people will come to you asking if they can buy a towel. These are the polite yet inept. Personally, I'd just recommend stocking hand towels - they are good enough for bathrooms yet too useless to consider stealing.


NATURE OF THE JOB

If you want to work for a few hours and not think about work any more, I don't suggest running a hostel. Hostels are pretty much a 24 hour job. You will always be cleaning, sitting in or thinking about the hostel.

It is imperative to have a door buzzer you can clearly hear in your room. In the larger hostels it is possible to have people manning a desk 24/7 but in the smaller ones people need to sleep.

When you do something is often just as important as what you are doing. For example, pulling dirty sheets off of the bed. If you do it before the guest arrives and they are presented with a nice packet of clean sheets, great. If they are standing there watching you pull off the dirty sheets, you have failed. Don't get me wrong - there is lots of downtime in a hostel - but you don't get to choose when that is. If you want to present a professional appearance, clean first - even if you are 'feeling lazy'.

If you are not a self starter, don't like meeting people and can't speak any English at all - these are also good reasons to consider a different line of work.

You'll need a minimum of two people at the hostel at all times. This is to allow one to go get things while the other keeps watch.

Have one guy do the money and keep the records. This should be the hostel owner as it matters a lot more to him.

Like every other business I've ever heard of, your first year won't be a good profit year. With all of the start up costs and such, you will be doing well to break even. Hostels operate on a rather thin margin. Often, people look at price first, reviews (on the hostel sites) second.


SPACE NEEDED

Common rooms should be large enough to comfortably seat everyone who stays in your hostel. Ideally, the common room should be well away from the bedrooms so that any noise from it doesn't disturb your guests while they are sleeping.


NOISE

I can't tell you how many hostels I've been in that employees are the ones who make the most noise. Many times, they have the TV cranked up like they are deaf or at a rock concert. This annoys many of the other guests - especially those who don't want to watch TV, talk to each other or sleep. My personal recommendation is not to allow any TV's, radios or other noise making devices. People won't remember the 'great times they had at a hostel watching TV' but they will remember meeting and talking to cool people. Unfortunately, common sense seems to fly out the window with this suggestion. People regard it as their God given right to blast everyone else with their media.


SIGNS

I learned this from Adam at TIU Front Page (see 'Shameless Plugs' below). The best signs are those that combine instructions with humor. Signs mean less work for you and the masses will be happier in your hostel. If you are thinking 'these signs are rude to the guests' know that you are inconveniencing all of your guests by not having them. In addition, having signs prohibiting double occupancy of a single bed will save wear and tear on your bedding. Of course, the fish rots at the head so if you are part of the problem you can't prohibit others from doing it. I've found it is much more comfortable personally to stay at a place that has a lot of rules opposed to one that has none or few rules. Judging by the ratings people have put into things like Hostelworld, there seems to be heavy agreement with this. Signs ensure the rules are known by all and not arbitrary. People are naturally inconsiderate - plan on it.


RULES

Don't allow sleeping bags to be used as they carry parasitic bugs. Putting a sheet down under it won't help against the very small bugs that can burrow into skin. I'm not sure what steps must be done to get rid of these bugs - whether it's just putting down powder or throwing out the mattresses but I was told these sort of bugs are a 'hostel owner's worst nightmare'. I'm not sure what all that entails but it certainly sounds negative.

In conclusion, hostels are mainly about two things - cleanliness and personality. The personality part is easy for some but cleanliness must be rigorously pursued every day.



SHAMELESS PLUGS

Check this out! James Fowler who writes the 'Five Best' blog has made a wiki of blogs. He has kindly added mine to it and so I am delighted to plug his blog. READ IT. DO IT NOW. His blog can be found here.

TIU Front Page Hostel. This is a hostel that taught me a lot about how to properly run a hostel. I recommend going and staying for a few days here. Talk to Adam and Sylwia. They know what it takes to keep a customer happy.



COSTS

Buying all the neighborhood kids ice cream (and myself naturally) from a wandering ice cream merchant, 5 GEL.

5 comments:

  1. Yes well while you are building your uber-hostel with its fancy Serbian under-bed lockers or slat-free construct, you might like to take into account that this ain't the good ole US of A, where choice is an option.
    Trying finding quality adult size bunk beds in Kazakhstan or Turkmenistan.
    Basically when its a choice between less comfortable beds or the floor....we choose the less comfortable bed on your behalf.

    capisce?

    ReplyDelete
  2. And how did the police treat you after the kids mentioned to their parents about the strange fat american man buying them icecream?

    ReplyDelete
  3. Adam - said beds were not in (or I daresay) purchased in the USA but in Serbia. You don't want the Serbs beating you, do you? Also with slat beds, I'm thinking buying a bunch of extra slats will help some.

    Pete - Apparently they have a huge lack of NAMBLA here (reference http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cartman_Joins_NAMBLA for details) hence the parents were OK with it. Due to 'being Logan' I have become a 'neighbor' rather than 'tourist'.

    ReplyDelete
  4. It is significant to know what hostels will and won't give so you know what to expect before you stay there.

    Jericho Hostel

    ReplyDelete
  5. I concur Jaz. I advise reading sites like Hostelworld (and the reviews people put on them) closely. One thing I've found from my brief stint working at a hostel is that people come expecting privacy. "That's a hotel you're thinking of." I respond.

    ReplyDelete

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