Last weekend I attended Base Mingle in Sydney, an industry event slash huge party (aren't those usually one in the same?). A few drinks in and I was agreeing to join part of a surf camp that week with the guys from Surf Camp Australia. "All equipment is provided, just bring a sense of humor." I assured Cody, the camp manager, that I'd be laughing at myself trying to surf enough for the both of us. While I was looking forward to trying out surfing for the first time in years, I wasn't sure how relevant a stay at surf camp would be to hostels. The accommodation was in bunk beds, and all the attendees were backpackers, but I found the real similarities went well past that.
The group was picked up in Sydney by Cody, and driven 2 hours south to gorgeous Seven Mile Beach. From there we were handed over to the head surf coach, Jordy, for our first lesson. The group included mostly first time surfers, but Jordy was patient and supportive. His extremely relaxed attitude and personal attention to the guests kept any frustrations at bay and instead left guests laughing and enjoying (i.e. crashing and falling). Though a nice group, I'll admit it was a bit like pulling teeth with them the first day to answer any questions, or really get involved or enthused. I thought perhaps everyone was just tired like me (in true Courtney form, I was up til 4am the night before a 7am wake up), but as the day went on it seemed it was just a timid group. As we sat on the beach for our first lesson, I watched Jordy try to get this quiet group interacting. In my head I was thinking 'Man, tough crowd'. I wouldn't be surprised if he was thinking the same, but he didn't let it show, which is what impressed me.
A little group enthusiasm before the first lesson, woot woot.
It also reminded me of trying to facilitate community/guest interactions at the hostel when everyone is somewhat interested, but acting ambivalent. When this happens, it's a lot easier to say 'Ok then, enjoy your night' and let them do their own thing rather than keep trying. However, with a little patience, effort and enthusiasm you can usually get a couple people involved. Once you have those key people to break the ice, the others start joining in. It's a little harder in a surf camp situation to just let everyone go, as it's centered around group activities, but I did admire the continued patience and enthusiasm towards guests that were a bit slow to get going. It was a great example of continuing to draw people in without looking exasperated or bored of trying, especially for those hostels who have a specific "guest activities/events" staff member.
If there's one somewhat negative thing I've noticed about travelers these days, it's that they are utterly lazy. Sometimes this can actually be a quite lucrative positive trait, as you can sell them organized activities they couldn't be bothered to pursue independently. However sometimes it means pulling teeth to get them involved in anything, even when all they have to do is show up. (I mean, why get involved in anything when you have FB?! :P ) Since so much atmosphere in a hostel can come from group activities like these, this can be not only frustrating but worrisome. I've seen some hostel activities staff who are enthusiastic, cheerful and encouraging with an attitude that just makes you want to join in. Unfortunately, I've seen others who are clearly going through the motions, to the point where they almost seem to be hoping you say no and don't have to deal with anyone that night. Those people quite frankly suck, and your guests know it.
Luckily for me, Jordy, Cody and the rest of the Surf Camp crew were quite the opposite. Not only did I have a great time, I was a bit gutted I was leaving after 2 days (the rest of the guests were there for 5 to 10 days sessions). The next few days, photos and videos of each surf session would pop on my FB newsfeed. Seeing these of the group only confirmed my observations of the first couple days I was there. Everyone was clearly having a good time not only increasing their individual surf skills but also as a group. As I mentioned in my last blog post, having a group cohesion like that is wonderful for both your hostel atmosphere and revenue. This happened again at the surf camp- one of the 3 day guests wanted to extend to 5 days and one of the 5 day guests to 10 days. Create some magic and soon you're creating dollars (euros, pesos, baht...), too.
Yep, that's me riding a wave! Probably helped that Jordy was right behind me telling me when to stand up... Whatever, I did it.
Another thing I noticed right away about the Surf Camp crew- and something valuable to all hostel staff- was how truly enthusiastic about their jobs they were. It'd be easy to look at them and think "Just another day at the office surfing, how lucky!" But how many guests have said something along the same lines to you about managing or owning a hostel? I probably get that at least once a week while I'm managing. Thinking all these guys have to do is hang out and surf is like the guests that ask me 'So what do you do all day, just hang out with people and drink?' (Ha. Only on days that end in Y.) Of course I knew there is more that goes into running the surf camp besides the fun parts, but actually witnessing it was another thing. Privately, just from work conversations, I knew that Cody was dealing with a mountain of admin and internal dealings keeping him at his desk far longer than usual, instead of hanging out with guests. He may have been up really late dealing with paperwork, but the other guests never would have guessed it. He still had enthusiasm, energy and an amazing attitude towards them.
It was clear he loved his job, even if perhaps his reality that day was testing that. Same with Jordy, even when the group was a bit quiet. I often tell people I have the best job in the world, but observing these guys also had me wondering about my own work performance. How many times do I let negative feelings show on the days when it's not so good? We all try to leave our issues and problems at home/in the office/etc when dealing with guests, but I'll be the first to admit I haven't always done this. I don't ever want a guest to think 'Man she really doesn't like what she does' because the polar opposite is true. But it can take effort to always show the positive side.
The other night I witnessed a situation where a hostel staff member had to get quite strict with some loud, rowdy guests at 3am. As they drunkenly walked out, one of them said 'Man, he needs a new job that he actually likes'. All I could think was 'No, he's just doing his job and guests being a-holes doesn't make it any easier.' That, and 'You're 18, how many jobs have you had?' Of course when you have to be 'the bad guy', it's easy for people to have misguided thoughts about your attitude. The staff member rightfully came off as impatient and curt because it was the 3rd time he had to deal with those guys in a half hour. However, I would hate if a guest ever had a similar thought about me because of something completely unrelated. Some of your guests may give you the benefit of the doubt that you are having a rough day, but why even put them in the position to wonder?
Another great aspect of the surf camp was the individual attention both Jordy and Cody gave to the guests. I thought it was impressive that while in the ocean, they both had a great way of focusing a bit of time on each guest even though their eyes still had to be everywhere for both safety and guidance. Since I never seem to turn my 'hostel brain' off, in the middle of surfing and observing this I was thinking about how it related to my job. That's probably the same time I wiped out for the 87th time. Apparently surfing takes a bit of focus.
You know how there are some people who when you speak to them, they seem to be listening to you with truly undivided attention? Of course, that's how a conversation inherently should be, but how often does this really happen? We have such short attention spans these days that while talking with another person, our minds are in 4 other places, our phones are vibrating, laptops beeping, etc etc. Now picture speaking with a guest who has come up to reception at a busy time. How likely are you to answer their questions while also trying to do at least one another thing? Whether it's answering the phone, folding towels, processing bookings, answering a fellow staff member's question, calling over to a guest walking out the door, or a number of other things, we often get caught up in multitasking out of necessity. You may need to catch that guest before they leave for the day, or change an allocation online before you forget and overbook. But sometimes I think we end up multitasking out of habit more than anything.
I know I do this. It's not always possible, and I'm not pretending that it is, but if we just all slowed down a little bit and really worked to treat our guests as our biggest (and only!) priority for that two minutes, imagine how much better our customer service would be and their overall experience with the hostel. It may be the 23rd time today someone has asked you how to get to the Farmer's Market, but consider taking the time to stop what you are doing, actually look your guest in they eye and explain with a smile how to get there. Throw in a tip on the best stall to hit up, and now you've given them not just an answer but an experience. Most guests' memories of a hostel are not based on a checklist of needs that were met but an emotional reaction to their overall experience. Instead of thinking 'Yes, they told me how to get to the market, check', it may be 'Oh, the staff was so friendly and patient!' Everyone likes individual attention, especially at a large establishment. It takes work to give it, but as a guy said to me the other day as he offered to carry my beer (score!), "Manners don't cost anything." You won't lose much waiting 2 minutes to finish that email you were writing, but you may gain a lot from going above and beyond with your guests.
Do you find it increasingly difficult to give individual attention to guests with so many things going on? How do you train your staff in this aspect of customer service? Any thoughts on 'checking your problems at the door' when dealing with guests? Sign in and comment below.
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