In the early days of hostelling, each guest was required to do a chore. This was a symbiotic relationship between hostels and guests. By one guest sweeping the kitchen and another taking out the trash, they were helping the hostel keep costs low, which in return meant lower bed prices for travellers. Nowadays, the chores are gone, but there are still many hostels where a select few guests work for the hostel in exchange for their accommodation. This practice goes by many different names. It’s referred to as work exchange, volunteer stay, work trade, work stay, or working for accommodation. Let’s explore how a work trade program is typically arranged. Then, we’ll consider some tips on how successful hostels offer accommodation in exchange for work.
How work trade in hostels works
Duties for hostel work exchange guests
Work trade can involve any type of work. For example, at Hostel in the Forest, in Brunswick, GA there is a “chicken shaman” who cares for the chickens that roam the grounds. When guests work for accommodation, the most common work is cleaning the hostel, helping at the front desk, and hosting social activities. Sometimes hostels seek out workers who have specialized skill sets, such as web design or carpentry. The more specialized the work, generally the fewer hours the guests must provide in exchange for their accommodation.
Hours worked in exchange for hostel accommodation
Guests that are working in exchange for their accommodation typically work less than 30 hours per week. There is definitely some variation in the number of hours worked. The more money guests are saving by working for their accommodation, generally the longer their hours will be. For example, working 28 hours per week at a hostel in Los Angeles is a great opportunity, given that Los Angeles is one of America’s most expensive cities. Also, if guests are performing less desirable work, they’re sometimes not expected to work as many hours. For instance, at a hostel in New Orleans, LA guests who are asked to clean work only 14 hours, relative to those who work the front desk for 24 hours each week.
Hostel accommodation offered for work exchange
Guests who are working for accommodation almost always stay in a dorm room shared with other workers. This gives them the ability to relax in their private quarters at the end of a work day, away from the paying guests. In some hostels, workers live amongst paying guests. Specifically, at Drifter Jack’s in Austin, TX each worker is in a different dorm room. Their philosophy is that spreading out the workers prevents them from forming a separate social clique and helps promote more interaction with the regular paying guests. Their 9.7 rating for staff on Hostelworld is clear evidence that they have found a way to make it work.
Duration of a hostel work trade arrangement
Generally, guests who are working for accommodation stay for a duration measured in months. Hostels that offer accommodation in exchange for working typically have a minimum length of time that they ask workers to stay. This ensures that the hostel gets an acceptable return on the time invested in training the worker. Once they’re trained, some hostels will allow workers to stay as long as they want. Others have maximum lengths of time that they will allow workers to stay. In the next section we’ll explore the reasons this is beneficial. Regardless of whether there’s a limit, most people who are working in exchange for accommodation will opt to stay less than a year before they either run out of money or feel the urge to continue traveling.
Other perks of a hostel work exchange program
Besides accommodation, hostels will offer other perks to guests who are working. They get access to all the regular activities and amenities that guests use, plus extra bonuses like free food, drinks, or laundry. Hostel workers commonly have the opportunity to earn commissions from selling tour tickets. Some are able to attend the tours for free when there’s extra capacity. In addition to the regular perks, hostel owners and managers often treat their workers to staff-only events. For example, the owner of a hostel in Las Vegas has taken his workers on camping trips, or even to faraway Mexico for a beach vacation.
Finding workers for a hostel work trade
Today, hostels have a hybrid approach for finding people who are interested in working for accommodation. The traditional method is to look amongst current guests for people willing to work in exchange for accommodation. The major advantage to this approach is that managers get a good sense of which guests would be a good fit for the hostel after they’ve already stayed for a few days. However, hostel owners have noticed that fewer guests have the flexibility to extend their stay by working for accommodation. The internet has enabled many backpackers to carefully plan out their trips, which reduces serendipitous opportunities. Backpackers might fall in love with a hostel, but if they have carefully planned itineraries, it’s harder to extend their stays from two days to two months. As a result, hostels have had to adapt. There are a number of websites that help connect travelers with opportunities to work for accommodation. Here are four that are suited to hostels:
Generally the process for each site is the same. Create a profile for your hostel, post a listing for your work trade program, then watch the responses come rolling in. Although this provides a much larger candidate pool to choose from, it requires management to invest time in sourcing and screening applicants. Besides making it harder to choose workers, doing so from a distance also introduces the risk that prospective workers’ plans change and they renege on their agreement to work for accommodation at the hostel. “It’s very difficult to staff appropriately when volunteers don’t show up,” said a hostel owner in Las Vegas. “This past January was the worst, when more than half of the volunteers due to arrive flaked.”
Best practices for hostel work trade
Now that we have a basic understanding of how work trade is structured, let’s discuss how to make the most of a work trade program. Following these best practices will ensure that workers, employees, and regular paying guests all benefit.
Make your hotel work trade program fair
Given the relatively tight budgets that hostels must adhere to in order to remain profitable, a hostel manager could accidentally equate guests who are working for accommodation with employees. This mentality does not follow the spirit of working for accommodation. Almost every guest who works in exchange for accommodation is doing so because they love being at the hostel, and their labor enables them to stick around. These people are travelers first and workers second. Make sure their working hours and conditions reflect that. A volunteer is still a guest in your hostel and it’s important that they leave feeling positive about their experience.
Set clear expectations up front with work exchange guests
A successful work trade program begins with finding the right guests to work for accommodation. To find the right workers, you must be as transparent as possible about what you’ll expect of them. If you’re vague about the duties of guests who are working for accommodation, applicants might have an unrealistic impression of what’s in store. Even worse, glamorizing the experience or understating the duties could help drum up interest amongst guests, but the hostel will suffer when guests discover the reality of what they need to do in order to earn their beds. By clearly outlining their duties, working hours, rules, accommodation and other benefits, you minimize the likelihood that prospective workers end up disappointed.
Additionally, ensure that your applicants and workers have the right mindset about their work. They are not working for free. The hostel is giving them accommodation and other benefits, which cost money, in exchange for their labor. Ensuring that your workers understand that this is an exchange will encourage a good work ethic. Sometimes, especially if a hostel has a homey feel, it’s necessary to remind workers that although they are staying long-term, the hostel is not their house. Vikki Matsis at Notso Hostel in Charleston, SC drives this point home to prevent workers from getting territorial with other workers or regular paying guests. Besides an accurate understanding of the role, a proper mindset is important for success with guests who are working for accommodation.
Create an efficient hostel work trade training program
One of the biggest downsides to guests who work for accommodation is the frequency with which you must train new workers. “It’s very tiring to constantly be training people,” said the Operations Director for a hostel chain. “It’s important to step back and look at the costs associated.” The act of training new volunteers might not cost a hostel much in dollars and cents, but without an efficient training program, it can cost the hostel’s management too much time. Try to create processes that are simple to learn, and then document them clearly. The more intuitive your workflows are, the easier it will be for your workers to absorb them. The more quirks you introduce into the routines, the harder it will be for workers to pick them up. When it comes to documentation, investing the time now to write instructions, including photographs-- or even better, video demonstrations- will give the hostel a good return later when less time needs to be devoted to training on a regular basis.
Evaluate the cost and benefits of using hostel work exchange
Like any other business decision, it’s important to run the numbers on your work trade program and ensure your strategy makes sense. Besides the value of time that’s lost to training, consider the lost revenue from beds that are given to workers. If there’s a high worker turnover rate or high occupancy, a work trade program might be costing the hostel more than it’s worth. Working these numbers will test your assumptions. Perhaps you will find that having a backpacker to lead social activities is pure gold for your hostel’s ratings, but when it comes to cleaning bathrooms, it’s actually more cost efficient to hire permanent staff. Every hostel is unique, so find what works best for yours.
Consider a maximum stay policy for hostel work traders
Given the amount of time you invest in finding and training workers, you might think it’s best for a hostel to encourage them to stay for as long as possible. This is not always the case. Cliqueness and burnout are two reasons to consider a maximum stay policy for your work trade guests.
Like many aspects of traveling, working for accommodation can eventually lose its luster. Your workers’ spending money can start to run low. It could get exhausting living perpetually in the hyper-social atmosphere of a hostel. One of the best qualities of guests who work for accommodation is the energy and excitement they bring to your hostel, and that energy will eventually run out. Ideally, your workers will sense their impending depletion and make their own arrangements to depart. However, if they don’t, the relationship will begin to sour and management could face an uncomfortable conversation about a non-negotiable check-out date. Should this become necessary, don’t delay. One hostel manager said, "The quickest lesson I learned early on was to let people go as soon as the relationship starts going downward. It's usually from burnout, and there's no coming back from that in this arrangement." A maximum stay policy can prevent burnout by ensuring the faces at the hostel are always changing.
If burnout is what happens when familiarity breeds contempt, then cliqueness is the opposite reason for a maximum stay policy. Your work trade guests meet as strangers, but with enough time living and working together, cliques can start to form. If workers start to form a clique, their engagement with regular guests will decrease. Murray Wilson at Hostel in the Forest joked, “If we let the staff stay longer than ninety days, they might start thinking, ‘why do we even need guests anyway?’ and then we’d be a commune, not a hostel.” A maximum stay policy ensures workers don’t get too familiar.
A maximum stay policy for work trade guests keeps things fresh. They’re not always necessary, but having a policy means your hostel’s management will need to make fewer tough judgement calls about when work trade guests need to leave. You can always extend this limit if everything goes smoothly, but since you won’t know at the start, it’s better to begin with an end in mind.
Understand the legal statutes using work trade in a hostel
Every country has laws and regulations regarding employment. Hostels who allow guests to work in exchange for accommodation do not consider these guests to be their employees. This is possible for two reasons.
First, in most countries, people who work in exchange for accommodation fly under the radar of anyone who might be concerned. The most popular example of this is WWOOFing. WWOOF-USA’s website explains, “‘WWOOFers spend about half a day helping out on a host farm… and receive room and board during their visit.” On the other hand, WWOOF explains “if you say that you are coming to ‘volunteer or work on a farm’ and you don’t have a work visa, immigration probably WILL NOT LET YOU ENTER THE USA... as a WWOOFer, you are a TOURIST, NOT a WORKER or VOLUNTEER.” This type of doublespeak is the norm when working for accommodation. It’s not that anyone wants to covertly do something sinister. It’s that most regulation is broad and inflexible and was not written with little guys like organic farms and backpacker hostels in mind. Thus, most hostels that offer work trade do so quietly.
The second element that makes work trade possible is that both guests and hostels think that they’re getting a fair deal. When everyone thinks they’re getting a fair deal, there’s no reason for anyone to complain. In an instance when guests working for accommodation feel they’re not being treated fairly, they could lodge a complaint with a regulator. The regulator would likely not approve of hostel guests working for accommodation, which could result in financial penalties and a disruption to the hostel’s operation. It’s important to understand this possibility and take it into consideration when creating your work trade program.
Does your hostel have a work trade program?
Many hostels think that work trade is very beneficial. “We love our volunteers. They’re an essential part of the vibe,” said the director of operations for an American hostel chain. That being said, not every hostel offers a work trade program. Marc Desmarais of Apple Hostels in Philadelphia, PA said, “I see the importance of hiring locals. They know the area, it keeps things consistent, and I’m not constantly training.” Work trade has its pros and cons and it’s important for every hostel to weigh them when deciding if and how to offer it to guests.
Does your hostel offer a work trade program? If so, what has made it successful? If not, why is it not right for you? Comment below.