I recently stayed at Aussitel Backpackers in Coffs Harbor, Oz. The hostel itself is great, with by far the most free adventure activities I've seen to date. Other guests and I went surfing, stand up paddle boarding, jetty jumping and surf kayaking…all for free. What?! And those are only the beginning of a long list of offerings. I thought, "No wonder people extend!" but then I realized it wasn't just that. Surf kayaking is wicked, but I wouldn't have hung around for it later in the week if the hostel atmosphere had been crap. Aussitel had a great vibe, largely in part to some of the best staff I've seen in the past few months. I've been wanting to do a blog post on staff, and was lucky to come across a great example.
Surf Kayaking, A Series:
Heading out to the waves................... crushing it........................ or maybe not!
First of all, before any of them knew who I was or what I was doing, they all reached out to me right away after I arrived. I imagine they do this with many new guests. I don't always see this happen at hostels though, and it was quite refreshing. Another thing I noticed right away was that although they were clearly close, the Aussitel staff was not super cliquey. They regularly mixed and mingled with guests in the common area. I'm not sure I would have even realized right away who was a guest and who was on staff if they hadn't been wearing a hostel tshirt or jumper. I've been at hostels where the staff are friendly, but also make you feel like you're in the movie Mean Girls navigating the high school lunch room finding who you can eat with.
If you haven't seen this movie, go stream it now.
I spoke with the owners Paul and Cath a lot about staff and they said they are quite conscious of keeping a good balance of the types of people they bring on. They generally look for a mix of both outgoing and quieter people, which I thought was smart. At first it would be easy to think very extroverted, friendly people would be ideal, but having a range of personality types increases the chances that each of your guests can relate to someone. Though they admitted they have thrown this out the window at times as well. For instance, recently they had several 'loud' staff moving on, leaving a quieter crew. They thought they should take a new outgoing person to balance things out, but took a chance on a quiet cleaner who was already doing great. They said in the end it worked out amazingly well. She puts all of their guests at ease and is able to offer a different style of service than some of the others.
Another reason why I was impressed with the Aussitel staff was not only because they led fun activities and interacted with the guests, but that they chose to do it on their free time as well. As I looked around the common area one night at everyone hanging out, guests and staff alike, I remembered that reception had already closed at 8pm, a couple hours earlier. I asked one of the staff members, Lesley, if anyone had to be around past then. She almost seemed surprised, and said "No, there's a sign with a phone number if someone needs something. We just really like being here!" I saw almost all of the staff nearly every night. On top of that, they never seemed fussed when someone asked them a question even when they weren't 'on duty'.
It reminded me of the article "Behind the Scenes of Backpacker Hostel". One section reads: "Take a break from it all, crack open a beer and have a chat with the World-savvy lot currently occupying the hostel. Be warned that if they find out you’re from the hostel, they’ll spend a minute telling you how you’ve got the best job in the world and the next 10 minutes asking you for elaborate directions to the ATM."
I will straight up admit this both drives me crazy, and is also something I inadvertently find myself doing as a guest. It's one of the many examples of things that accidentally go right out the window when I find myself on the other side. I spoke to Lesley about this my final night, because she was always so warm and helpful. I was telling her thank you for her kindness, but also apologizing that I always seemed to ask her questions when she wasn't actually working. She said 'No, no, don't apologize at all, I love when guests ask me things." And the thing was…I could tell she actually meant it! Paul had already told me how great she was, but it was easy for me to see that this was the poster child for how you want your staff to treat and interact with guests. She genuinely enjoyed the interactions and if she tired of them or the same questions over and over, especially while not on shift, she never showed it. To be fair, I truly found this of their entire staff as well, so thanks to all of you guys at Aussitel!
Beach bonfire, one of the Aussitel activities. Nearly the entire hostel went, including several staff that were not actually working. It was awesome.
Staff training varies from hostel to hostel, but guest screening is always a part of it. I've found the single underlying rule at any hostel is the simple question "Would you want to sleep in a dorm next to that person?" If your gut instinct is telling you no, then the other guests probably wouldn't want to either, and that person shouldn't be here. I think it's so important that hostels train staff properly in guest screening. Usually when someone slips through the cracks and you think "Who in their right mind checked this guest in??", it wasn't because that staff member couldn't tell they were dodgy, they just didn't know how to turn them away. Giving your staff the confidence and tools to do so is important for both your hostel atmosphere and security.
What happens when the person you want to leave is not a guest, but rather a member of your staff? Getting rid of bad staff can be both difficult and awkward, especially if that person doesn't seem to realize there's a problem. Unfortunately from talking to many hostels, this happens quite often. Staff often need to be let go of not just because of a certain problem or behavior, but because they don't even realize they need to change. This becomes even more frustrating when they have already been spoken to and still don't seem to get it.
Like any issue, the first step is identifying the actual problem. Is this person doing something that can be fixed? Have you already tried talking with this person? Have they tried to change their behavior, and has it worked? If no, then it's time for them to go. It's up to you how you proceed from here. You can give them as much or little reason or explanation as you think suits the situation. It's also up to you how long they may continue to stay. i.e. Do they need to be out the next day vs. staying a few days for free to make a plan vs. staying on for a bit but with payment, and then leaving. It seems most hostels are in agreement that you will want them gone asap, as it will be less weird for everyone involved. You also don't want negative energy spread amongst your guests if they think the parting of ways was unfair, stupid, etc. Better to just have them move on.
Don't underestimate the impact bad staff can have on the rest of the crew and the atmosphere of the hostel, nor the impact getting rid of them can have. Moral can really go down when one person isn't working, either directly because of them or indirectly because of the problems or issues their behavior is causing. I've spoken with several people who finally had their 'last straw', and then wondered after the fact why they waited so long. It may be a difficult conversation to have, especially if you like them as a person but just don't feel like the fit is right, but delaying it will only prolong the issues in your hostel.
And last but not least, what about those amazing staff you seemed to find out of nowhere that you want to hold onto forever?! Or at least several months. One of the biggest ways is to help them avoid burnout, as I explained in a previous blog post. One unique way I saw this done was via accommodation at Old Countryhouse in Christchurch, NZ. Like many hostels, the staff lived together in a dorm, but they actually had their own little house on the property. It consisted of dorms for the cleaners, private rooms for the full time receptionists, a staff only kitchen and hang out area. The obvious downside to this is that it doesn't encourage the staff to interact as much with the guests. However, I think if you pick the right staff, this can give a great balance to live in staff. They can escape when they need to, leaving energy for all that mingling another night.
I also think recognizing your staff and treating them from time to time is really important. I've seen great examples of this at many hostels. From Brett at Adventure Queenstown cooking an entire multi course dinner & wine night for his crew, to Nikki at Mousetrap Backpackers organizing a goodbye potluck dinner for one of the workers, and Cath at Aussitel baking a favorite dessert for the staff. It wasn't just the food or booze that left an impact, but the time and energy these owners gave their hostel family. I know, because they all told me. So well done Brett, Nikki, Cath and the rest of you doing this as well. Your staff really appreciate it!
After my stay at Adventure Queenstown, I bought the staff a case of beer to say thanks for the great times. They were definitely another hostel that had fantastic staff who enthusiastically interacted with the guests. I wrote them a thank you card which I gave to them first, saying at the end 'So have a beer on me!' and then brought out the case. You would have thought I bought them each a Range Rover on their 18th birthday, they were so excited. I assumed it was just the free booze (hey, I'd be excited too!) but then one of them said "It's just that no one ever recognizes us. We get all these great cards and letters about how awesome the hostel was, but this is the first time anyone has written one just to us, the staff!" It was a great reminder that it's not enough to simply know your staff are important. They need, and deserve, to be recognized as such as well.
What do you do to keep the right balance with your hostel staff? Do you do anything special with them to keep them motivated or feel appreciated? Sign in and comment below.
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