17% of hostel owners list hiring and managing staff as their #1 challenge when it comes to running their hostel. Yet, most mistakes can be prevented by applying a few key rules.
This article covers the reasons why great staff is a crucial part of your business and goes over to the 8 most important factors to make the right decision.
As always, we’re going to focus on proven concepts. The following tips are first-hand experiences collected through interviews with hostel owners and my own experience as an employer.
During the summer, I had up to 13 “average” employees working for me until I found myself spending about 3 hours each and every day to coordinate all of them. I learned the hard way that employing fewer excellent workers is superior to many “semi-good” ones.
Hence, my goal is to enable you to skip that stony learning curve by following the guidelines below.
This article in combination with it’s bigger brother “9 tips for managing hostel staff”, is a two-part series that will save you years of experience.
Alrighty, let’s get to the “beans”!
(It was recently brought to my attention that in today’s day and age of vegetarians and vegans, beans might be the more suitable alternative to meat 😅)
Why Hiring Great Staff Matters
Many hostel owners are aware of the fact that staffing is important. However, in my experience, only a few have understood the real value of their staff.
The following advice is a response I received in one of my surveys:
Your staff not only greatly affects the first impression of a guest but the lasting impression of your hostel altogether. They are literally the face of your hostel.
When I look at my past visits of hostels, I barely remember any details other than the building structure. However, I always remember how the hostel and especially the staff made me feel during my stay.
After all, we are all humans – BIG bags of emotions.
Studies have shown over and over again that people tend to be significantly more influenced by subjective factors (e.g. friendliness of your staff) than objective ones (e.g. new facilities). [Source]
Hence, the better your staff, the more likely it is to receive glowing reviews which will attract more bookings in return.
Yet, the challenge when hiring staff isn’t limited to finding great people, it’s also a matter of making them stay. Across all industries, 31% of employees quit before making it to their half-year mark. [Source]
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the real turnover rate in the hospitality industry is 2 to 3 times higher than in other industries. In plain English, that means we’re talking about 62-93% of staff that quits within 6 months!
Well, I’ve got good news and bad news for you.
Let’s start with the latter: Even with the most sophisticated staff manual, it still costs plenty of time and money to hire and integrate new staff.
Now to the good news: By knowing what to look out for when hiring new staff, you can greatly influence their quality AND how long they’re likely to stay at your hostel. And that’s the goal.
You want to hire and retain a motivated and proactive team that loves to enhance your guests’ experience. The question is, how do you get there?
8 Tips For Hiring Great Hostel Staff
Here’s a list of proven practices for choosing the right staff.
#1 Know Exactly What You Want
Preparation is king. You probably haven’t started your hostel without a plan, right?
And the same holds true when it comes to hiring your staff: You need a crystal clear description of what you’re looking for BEFORE taking a single step to promoting your job offer.
In fact, I advocate creating ever-evolving job descriptions for every “category” of staff (e.g. front desk, housekeeping, managers, etc.). A simple Google Doc will do the trick.
Start by writing your first job description that includes all aspects of your job offer:
- 1) What you are looking for
- 2) What you expect → Skillset + attitude
- 3) What you offer → What’s in it for them besides money?
- 4) Working hours and payment
As soon as you notice a new character trait or skill that they should have, update your previous list so that it’s a matter of minutes to upload a new job offer in the future.
Furthermore, I recommend to add additional information about the application process in general:
- Where do they have to apply and until what date?
- What additional documents do they have to send in?
- When can they expect an answer?
That way you avoid having to tell the same old story over and over again.
That said, I am a fan laying all the cards on the table. Without exception, every single job description of mine starts with the following sentence: “I’m going to be completely honest with you.”
In other words: Give them a realistic job preview. Do not try to hide allegedly negative aspects the job entails. Transparency is key if you’re interested in long-term staff.
#2 Know Where To Look For Potential Staff
Okay, by now you already know what to look out for… but where should you be looking?
There are several options that can greatly influence the quality of people you get. Here are my favorite ways of hiring people.
A) Ask your current employees
If you’re already running a hostel and you have some excellent staff members, it’s a great idea to ask them for referrals. I personally found that to be very effective because your staff knows what you expect and they won’t refer someone that will disappoint you.
In fact, studies have shown that employee referrals perform up to 15 % better than other types of hire and have a 25% higher retention rate. [Source]
Boom! Imagine the effect of this outperformance in the long run – that’s incredible!
To further increase the motivation of your own staff, you could also offer incentives or create recruitment cards that they can give away when they meet somebody.
They could also help you with the job description. If you let them read it – the ones that perform these tasks every day – they might say: “Yeah, but you forgot X, and Y really sucks.”
B) Ask your guests
If you’re looking for short-term staff for easy yet important jobs that demand less responsibility, asking your current guests can be a great method.
Many travelers are short in money. Hence, some of them would be happy to reduce their costs by working for accommodation. However, keep in mind that they must have a work permit.
Furthermore, I suggest to take a passive approach (e.g. a sign) instead of actively asking around.
C) Social media
If you’ve read my article about social media for hostels, you probably know by now that I’m not a big fan of this overly hyped technology when it comes to increasing your occupancy.
However, I definitely think that social media is a great tool for job offers. Not only is it free of charge, you’re also likely to reach past guests.
Let’s face it: very few travelers connect with your hostel prior to their stay. That’s rather something they do while being at your hostel or after their stay. And that’s the key here: you reach people that already know you and your hostel.
Moreover, posts are predestined to be shared or attract notice and comments which further increases your visibility.
D) Internet recruitment platforms
Depending on where you’re located, there are several websites that reach thousands of people for little to no money. Common ones include:
However, while they can attract awesome staff, I personally experienced the quality to be lower than through the first three options I mentioned above.
If you’re looking for volunteers respectively staff that is working in exchange for accommodation, I’d go with Worldpackers. It literally does half the job for you when looking for volunteers because it shows you the reviews of each worker.
If you’re in an area that lacks good workers, you might need to go the extra mile:
- Hold an ‘open house’
- Create a page on your hostel website: “Work with us”
- Network at events
- Use headhunters or staffing agencies
However, in most cases the tactics mentioned in A-D will do the trick.
#3 Clear Out Your List Of Applicants
Imagine an Excel sheet that lists thousands of numbers. What’s one of the very first measures you take to get an overview and to see what’s really relevant? – You make use of the filter option.
And that’s also what I suggest you do when it comes to job applications: keep what’s relevant and dispose of the rubbish. This is also known as “screening”.
Two things grabbed my attention:
- 1) Their history
- 2) Their current situation
These are two key components you want to ask for when writing your job offer. You can get insights into their history by reviewing their CVs. However, their current situation is typically something you have to specifically ask for.
Example: If a backpacker stayed at your hostel for 2 weeks during his travels in your country and asks for a job at the reception, how likely is it he or she is going to stay long-term?
Well, there are always exceptions, but at first, that wouldn’t sound too promising to me.
Another example: Let’s say you see that one of your applicants has a postgraduate degree in Engineering. How likely is it that he or she is going to fit in as a receptionist? And what are the odds that this applicant is going to stay longer than 6 months?
For me, that’s a case for the bin.
Apart from the actual information they’ll send you, I advocate to focus on HOW they’ve applied. Actions speak louder than words. Hence, if someone sends you a CV full of typos in a horrid format, how caring will this applicant be when it comes to his job at your hostel?
The exact same holds true for applicants that arrive late, unprepared, or need ages to respond to your messages.
Besides these “standard” measures, there are two extra filters I personally love to use when hiring:
A) The “hidden question filter”
When I write a job description, I typically add a list of questions at the bottom where I explain the application process. However, I also add one extra question about them in the middle of my job description.
It typically starts like this: “When applying for this job, I’d love to know X”
I’d say 80% of the applicants miss answering this question in their application. And that’s great! That instantly tells me how accurate they’ve read my description and how serious they are about getting this job.
The remaining 20% that do answer get highlighted because I’m looking for exactly those people with an eye for detail.
Now, is this method mean? I think it’s only fair.
First and foremost: My time is way too valuable to hire second-tier people. And secondly, it also saves future time, effort and discomfort on their side instead of hiring him or her only to dismiss them shortly after. Not to mention how a misfit could negatively affect the work days of your great staff.
But now to my absolute favorite way to sort people:
B) The “video filter”
As the name implies, I literally ask applicants at the very end to record a video for me. Yes, you read that right.
This is a filter that I only use for jobs that require a high amount of ambition and a certain tolerance of uncomfortable situations (e.g. front desk).
This is what it looks like in action:
“If you want to stand out as one of the top applicants for this position, grab your cell phone or hop on your laptop with your webcam and cut a quick video. Give me a little introduction of who you are, and answer the following two questions.”
The two questions are typically:
- Why is now the perfect time for you to land this job?
- What excites you most about this job?
I then explain in one sentence that they can simply upload the video on YouTube as “unlisted” so that it can’t be seen by anyone without the link.
Let’s take a look behind the scenes to understand why this is such an effective method:
- 1) It’s a HUGE gate
Let’s face it: It’s freaking uncomfortable to record ourselves on video. Hence, when I get messages such as “I have a sore throat, I can’t do the video at the moment”, I’m truly glad!
It instantly tells me that this person doesn’t want it bad enough.
When he or she tries to avoid uncomfortable situations during the job interview, how likely is it that they act the same on the actual job? (e.g. dealing with an overbooking, reminding obnoxious guests to keep the house rules, etc.)
- 2) It’s additional work
Not only do they have to cut the short video, they also have to figure out how to upload it on YouTube in order to send me the link. I’m well aware of the fact that most people aren’t familiar with the “unlisted” feature of YouTube and I keep my description thereof short on purpose.
In other words: I want them to show me that they’re willing to go the extra mile.
Again, the purpose is not to bother people but rather to provide an additional opportunity for extraordinary staff to stand out!
#4 Conduct An Assessment Center
At its core, an assessment center is a job interview with several applicants. It typically consists of a short self-presentation and is followed by a number of exercises designed to assess the full range of skills and character traits required for the job.
The exercises are typically similar to the real job. For a receptionist, it could be to receive a fake phone call or dealing with a fictional guest complaint.
After all, assessment centers have become the standard in big companies because it’s the most reliable method of assessing potential employees. It also saves time since you only have to answer each question once. [Source]
In fact, I’ve taken part in six different assessment centers when applying for a position as an Engineer. Some of them took 2-3 hours and others occupied two full days. I also assisted one assessment center during my time of running a financial consulting business.
That all being said, I have ambivalent feelings about assessment centers:
On the one hand, I know and experienced first-hand how much deeper insights you can get during an assessment center compared to a normal job interview.
On the other hand, I find it to be on the borderline to being disrespectful towards the applicant. After all, how valued do you feel by a business (e.g. a hostel) if they invite all applicants at once?
During my applications for a position as an Engineer, I found myself sitting in one assessment center with more than 30 other people. Even if they had chosen me, I would have declined. It was awful.
Hence, if you opt for this method, I recommend interviewing no more than 2-3 people at once.
#5 Know What To Ask
To filter the right candidates for your job, you’ll inevitably come to the point of meeting them personally. But what do you ask them?
Here is how NOT to do it: Just get to know each other and see how it goes.
Nope, winging it is not the way to find great staff. Instead, be prepared and have a list with questions. That said, there is no right or wrong when it comes to the actual questions.
However, keep yourself out of legal hot water and avoid questions considering their age, gender, sexual orientation, religion, race, ethnic origin, family status, disabilities, and military record.
Yep, you read that right. Asking for their age can get you in trouble.
As a general rule of thumb, apply the 80/20 rule when it comes to talking: let them do the majority of the part by asking open-ended questions (what, how, why, when, where, etc.) instead of closed questions that only allow for a “Yes or No”-answer.
The one who asks is the one who leads and is in control. That also helps in case you’re as nervous as your applicants 🙂
Here are two questions that I’d definitely include in your list in order to assess how long someone is going to stay at your hostel:
- 1) Where are they from and how long do they already live here?
If the applicant comes from another country, you also might want to ask for their current visa status.
Locals typically stay much longer than travelers who’ve just moved to the area. If you ask them directly how long they’re going to stay here, it’s likely that they’ll lie.
In fact, I received this advice several times when I applied for jobs as a backpacker in Australia. In order to get the job, all the other travelers recommended to always say that you’re going to stay in the area for at least a year. Even if you already made plans to leave after a few weeks.
- 2) What are their goals and aspirations in life?
Most people see working at a hostel as a stepping stone rather than a career path. Hence, in my experience the ones that answer something like “I don’t know” tend to stay longer and be more loyal than people with specific goals in mind.
Simply put: An overachiever probably won’t be happy working at your front desk for years. Sad, yet true.
Lastly, try to include some behavioral questions.
While you can’t see their actual work ethic during a job interview, you can get some valuable insights by asking behavioral questions:
- “Tell me about a time when you had to deal with X. How did you handle it?”
Or if the applicant doesn’t have any prior experiences:
- “Imagine X. How would you handle it?
#6 Know What To Look For
Okay, the homework is done and your list of prepared questions is all written out. But what should you look for during the job interview?
Here are the main things that I’ve collected from a survey among hostel owners:
- How well does the applicant speak the required languages?
I stopped counting how often I asked for a recommendation in various hostels only to realize that the staff didn’t understand what I was talking about.
The language barrier kept them from doing their job: serving guests. This is an absolute no-go if you ask me. Hence, if most of your guests speak English, your staff not only needs to speak English fluently, but eloquently.
- Are you able to build rapport quickly with him or her?
Obviously, this is something you only need to look out for when hiring staff that communicates with your guests. If the ice doesn’t break within minutes, it’s likely they’re unable to build rapport with your guests as well.
That said, I’m a fan of having the job interview be held in the same atmosphere that they will perform their job in: casual and low-key. Make him or her feel good. There’s no need for a stiff conversation.
- How do they look?
Imagine you’re a guest. Would you like to talk to this person? Or would you rather avoid contact?
It might sound trivial, yet when I look back at all the hostels I visited so far, I remember several scary looking receptionists that I wasn’t comfortable talking with… and I’m a well-built guy…
- How does he or she greet you?
Is it warm and welcoming? Does the applicant keep eye contact and smile?
These are key attributes for staff that are in regular contact with your guests.
Now, last but not least, the most important question:
- How do you FEEL after the interview?
I don’t have any statistical proof for this recommendation but I experienced this to be very true: If it doesn’t feel right, it’s not going to be a good fit.
Even if we can’t rationalize it, our gut feeling tends to know the answer – and that’s coming from a former engineer and financial consultant who was trained to act utterly rational. Haha 😋
Thinking things through is often the better choice when it comes to decisions based on a single or very few factors (e.g. should I buy white bread or whole grain bread?). However, our gut has a way bigger capacity.
Hence, as soon as there are thousands of different aspects included (e.g. do I trust this person?), I recommend you listen and trust your gut.
#7 Hire Attitude, Not Experience
Okay, you’ve done your job interviews and now it’s time to select the right candidate. But who should you hire?
First and foremost: Avoid impulsive decisions directly in or after the job interview. A simple 24-hour window prevents both parties from making too fast decisions when it comes to hiring and accepting the job. The motto is: sleep on it.
I learned this simple, yet effective technique reading Vikki Matsis’ book “Inside an American Hostel” (recommended read). She’s the manager of the NotSo Hostel in Charleston, USA, and shares plenty of insights about the hiring and managing process.
In my experience, it has always been the better choice to hire people with the right attitude rather than solely looking for skills and experiences.
The truth is: you can pretty much teach all skills that are necessary in order for them to do a great job. However, the work ethic and attitude most often belong to the category of things that can hardly be influenced.
In addition, a language barrier is another factor that is tough to overcome and takes a long time. Sure, the language will improve eventually but that’s something I personally would make sure is given since it’s so crucial in serving guests.
If I had to create a hierarchy of factors when hiring people, it’d look like this:
- 1) Will the applicant do the job? (Attitude and personality)
- 2) Will the applicant fit in? (Values)
- 3) Can the applicant do the job? (Skills and experiences)
In fact, I often find it easier to hire someone with little to no experience at all because they’re often most eager to learn and bring a can-do attitude to the table.
It’s like a blank sheet that you can design the way you want instead of using a template that makes it hard to modify. In other words: it’s harder to break old bad habits compared to forming new ones.
#8 Include A Probation Period
There’s no realistic way to find out about their actual work ethic other than experiencing them being in the trenches.
However, be sure to set a fixed probation period (min. 2 weeks, max. 3 months) in case it doesn’t work out the way you planned. That way you have a documented excuse to let him or her go:
“Thank you for all the work you did here. I truly appreciated having you here. We are making some changes and I will no longer need you to work any shifts. I am sorry.”
P.S. People who read this blog were also interested in insights into proven staff management techniques.
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