Once when I was working with a small hostel the owner showed me their housekeeping procedures. When it was time to mop the floors, he told me they poured a splash of cleaning chemicals into the bucket. “Okay, but how much is a splash?” I asked. He looked back at me bewildered, and assured me that common sense applied; a splash means a splash. A few days later a volunteer was asked to re-mop the floor because he had used too much product, leaving a soapy, streaky residue all over the bathrooms.
When the people that power a hostel have to use their discretion, nothing can be planned for and anticipated because each day things will be done differently. One week the mop bucket will be too soapy and the next week too diluted. If your hostel depends on having the owner or a superstar manager there to keep the hostel on track, do you really own a hostel or do you own a job running a hostel? Having systems to run your hostel for you are essential. They allow your hostel to provide a consistent, quality guest experience that’s powered by the systems you have in place, not the people that happen to be operating them.
To have a consistently great hostel, your people run the systems and the systems run the hostel. These systems are “a way of doing things” and they are necessary because there’s always going to be a gap between the way your staff members naturally work and the way your hostels needs to work. This way of doing things has to be documented, most likely on paper and nowadays increasingly on video, to show your staff how to run your hostel in the most efficient and effective way.
Information is power
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Once you have these systems in place, your hostel will not only operate more consistently, but also it can be operated by low-skilled people. It’s great to hire experienced staff when they're available, but the long-term success of your hostel depends on you or your manager being able to take a person who has never cleaned a bathroom before, who has never worked the front desk, and turn them into a great hostel worker.
The first step towards a systems-operated hostel as opposed to an owner-operated hostel or a manager-operated hostel is to document everything involved in your current hostel operations. Remove chance from the equation by offering specific directives. Wherever your operations manual leaves something up for interpretation, do your best to define it, to quantify it, so that it doesn’t matter who is assigned to the task, the veteran receptionist who’s been working for three years or the work trader who arrived yesterday, the finished product will almost be the same.
Once you’ve documented your current way of operating the hostel you should be able to take the afternoon, the weekend, or the month off and know that your guests’ experience will be systems dependent instead of people dependent. However, once you take your break, the next stage begins. It’s time to start measuring, experimenting and making improvements.
A professor of Psychology at Arizona State University led an experiment in which people were asked to donate money to cancer research. Sometimes they asked, “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation?” and other times they asked, “Would you be willing to help by giving a donation? Every penny will help.” The people who were asked the second version were twice as likely to donate. These types of experiments happen all the time at universities and in big companies (“Will we sell more juice with a blue bottle or a red bottle?”) but they rarely happen in small businesses like hostels. Why?
If your hostel could get guests to be twice as likely to check out on time, twice as likely to sign up for a tour, or twice as likely to leave you a review, just by changing the way you asked them, would you do it? Every element of your hostel's operation: How you check out your guests, whether you dust first or vacuum first, if you host a taco night or a pasta night, it all has an effect on your staff and your guests, whether you measure it or not. Even the smallest 12-bed hostel is both an art and a science. In this way, systems enable you not only to maintain what you’ve already accomplished at your hostel, but also to uncover ways to make it even better.
Many small hostel operators think of systems as unnecessary or optional. But without a model for running your hostel, your property faces much bigger problems than soapy floors.
First, without systems in place to provide structure, a hostel can’t provide a consistent guest experience and your customers will be let down or confused. It would be disappointing to stay at a hostel and have an excellent experience, only to return again and find that everything’s done differently because it’s all left to the whims of who is working that day.
Plenty of hostels provide a consistent guest experience without having good procedures for staff to follow. In these hostels, the manager or the owner is enforcing the consistency. Rather than staff referring to a housekeeping checklist that shows them how to clean a room, they refer to a manager who corrects them when they forget to check the unused lockers for garbage. The problem is, leaders, whether owners or managers, are a poor substitute for systems.
Excellent managers can be hard to find, and your business continuity is left to chance if the operation depends on having a unicorn of a manager to function properly. Many hostel owners have fond memories of exceptional managers from yesteryear; managers who ran the hostel so flawlessly that the owner could finally take a break and go on vacation without fretting. These stories always end when the unicorn manager finally moves on, and the owner remembers just how hard it is to find good people. With the proper systems in place, inexperienced staff can depend on your expert procedures rather than your expert manager to consistently maintain a high standard for your hostel.
Even without superstar staff, some hostels perform well due to the constant presence of the owner. However, if you are vital to the hostel’s operation, if your people can’t maintain standards without your constant interference, do you really own a hostel, or do you own a job? If you want to take a vacation, start another hostel, or just do something else, how can you if the hostel depends on you being there to function properly?
Besides being chained to your hostel, without systems, you’ll have a much harder time selling your property if you are the secret sauce. The internet is full of listings for hostels for sale that sit stagnant for years without a buyer, or hostels where the owner expects to be handsomely rewarded for all their years of sweat and toil spent in their hostel. Sometimes the problem is that those years were simply spent working IN the hostel, instead of working ON the hostel.
Some hostel operators will read this article and think, “Wow, what a boring, clinical, emotionless way to run a hostel. There’s no way we’re going to write a procedure for change the toilet paper roll and then experiment on whether it should face inwards or outwards!” Hostels are so much about people that all this talk about systems can sound a bit robotic, but when implemented effectively, systems can actually help motivate and keep your staff happier.
One of the factors that keeps us motivated at work is the pursuit of mastery. It feels good to get better at something. The first time a hostel worker wrestles with a fitted sheet it feels like torture, but when an experienced cleaner tackles the top bunk and changes the sheet quickly and effortlessly, it’s rewarding (and impressive). Systems help your people progress towards mastery because they show us “this is how its done” instead of just expecting us to “figure it out” or “use common sense.”
Besides the motivating power of getting better at our jobs, systems give us a vehicle to shape the future of the hostel and to be innovative. The world is ever-changing and so your systems must change and adapt as the world changes. Inviting your staff to be a part of that process, welcoming their new ideas and rewarding them for uncovering a better way, can be incredibly motivating.
In every property, whether it’s a 600-bed city center hostel or a small rural guesthouse, when the owner arrives in the morning, the question of the day is not "what work needs to be done?" Instead, the question is "how must the hostel work?" Would you like to expand your hostel or open another one? If so, your business will inevitably grow to the point that you can’t have your hand in everything the hostel does and you’ll need systems to take your place. Maybe you have no desire to grow. Still, you need systems so that your hostel can operate, even if you take a sick day, even if you go on vacation, even if you sell it to someone else; in other words, even without you. Without the right systems to run your hostel, do you really own a hostel, or do you own a job?
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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