Last month we published a blog on the importance of “Guest Screening”. This is a tricky topic, and we received a lot of feedback and multiple points of view. One thing remained certain, many hostels around the world take precautions in some form to keep “bad apples” out in an attempt to maintain the integrity of their businesses and improve the safety and comfort of their hostel’s overall community.
A note about my writing: although my typical style is usually fun, lighthearted, and frequently infused with a dose of sarcasm and wit, this post will be fairly different. As this topic is quite complex and nuanced, I want to avoid any misunderstandings or unintentionally offending someone. Therefore I will do my best to merely highlight the collection of possibilities, suggestions, and advice I have gathered from talking to experienced hostel owners throughout the world.
As stated in Part 1, there are many cultural, legal, and societal nuances to take into consideration, as situations can differ drastically around the world. Sometimes societal challenges are much bigger problems than any one hostel can deal with on their own. In fact, an unfortunate truth in some countries and localities means having overly inclusive guest policies, relative to local customs and laws, will actually get the hostel in trouble in terms of local politics and business reputation.
Therefore, hostels must adapt their screening policies based on regional cultural and societal norms, local laws and use their best business judgment. That said, we hope hostels will, regardless of any local laws and customs to the contrary, boldly promote radical inclusion, non-discrimination, fairness, human rights, and dignity throughout the world.
Below I will outline some of the policies and procedures I have heard from various hostel owners around the world. I am not promoting one policy or procedure over another. While I am illuminating the range of options that may or may not be available to hostel owners, you should always defer to your local laws, customs, what feels right to you and decide how much you want to push the envelope of inclusion in your hostel.
Is guest screening the same as discrimination?
It might be. Or, it might not be. We, of course, do not promote or condone discrimination. However, with guest screening, the question of it being the same or not all depends on the policies you are trying to enforce and why you are trying to enforce them. Let’s take a few examples:
“No shoes, no shirt, no service”
In this example, race, gender, religion, nationality, etc doesn’t matter. If the rule applies equally to all, it’s probably not discrimination.
“Only classical music allowed. No rap music!”
This is trickier. If the rule is based on the hostel owner’s preference for classical music in their hostel, then it’s likely not discrimination. However, if the rule is in place because the owner stereotypically associates rap music with a certain type of person, then it’s discrimination.
“Sacred city. Modest dress required for all women.”
Even trickier. Many people in the world would say this is discrimination. Many others would say it’s simply showing cultural respect. Either way, no matter how much a hostel wants to toe the line of inclusiveness, it could also be business suicide to go too far in some countries. At the end of the day, it’s always a choice to be made by the hostel owner.
As you can see from just the few above examples, this topic isn’t so black & white or clear cut when we are talking about hostels all over the world.
Why do guest screening?
Some people (especially those who have not managed a hostel) may say, “Ban all discrimination in all forms! Let everyone stay!” However, for most hostel owners, this is not a valid option. Anyone who has managed a hostel knows there are certain individuals who will (intentionally or unintentionally) harm your hostel community and your business reputation. Whether they are thieves, con-artists, have a substance abuse problem, poor hygiene, malevolent sexual or aggressive behavior, a hostel manager will generally want to find ways to exclude these individuals from their hostel.
The challenge is to use discernment and not discrimination. But what does this mean? We all know you should never exclude someone from the hostel based on race, gender, religion etc. Not only is this wrong, it’s illegal (or should be) in many countries throughout the world. Yet using sound and careful business judgment that is not based on factors which the guest cannot control, may be appropriate and necessary in order for the hostel to do some form of guest screening.
Is it legal to do guest screening?
Again, this will depend on your national and local laws. Many countries have some version of “You have the right to refuse service to anyone” as long as that decision is not discrimination based on a protected class (which vary from country to country and sometimes city to city). For example, in the U.S. sexual orientation is still not a federally (nationwide) protected class, however in San Francisco and many other cities discriminating based on sexual orientation is illegal based on local law.
How to protect your hostel from a discrimination claim
Regardless of the legal, cultural, and societal nuances where your hostel is located, we recommend you develop a written inclusion policy that states who is and who isn’t allowed to stay in your hostel. Then this policy should be carefully reviewed (hopefully by an attorney) to make sure it does not run afoul of the law.
Writing your policy down in advance protects you because it makes it harder for someone to make the accusation that you specifically wrote the policy to target and exclude them. It will also help to guide your staff toward discernment and away from discrimination. Once you have a written hostel inclusion policy, you should apply it equally and fairly to all guests. Otherwise, the policy could be ruled irrelevant if you only use it as a tool for discrimination.
How to write your hostel inclusion policy
When writing your policy you're less likely to run afoul of discrimination if you only think about excluding guests based on specific traits and behaviors that are concrete, observable, reportable, and non-discriminatory.
Here are some examples of specific traits and behaviors you may or may not choose to exclude. Again, these are only suggestions based on screening techniques we have heard from various hostels around the world. The specific conditions for guests staying in your hostel may include some of these items or they may include others:
Identification - Most hostels require identification to stay. However, simply stating that ID is required might be vague for staff and might not provide the guest screening you are looking for. You can usually be as specific as you want about this identification. For example, you can specify that the ID be “current, unexpired, unalterable, government issued and in good condition”. You can also specify what ID is permissible and what ID is not. Some hostels require a passport, others may require a student ID or membership card.
Traveler Status or Proof of Onward Travel - Most hostels serve travelers and are (at least in the case of Hostelling International) based on promoting peace and understanding among citizens of the world. If a person is looking to make the hostel their permanent residence, this may interfere with the hostel’s international peace mission. In some cities, once a person has stayed more than a certain number of days they are considered a permanent resident of that building and they can never be asked to leave no matter how bad their behavior later becomes. A maximum length of stay rule can help avoid that issue, however, a hostel may also want to simply hold to their mission of serving travelers only, no matter the length of stay. Therefore, for a variety of reasons, some hostels will require guests to provide proof of traveler status or proof of onward travel.
Luggage - Another way hostels screen for travel status is by using luggage as a requirement. The reasoning here is that travelers usually have luggage. Someone who got kicked out of their apartment because they were a jerk may have their belongings in a shopping bag and this might not be a guest you want to have in your hostel.
Credit Card - Some hostels require a credit card to check-in. Frequently this is done so the hostel can charge the guest in the event of damages. However, whether you agree with it or not, this is also a form of guest screening.
Reservations - Some hostels require advance reservations, and in some cases, the reservations come through OTAs. This allows the hostel to outsource their screening to the OTA. Some OTAs like Airbnb have guest screening built into their platform by requiring or suggesting guests authenticate themselves to the platform with their email address, telephone number, credit cards, etc. Some platforms even have a postcard verification to make sure you live where you say you live.
Socially Open - Hostels are known for being very social places. Usually one of the first things a guest will ask another guest is, “Where are you from?” or “Where did you just arrive from?” When you have a guest who is socially evasive and responds to this question with “None of your business!”, it may raise a red flag. While the guest may have good reason to want privacy, their insistence on privacy might not be compatible with your hostel community. This behavior can negatively affect the atmosphere in your hostel. For this reason, some hostels look to engage every new guest socially at check-in to screen for this unwanted behavior. If a guest is unwilling to engage in this kind of normal social conversation at check-in, it can be an “observable and reportable” reason to politely refuse service.
Non-Aggressiveness - Guests should be “hostel”, not “hostile”. If a guest is showing violent tendencies, aggressiveness, and agitation at check-in they will likely behave this way toward other guests or staff and it may be a reason to exclude them from the community.
Non-Harassing - Some hostels have experienced guests who show signs of sexual harassment or predatory behavior at check-in toward staff or guests (usually women). This is a perfect example of how cultural norms will affect your policies on this trait. In some countries, this is acceptable behavior, while in other countries this is definitely not allowed. If the latter, it can be “concrete, observable, reportable” behavior that can be grounds for screening the person out of the hostel community.
Altered State - Depending on the culture of the destination, if a hostel guest is trying to check-in to the hostel drunk or high, this may be a red flag. It’s also a trait that’s “observable and reportable”.
Poor Hygiene - If your hostel is located in an area where homelessness is prevalent, you may encounter guests that (although they have the ability to pay for the night) may have such extreme hygiene issues that your entire hostel community will check-out if they are allowed to check in. Therefore your hostel inclusion policy should address this trait. It’s also a good idea to have a list of alternatives for the unfortunate person who finds themselves in this situation.
Here are some other tips and considerations on guest screening:
Lies & Stories
One hostel owner wrote on a thread about this topic “A bad story will often fall apart…” and that is very true. You will hear things like ‘my passport got stolen’ or ‘the ATM ate my card today but I’m getting a new one tomorrow’. There are legitimate situations where you may need to help out a traveler, and it will be greatly appreciated. But it’s important to trust your instincts while looking at the situation holistically.
Also, remember that con artists are not stupid people. They will often be very friendly, even overly so to win you (and your trust) over. This doesn’t mean be suspicious of every super friendly guest you have but rather serves as a reminder to not ignore your intuition either just because ‘he’s a nice guy’ or ‘she seemed sweet earlier’.
If you really want to help someone who you think may be telling the truth but are unsure, you can involve a trusted 3rd party to arbitrate and validate. For example, if the potential guest says, “I lost my passport”. You can respond with, “I’m so sorry to hear that, let me give you the address of your nearest embassy or consulate. If they can provide you with a letter that verifies your identity we can check you in without a passport.”
Some hostels have noticed that the further they are out of the cities or the more difficult the hostel is to get to, the less “bad apples” they tend to get. So again, you need to adjust these screening techniques based on what’s right for your hostel.
Screening through selective or disuassive marketing
It may sound counter-intuitive but you can also do guest screening through careful marketing. When you are communicating to your prospective guest (through your website or otherwise), think about the type of guest you are trying to attract and the type of guest that would not be a good fit for your hostel. The old business adage of “You can’t be everything for everyone” can also help with screening. If you are a party hostel, say so. More importantly, if you are the opposite and don’t want alcohol, make that very clear. Being clear about your policies will also give you some extra standing if/when you have to ask a guest to leave for not abiding by your community rules and they say they “didn’t know”.
Limiting your customer base too much
Of course, if it’s not already obvious, while screening will likely limit the number of “bad apples” in your hostel, too much screening may (depending on your policies and destination) also reduce your occupancy.
Turning People Away
At the end of the day, no matter how awkward or uncomfortable, it is almost always easier to turn someone away then kick them out later. Empower your staff to be your eyes and ears. Train them well in how to look for guests that violate your hostel inclusion policy. If they are not comfortable and competent to deal with the situation they may need your help to gently explain the reason the guest can’t stay. These are never easy conversations but most hostels find they are necessary from time to time to maintain the safety and comfort of your hostel.
Filing an incident report
After you or your staff have refused check-in to a person or asked a guest to leave the hostel, it’s a good idea to document the encounter. The report can be as simple as sending an email to the owner or manager with the concrete, observable, reportable reasons why you did not allow the guest to stay. Managers and owners should review these reports for any discriminatory behavior and immediately counsel the staff if they operated out of fear or prejudice.
Costs & Risks of Screening Guests
Finally, although we’ve been told by many hostels around the world that they screen guests in one way or another, there are always costs and risks associated with doing so. These may include, but are not necessarily limited to:
- lost income to the hostel
- reputation costs if the refused guest submits a bad review
- administrative costs for dealing with the incident report
- OTA penalties
- administrative costs of finding alternate accommodations
- transportation costs (i.e. taxis for a guest to move to a new location)
- defense of discrimination allegations
- more in depth staff training
Each hostel will need to weigh the risks and rewards of screening guests for themselves. However, experienced hostel managers will tell you that one “bad apple” can have enough of a detrimental effect on a hostel that often it’s worth turning them away, despite any loss of revenue, risk of a bad review, etc.
What do you think?
Finally, if you own or manage a hostel the Hostel Management team would love to know your thoughts on this topic. For example:
- Do you screen guests in some way?
- Do you have different criteria than the ones listed here for guest screening?
- What are your guiding principles regarding your hostel and your hostel community?
- Do you feel supported or hindered by the culture and laws where your hostel is located?
Please sign in and comment below with your thoughts!
Discussion moving forward
We would also like to continue this conversation openly among several participants in an online roundtable chat. Unlike our usual panel discussions, where participants are interviewed for their advice and opinions, this will simply be a discussion among industry peers. It will be a chance to discuss the specific points above, as well as some bigger questions such as “Is it the right of a business to decide the nature and character of their business?” and “How do we work to be inclusive without being detrimental to the nature of the business?”
If you are interested in participating, please email me at Courtney@hostelmanagement.com. The date/time will be chosen collaboratively once participants are chosen.
**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:
<< Guest Screening, Part 1: Why it's necessary and who to look out for
As always, send any suggestions, questions, or thoughts on the blog my way: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peace & love,