Quick, easy and actionable tips to improve your hostel

published apr 18th, 2015

Eric Toupin, blogger & web developer

I have visited more than seventy Guatemalan hostels in the past six months, and have slept in beds running from Q25 per night to more than Q300. At each stop I speak to the owners or managers, take plenty of pictures, and ask guests about their experiences with the hospitality industry in Guatemala.

Soap and key, soap reads 'hotel'

I’ve noticed a lot of common threads along the way — small, measurable details about hostels and accommodations that make an obvious impact on a guest’s experience. As a hostel it’s your reputation that matters most, and it’s your guests’ experience that builds that reputation. Winning new business today to the detriment of your reputation tomorrow is a one-way ticket to failure.

If you own a hostel, improving your guests’ experience — and your reputation — may be easier than you think.

The devil’s in the details

The what not to do list is fairly short, but it’s certainly important. There are a few things that most guests have a hard time tolerating.

  • Poor property & room access. Getting locked out is a drag. If you have a must be back before… rule, think about finding a way to change it. If at all possible, take key deposits and provide your guests with front-gate keys. I’ve come across a few hostels that hold the dormitory key at the front desk. That’s fine, as long as there is always, always, always someone there to give the key to guests when necessary. An unexpected five minute wait when you were just popping in for a jacket or your phone could mean you won’t be recommending the hostel to your friends.
  • Hidden charges. Phone fee, water fee, linen fee, pillow fee, towel fee… where does it end? A good rule of thumb is if most of your guests use it, build it into the cost of accommodation. Extra fees turn insulting real quick. Especially if your guests made their decision based on your "before fees" cost.
  • False advertising. If you don’t have it, don’t advertise it. If your pool is closed, take it off your sign. If your shower’s heater is on its last leg, fix it or don’t advertise hot showers. If you don’t accept credit cards, don’t have a Visa sign on your door. Nothing turns a backpacker’s mood sour as fast as false advertising.
  • Poor security. One of the first things your guests will want to do after arriving is explore. If they don’t feel safe leaving their things at your hostel, they’ll be starting off their stay anxious and uncomfortable. Let your guests know where their things will be undisturbed — in a locker, behind the counter, etc. Depending on your hostel’s location & vibe, a wide open dorm may not feel like safe storage to some guests. Think about how to go the extra mile.
  • Money & payments. If you only take cash and the nearest ATM machine is a long way off, make sure your guests are aware. An unexpected walk to the ATM is a manageable inconvenience — but not knowing about it until ten minutes before your shuttle’s due to arrive can turn your opinion of a hostel around in a few short minutes. Consider Tab money, an easy & safe way for your guests to pay you with their mobile phone.

It’s the little things that count

If you’ve already avoided the major reputation tarnishers, it’s time to move on to improvements. It’s surprising what a few small considerations can do for your guests’ experience.

  • Orientation. This is by far the most important part of checking in your guests. When the receptionist, manager or owner takes three minutes to show guests how the hostel is laid out, how to use the hot water, where the kitchen is, etc, it makes a great impression. Here’s where you can really express your hospitality as well as set your guests’ expectations — disappointed expectations are possibly the greatest source of discontent (and bad reviews).
  • Towels and soap. Some guests bring their own, some guests don’t. Almost all guests would rather use yours. Nobody likes carrying around their own wet towel and soggy soap.
  • Bedside tables or shelves. Whether in dorms or private rooms, a shelf or table that can be reached from bed means you don’t have to vie with your phone, wallet, purse, shirt, book or watch for unobstructed mattress space.
  • Bedside lamps. Nobody likes getting out of bed to shut out the light, then stumbling back in the unfamiliar darkness. Even in dorms a small bunk light lets guests feel more in control of their personal space. I’ve seen battery operated LED lamps fixed to each bunk, which is really great assuming you remember to charge the batteries.
  • Lockers. The bigger the better. I’ve seen full length under-bed lockers and large, closet styled wall lockers. Both are great. Small lockers for valuables are far better than nothing, but a big locker you can drop a whole bag in can’t be beaten.
  • Mirrors in rooms. Mirrors in bathrooms goes without saying, but installing mirrors in rooms with shared bathrooms may not be such an obvious move. Combing your hair, applying sunscreen or makeup, making sure your hair hasn’t gone wild — those sorts of things shouldn’t require a trip to a shared bathroom. Installing mirrors in rooms means less bathroom traffic and guests that feel more at home in their own room.
  • Electrical outlets. Everyone has a phone, camera, tablet or computer to plug in. Ideally, devices could charge over night and be ready for a new day when the sun comes up. That means getting electrical outlets as close to beds as possible. This may prove less important in private rooms (provided there is an outlet available), but in dorms it could mean the difference between a happy guest and a grumpy guest.

Little things add up, and attention to detail really ratchets a guests’ experience to the next level. Whether you’re a Q25 sort of hostel or a Q300 sort of hostel, paying attention to the little things will help build your reputation and improve your business.

Like this article? A full list of Eric Toupin's contributions to Guatemala Hostels can be seen on his author page.

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