This month our panel discussion will be the topic “If I Knew Then What I Know Now”. While generally I will focus my writing around the chosen topic, I don’t exactly feel qualified to speak up on that one yet. I’ve only been managing hostels for 3 years, and I still have a lifetime of learning to do. That being said, it’s been quite the adventure so far. So I’ll give it a go, if only to give a dose of humor to your day, and perhaps for some a bit of nostalgia about those early days of starting out.
If you’ve followed any previous blog posts, it’s no secret I want to start my own hostel in the future. (And if you haven’t, this is me!) I remember a hostel-owner friend commenting on this once saying, “I don’t know what’s crazier. You wanting to start a hostel, or you actually knowing what you are getting into and still wanting to do it.” I guess that could be a sum up of this whole post. What the hell was I thinking? :)
I still don’t always know the answer to that question. However, I do know that I’m in it for the long run and I feel like I’m progressing in many ways. For instance, a couple years ago, a conversation with one of our neighbors looked like this:
"Hey this is Jack from XYZ Hostel, are you guys full tonight?"
Me: Yes, what about you?
"We have one private room left, and one dorm."
Me: Great, how much do your privates cost?
....In hindsight, I probably could have said that better. But don’t worry, because about a year later, my speech became even more eloquent:
[To the entire common room] ''Does anyone know what Hospitality is?''
*awkward silence and staring back at the hostel manager*
''Wait, wait, I mean a bar or club in SF called Hospitality. I know what hospitality means...''
In all seriousness, one lesson I’ve learned more than ever the importance of how you speak with people. Managing anything is difficult. Managing people is a whole other ball game. And I will just out myself that this has been a huge learning curve for me, and will continue to be. The constant balance of ensuring everything is done, and properly, while maintaining kindness, trust, and understanding can be really difficult for me at times. Add the extra family dynamic that comes with staff and myself all living on site, and it can be a whirlwind.
There have been many times (read: nearly every day) over the last few years where I found myself to be one giant fixer. It’s like my job is a cross between a master problem solver and a senior detective. At least that’s what it feels like, even though reality often means stumbling my way through trial and error. This can be anything from reservation issues to complaints, but has become especially true with maintenance. Someone once gave the advice at an Unconference that “If it can break, it will.” Well, that’s for damn sure. I’d throw down money that if you put an “unbreakable”-anything in a hostel, you could void the warranty.
So what have I learned about maintenance? You can save a lot of money, and learn almost anything, via YouTube. Washers, dryers, sinks- you name it, I’ve done it. Or rather, I had helped do it. Until one fateful day when a drunk girl broke our toilet in two. Darren, my boss, had just left for Mexico for the latest Unconference, and I needed a toilet immediately. I’m also stubborn, and thought $800 was absurd for an emergency contractor on a holiday weekend.
3 YouTube videos, 1 trip to the hardware store, and nearly 10 hours later, the old toilet was out and a beautiful $88 toilet was installed by yours truly. Yea, I’m tooting my own plunger at that, because it was hard work! Obviously a time/money factor comes into play here. However as someone who wants to own her own hostel in the future, I’ve learned that the more I can do on my own, the less I’ll need to pay someone else to do it. And that sending a toilet selfie to your boss is completely normal.
.............................Now you see it..........................................................Now you don't!
If there’s anything I’ve learned more than once over the last three years, it’s that screwing up is inevitable, and surpassable. The first of those is obvious, but overcoming mistakes can be a different story. Sometimes it’s a mishap that isn’t so bad. Like the weekend we overbooked, and I ended up with three adorable Italian men crashing in my room. I mean, not so bad ladies, amiright??
Then there was a time when I face-palmed, kicked myself after, really screwed something up. The story takes too much context to explain, but I felt like crap. Frustrated, worried, you name it. Then remembered a little lesson I learned while helping facilitate corporate team building in Swaziland. In one of the exercises, if a team member made a mistake but still gathered information to bring back to the group, they earned 1 point. If the team made the same mistake again, it was then that they lost a point.
Making mistakes is how we learn. Not learning from those mistakes is when we lose. That's the real screw up. So I gave myself 1 point for the day, and moved on. Easier said than done sometimes, but a good reminder that humans, not robots, work in hostels. (That, and, we’re not saving lives here people. Deep breaths.)
I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned so far is that running a hostel requires a degree of proactiveness I didn’t think was even possible. I’ve realized this in two ways. For one, I am forever behind on my to do list. The minute I kinda, sorta, maybe get ahead (“Oh don’t mind me, I’m just over here crossin’ things off right and left, like a boss!”), life catches up. Have the flu? Sorry, the vacuum won’t turn on and the computer system isn’t responding. By the way, when you’re done fixing that, reception needs change and the bank is closed.
I wrote about the never ending to-do list issue once already, in a blog post here. Objectively, I think it had some good points. Yet I’m also continuously reminded in real life how hard it is to take your own advice. For me, the real issue on getting behind is preventing it in the first place. The vacuum had been on the fritz for a few days. The computer system is still working out bugs. We don’t run out of change completely in one shift.
Life is always going to happen. Trying to stay one step ahead is exhausting, but not as much as coughing up a lung while doing emergency repair on cleaning appliances.
The second way I discovered a surprising source of proactiveness was the abundance of mysteries that were to come. I found myself in a seemingly constant state of “What is going on??”, followed by “How am I going to solve this?”. Maybe it was about a weird reservation error, or a broken toilet. Maybe it was monkeys ransacking a room, like in Swaziland, where I ran my first hostel. Either way, solutions to problems often take some extra thinking.
And as great as my team is, that extra thinking usually falls to me. Of course it’s easier and less trouble to pass everything along to a manager. It’s not that I expect them to fix everything or do my job. It’s more that so often, until I start digging, I’ve got no better idea than they have. Problems are passed on to me with the confidence I can solve them. Yet there are days I look at this keyboard and just want to say ‘Me too, button. Me too.’
How can I wear this as a shirt?
Then I remember that sometimes the important part is not why the problem happened, or that you had the perfect solution, but that you did something. That you made some decision (hopefully the most educated and sound), with whatever amount of knowledge you could gather. In my opinion, if you’ve done that, you’re already ahead of the curve.
You're welcome, backpackers.
So, hostel friends, what are your thoughts? Advice, funny throw back stories, confessions that you too are just trying to get by without going crazy? Share them here!
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Peace & love,
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