No accommodation provider, or any business for that matter, wants to have dodgy or dangerous guests. However communal living, a foundational aspect of hostels, presents a unique challenge in this respect. Beyond the obvious issues with someone who is dangerous or a potential thief, having the wrong type of person in a hostel can drastically change the atmosphere. Even one bad apple can severely affect the experience your other guests have.
I am writing this from my own personal experience managing hostels, my discussions with dozens of hostel owners worldwide, and from multiple threads on the Hostel Management forums from the last 8 years. This is not a new topic, but it is a tricky one. There are many cultural, legal, and societal nuances to take into consideration, as situations can differ drastically around the world. Many of these societal challenges are bigger problems than any one hostel can deal with on their own.
Therefore, hostels must make decisions based on their own cultural and societal beliefs and with their best judgment. Hostels should, however, regardless of local laws and customs, boldly promote, radical inclusion, non-discrimination, fairness and human respect and dignity throughout the world.
With that, I suggest you read this with an open mind, take what you need from it, use what works for you and your business, and leave the rest. Everything here is a suggestion, not a requirement.
Important note: Part 2 explains this more in depth, but there is a big difference between being discriminatory and being discerning with your business. Discrimination is never ok, and in most countries is illegal to some extent (for things like race, class, religion, sex, etc.) This post is not about turning away people who you don't agree with, but rather suggestions of those who will negatively affect the nature or character of your business.
Why is Guest Screening Necessary?
Hostels are very unique spaces where travelers come together for a certain type of shared experience. If you take guests who do not fit your hostel description, you risk any or all of the following: a bad atmosphere, poor guest experience, bad reviews, early checkouts & refund requests, poor reputation, and theft. I’m sure I’m leaving out something, but you get the idea.
Note that I’m not just saying “don’t take con artists or homeless people.” When I say “guests who do not fit your hostel description”, I mean that. Not every traveler who stays with you is going to be your ideal guest. However, if you are a small, cozy family run hostel and you have a guy who is hammered at 9 am taking shots with breakfast and shouting to people, there’s probably enough misalignment to affect your atmosphere. That guy may just be one of many at a party hostel, but if your guests have booked you as a chilled out spot to relax in the country, they aren’t going to be very happy with their experience. Usually those types of situations will show themselves post check-in, but if a person arrived absolutely wasted, it may be a red flag that they'd be better off staying in a different place.
Who should I be looking out for?
This can vary widely depending on your hostel, but a few we've found generally agreed upon:
- Locals (definition varies)
- Anyone without valid ID
- Those without luggage
- Anyone who gives your intuition a weird feeling
Why these people?
Not accepting locals is a frequent worldwide rule for many hostels.
For most, this means residents of that city. However, "local" is also defined very differently by various hostels. For some, city residents aren't welcome, but they will accept someone who, for example, lives on the outskirts and perhaps needs a night to crash after a concert to avoid a long drive home. For others local means anyone in that metro area or even region, but would take guests traveling from another part of the state or country. I've even seen it as drastic as hostels not accepting residents of their own country, after having too many issues. I personally don't think that's necessary or smart, but I have seen it.
So why not accepting locals? Simply put: Not all locals will cause problems, but many problems hostels have are caused by locals. This is because a hostel is designed for travelers. If you are local, you are not traveling. Sometimes not only is that not an issue, it's a benefit. It can mean bringing a great local flavor, knowledge, and experience to the foreign guests. Unfortunately, it can also mean a few different negative scenarios, none of which are beneficial to a hostel.
For one, if you are truly local then, in theory, you should have somewhere to stay- your own house, a friend’s house, family. If a local instead comes to a hostel looking to crash for a night or two...sometimes that means they literally have nowhere else to go and/or no one else wants them to stay. Often not a good sign. Use your intuition here. And while homeless people can tug at your heartstrings as a person (been there), as a business you also have to have boundaries. You are not cheap housing or a shelter. Whether or not that person can pay, if you have a hostel you've likely opened it for genuine travelers. Consider having a list of resources (short-term housing, cheap accommodation, shelters, etc.) ready to go that you can instead refer someone to.
Sometimes it has nothing to do with having somewhere to stay and everything to do with opportunity. It’s a worldwide tale as old as time that dodgy locals have stayed in hostels specifically to prey on tourists and steal from them. Not only are backpackers traveling with enticing loot (phones, laptops, cash, passports), but they often leave their guard down in friendly communal places. It’s not unheard of for a guest to get friendly with other guests only to steal and jet, never to be seen again.
Sometimes a local showing up to a hostel just means they are in between apartments, or recently moved to the city and are looking. These locals are not bad in any dodgy sense, but they still are not good for your hostel. Remember that you are creating an atmosphere of travelers- people who are backpacking their way around the world and choosing to stay in hostels not just because they are cheap (we all know Airbnb can compete these days) but because they are seeking out a community of others to interact and engage with.
A local who is going to their 9-5 all day and then sitting on Craigslist apartment hunting all night likely has no interest in doing the ‘tourist’ things and is not going to add value to what you are recreating. On the other hand, there are occasionally locals who are now settling back down after traveling and love the idea of being immersed in the travel culture while transitioning. Sometimes these locals can have a great impact on your atmosphere, so as always use this as a guide and not a rule.
Again, I’ll reiterate: Not all locals are problems, some are awesome. But since many problems that happen are unfortunately caused by locals, many hostels have a blanket policy of simply not accepting them (or on a case by case basis). Use your best intuition and judgment.
Anyone Without Valid ID
This may seem obvious, but you’d be surprised. If someone is trying to hide something, or pose as someone else, they may try to check in either without an ID or with a non-valid ID. That can mean an expired ID or something that is not government issued, like a student card or a health card. I’ve even heard of hostels having people try to check in with prison release papers.
You may hear all kinds of reasons or excuses (“I left it in the car” or “It’s at my friend’s house”). If your intuition is telling you otherwise, don’t fall for it. This is especially true if the person would have required a passport to enter your country and does not have a valid reason why they don't have one at all. If they can’t or won’t produce one, something’s usually amiss.
If for whatever reason your guest cannot produce a valid, government issued, *photo* ID, you’re probably best off not checking them in.
Some hostels also require a valid credit card. This not only gives you some collateral if they trash your place, but it can also help weed out people who may not have one for a negative reason (like a con artist trying to avoid a paper trail). Not all people who lack a credit card will be an issue- there are plenty of valid reasons to not have one, and many hostels don't require it. But those with a legit reason probably won’t raise flags in other ways as well. Remember to look at this collectively, not just based on one thing. These are all suggestions.
Anyone Without Luggage
No one who is truly traveling does so without luggage. Even the most minimalist backpacker will have at least a carry on bag and somewhat look the part. Anytime I had someone show up at our door without luggage, my spidey sense went off immediately. 90% of the time something was amiss enough to not check them in (more on this below). The rest of the time there was a legitimate reason like it was still in luggage storage at another hostel in the city and they were switching because it was high season and couldn’t extend at the original place.
If someone shows up at your door without luggage, take the time to ask questions. If someone shows up with garbage bags, plastic bags, a cart, etc….ask questions. Real travelers travel with real luggage. They just do. And if they have a legit reason, it will quickly come out with some friendly conversation.
Anyone Who Truly Gives You A Weird Feeling
Sometimes you may not initially have a specific reason to not let someone stay, but deep down you know something isn't right. You know how we teach little kids to listen to their inner voice/intuition/feeling in the pit of their stomach to stay safe? Yeah, we shouldn’t forget that when we are adults. Especially when running a business that involves young strangers living together.
Usually my staff in the past did really well at screening guests, but sometimes people that shouldn’t be there slip through. I can’t tell you how many times after a situation happened and I had to kick someone out that I would hear one of them say ‘Yeah man, they gave me a weird feeling, but I didn’t know what it was’ or ‘I really didn’t want to check them in, but I felt bad saying no.’
This isn't about turning away every person you feel is 'different' or 'weird'. That's not in the spirit of inclusiveness that hostels promote. I'm talking about listening to your intuition that something just isn't quite right, and asking some questions to find out more information. There's a big difference.
I’ll get into more detail with Part 2 on the HOW of guest screening, but the golden rule is this:
If you wouldn’t feel comfortable sleeping in a dorm with the person, or have them hanging out in your house, neither will your guests.
I highly recommend to not stray from this rule! Not because you feel bad. Not because it’s low season and you won’t fill the bed. Not because it’s high season and this person won’t have another place to stay. You are not a charity, you are a business, and one that needs to keep both atmosphere and safety.
**I will reiterate a few points once more:
- Never do anything illegal- follow all laws & regulations for your hostel, city, country.
- None of this is set in stone- these are suggestions, and it is up to the business to decide what is best for them
- Use red flags for further inquiry- have a discussion with the guest to see if there is truly an issue
So now that you know more details on who to look out for….how do you go about doing it? Stay tuned for Part 2 explaining just that.
Do you train your staff to screen guests? Who do you look out for? Sign in and comment below.
**I know many of you comment on these blogs on the site's FB page, which is great, but it would be even better to have the comments directly on here for everyone to read. Thanks for your input and helping to further our knowledge.**
In case you missed it:
<< What I Wish I Would Have Known: Wisdom from Hostel Owners & Managers
>> Guest Screening, Part 2: Tips, Procedures, & Considerations
Just joining the show and don't know who I am? Check out my introductory blog post.
As always, send any suggestions, questions, or thoughts on the blog my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace & love,
P.S. Don't miss out! Follow Hostel Management on Twitter or Facebook if you would like to receive updates when my new blog posts are made.