What is the difference between service and hospitality? It’s a simple question, but it has powerful implications for your guests depending on how your hostel answers it. I had the privilege of attending the most recent HostelSkills conference in Lisbon, Portugal. The presentations were wide-ranging, covering quantitative topics like revenue management and qualitative topics like staff motivation. One of the favorite presentations among the hostel owners and managers in attendance was from Podstel, delivered by co-owner Ambrose Baptista.
Ambrose explained their five pillars of hospitality. Podstel’s five metaphorical pillars are a valuable mindset for every hostel operator. The ideas and the actions they embody are what separates an average, unremarkable, forgettable hostel from an exceptional, memorable hostel that guests rave about to their friends and fellow travelers. Today we’ll learn about Ambroses’ five pillars, how Podstel embodies them, and how your hostel can too. If you incorporate these ideas into everything you do, if you build these pillars into the foundation of your guest experience, your guests are sure to leave your hostel feeling delighted.
The first of Ambrose’s five pillars of hospitality is an idea that applies to every experience that we have in life. Whether you’re heading on a trip to Romania or going to the grocery store, your happiness with the outcome depends on the expectations you had at the beginning. You can ensure your guests always leave happy with their experience at your hostel if you under-promise and over-deliver.
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You start making promises to your guests the moment they discover your hostel. What kind of first impression are you creating online? Ensure that your website and OTA listings do not over-embellish your hostel. Yes, it’s important to “sell” your hostel with a slick website, professional-grade photos, and a fun and engaging presence on social media, but Photoshopped images and excessively upbeat narratives that bend the truth will paint a picture in your future guests’ mind that will make it all but impossible for the hostel to live up to reality. It may help you sell a few more beds, but it will lead to disappointment, so ensure you create realistic expectations online.
Every hostel has its shortcomings and once your guests arrive you can use the check-in process to address “the elephants in the room.” Maybe your hostel doesn’t have the most modern facilities or the perfect city-center address. During the check-in process you can bring these up to help avoid disappointment later in the stay. For example, at Podstel the bathroom door can be a bit tricky and guests previously found themselves stuck inside. During check-in they now demonstrate to new arrivals how to use the finicky door; a simple solution that has erased the issue. They previously struggled with guests feeling disappointed at how far away Podstel was from the most highly sought-after sites in the city. Podstel created a map for their guests that highlights the attractions nearby the hostel that they might not have known about. They are being candid about their distance from Old Town, but highlighting all the little gems sprinkled a short walking distance from the hostel’s front door.
Ensuring that your hostel creates expectations that don’t exceed your guests’ reality improves the likelihood that they leave satisfied with their experience. Take a look at the way your hostel sets expectations during the booking process and the check-in process and see what you can revise to help their stay be either equal or better than what they expected.
Hostels are a low-budget, low-service form of accommodation, which makes it simple for us to go above and beyond for our guests. When you stay at a five-star hotel, you pay five-star prices, and expect for the staff to treat you like royalty. Because hostel guests don’t expect to be treated like celebrities (at least the good ones don’t) you can delight your guests by providing extra hospitality that they didn’t anticipate receiving. Ambrose gave a few easy examples. Hold a door open or carry a guest’s bag to their room. Can a receptionist take five minutes to change the bedsheets before housekeeping gets to it so that a guest can check in early? These little extras are something travellers want to come standard when they book a luxury hotel, but when they experience them at a hostel, the added touches of hospitality leave an impression.
Podstel’s next pillar of hospitality is to personalize the guests’ experience. Ambrose suggested making a deliberate effort to remember your guests’ names, even if it’s difficult. Discover your guests’ interests and give them a tailored recommendation for something they should see or do in your city. Write their name on their welcome sheet or ask them to pick a song they’d like to hear at the reception desk while you go through the process of checking them in. We all like to feel like we are special instead of just another head in a bed. Ambrose explained that these little efforts to personalize the experience are “the simplest, but most powerful things you can do.”
The next pillar, creating a sense of belonging, is a concept that hostels excel at more than any other form of accommodation. Make your guests feel like they belong by getting them involved. The idea of belonging is closely tied to the idea of feeling “at home”. “We try to recreate the same feeling by organising similar activities like family meals, board games, discussion groups, jam sessions, etc. And to involve the guests as much as possible in the setup, and take down of those activities as well,” explained Ambrose. Making your guests feel at home makes them feel like they belong, and this sense of belonging has a powerful influence over how they feel about their stay.
Try as we might, our hostels are never perfect. The last pillar of hospitality is to do everything you can to resolve problems that your guests experience. Yes it is about resolving issues as they arise, but it’s also, and maybe more importantly, about avoiding them all together; encouraging the guest to let you know before it becomes a problem. We’ve all stayed at a place where during check-out we’re asked “how was your stay?” At this point, with your bags packed and the taxi outside waiting to take you to the train station, the question feels more like a pleasantry than a genuine inquiry. Ambrose suggests giving your guests ample opportunities during the stay to tell you that something is wrong.
It might seem obvious to you, but your guests need to hear, starting during the check-in process and continuing throughout, that if there’s anything wrong during their stay, you want them to come to you. Give them multiple lines of communication. Not everyone is comfortable verbalizing their concerns, especially in this digital age. Podstel prompts their guests verbally, gives them a suggestion box, has signs posted around the hostel, a whatsapp number they can contact at any hour with issues, and a follow-up email that guests receive before the OTA messages them to leave a review. All these avenues of communication show the guests that Podstel cares and is ready to do what it takes to make things right when they go wrong. Doing everything you can to make problem resolution easy also offers dissatisfied guests plenty of chances to vent their frustrations to you, not air them out in their Hostelworld reviews.
These five pillars combine to offer your guests superior hospitality. It’s not enough to offer them great service. Service, as Ambrose defines it, is things like fast wifi, comfy beds, or clean showers. Service is something that “anyone with a bit of money can buy.” Hospitality is not “what” your hostel offers it’s “how” your hostel offers it. Hospitality shines through in your people, the way they deliver, the mood they give off, the emotions they incite, and the overall experience they provide. Hospitality is “the things that people don’t expect, or don’t even know they want.”Podstel’s five pillars of hospitality can separate an average hostel from an exceptional hostel. What expectations does your hostel set? Who among your staff goes above and beyond? Where can you personalize the experience for each and every one of your guests? How can you make them feel like they belong and are at home? When do you give guests opportunities to resolve their problems? These are powerful questions that once you can answer convincingly, you’ll have a hostel that leaves guests feeling delighted, not only wanting to return again but also telling everyone they meet.
Byron has worked with hostels big and small, city and rural. His first job was as a receptionist in San Francisco and his favorite was leading the events for a 500-bed hostel in Sydney. Besides all things hostel related, he enjoys motorcycle riding, especially because it's the perfect way to get from hostel to hostel!
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