I've been staying in hostels for a long time: from New Zealand road trips as a teenager to the last three years I've spent travelling through Europe. I've stayed at great and terrible places and I know what I'm looking for; let me share a travellers viewpoint with you.
A warm welcome is always welcome. It doesn't have to be over the top, but it starts with promptly answering emails or quickly responding to a voicemail message. Travellers are often struggling to hold their internet connection in a cafe somewhere or paying lots of money for cellphone use. Please be courteous enough to get back to us quickly. It's a horrible feeling to jump on a train and not know if we've got a bed for the night.
Where possible signpost your hostel well. In some places backpackers are targets so hostels stay hidden, stay safe. If you're not in one of these few areas please help us find you. If you're on a main street have a big sign and show the photograph on your website. If you're on a back street try to signpost things from the bus-stop. Your website can really help us to find you. Please give us directions from the airport, train station, bus station or ferry. Give us an idea of alternate transport and prices. If taxis are a problem in your area, offer to book a trusted company for us and arrange the price on our behalf.
There are certain standards when it comes to paying for hostels…but things change dramatically from place to place. Please be kind! We've travelled a long way today, we don't speak your language, we've got lost four times trying to find your place and we're so glad to be in the door. Don't ruin that warm happy feeling. Please. Ask us to dump our bags, ask if we're OK, check if we've booked, if we want to see the room and explain how the money works. Deposits, refunds, discounts, cash, credit card…I'm just too tired.
We don't mind a few rules. We understand about quiet times and cleaning the kitchen up after ourselves. Kind of. That said, keep it simple and keep it light. Especially if we've just walked in the door. We're not here to ruin your place, we're here to relax and have a good time. It's your job to create a safe place for all your guests so please police the crazies but don't be too disciplinarian.
If the core of your business is providing a place to sleep, do it well. The fewer beds in a dorm the more likely it is we'll sleep and we appreciate that. We'll even pay an extra couple of bucks, but don't rip us off. We know we smell sometimes so windows are great; we really do like fresh air...and heaters in winter. That said, we don't like waking up for the 4am sunrise so please equip your rooms with good curtains too.
I wear glasses so it's great to have somewhere to put them when I go to sleep. A fold-down shelf for little valuables like that can be a great boon whether I'm on the top or bottom bunk. So can light. Consider installing individually controlled reading lights: they not only give us the chance to read or write late into the night but can give us enough light to get packed for an early morning departure.
We don't only choose hostels because they're a budget option. We choose them because they promise community. Or at least something approximating to one. If we want impersonal service and lonely rooms we'll book into a hotel. The best hostels provide a space for community: kitchen, lounge or bar — make them appealing. Some of my best hostel memories revolve around guests playing supplied musical instruments whilst sipping cheap wine and playing cards on comfy couches.
Love it or hate it, we're all carrying piles of electronics around too. Free wireless internet (wifi) should be standard and there should be someone on staff who knows how it works. Display passwords and encryption types behind the desk or bar. And give us power points: please! It's not fun scrapping for power. We also really appreciate it when we have somewhere secure to store them all too. A personal locker shouldn't come at an extra charge. Key deposit, sure. Charge, no.
No matter what extras you're advertising, make sure you live up to them. Free breakfast? Awesome. Unless its stale bread a toaster and some margarine. No coffee, no tea. That's not breakfast. Got some exercise equipment? Don't call it a gym unless there's a reasonably sized, dedicated room with working equipment. Got a hot tub? Brilliant. Make sure it's clean and working. Sometimes these features make us choose your hostel over a cheaper, friendlier, better located place: don't disappoint us.
Thanks for taking the time to read my thoughts on the best hostels from a traveller's perspective. Perhaps you could help me out? I'm writing a short Indie Travel Guide on hosteling around the world and could do with your input. Please contribute to this thread on the Hostel Management forum.