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Start a Hostel

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This is a community-written guide that contains ideas on how to start a hostel. It is a collaborative writing effort. If you have ideas or photos to add, just click on the the "edit" links and start adding content.


Contents

Choosing a Location

There is a page about where to open a hostel.

Some things to consider about location:

  • the town's or city's location
  • the hostel regulations in that town or city
  • distance to public transportation
  • distance to airport, train, and bus stations
  • distance to attractions and nightlife
  • where the town or city is in relation to the backpacker trails -- is it in or between hub cities or attractions?
  • number of backpackers that come to that region

Logistics

See also our page of information on What Hostels Are and How They Benefit Local Economies which can be used to explain hostels to city officials and neighbors.

Zoning Issues

Zoning issues vary from country to country and from city to city. Contact your local city government for zoning information. A Google search should provide contact information for your local government zoning office. It is a good idea to make sure you are correctly zoned before you start your hostel project.

Legal Issues

Legal issues for hostels vary from country to country.

  • It is a good idea to research residency laws in your area. In some places (like certain US States), hotel/hostel guests become legal residents after a certain period of time, which then gives them legal rights against eviction. Being aware of local residency laws can save you headaches later.
  • Legal Issues for Hostels

Property

Facilities

General

Floors should be designed to be easy to clean. Backpackers sometimes get drunk and drop food, drinks, or occasionally throw up. Hostel managers discuss the pro and cons of carpets here. Be sure to read this useful comment.

A stained hostel carpet that is less than 3 months old.

Dorm Rooms and Beds

Well-designed hostel dorm with hammock, books, wood floors, fans, and ensuite bathroom.

The dorm rooms should lock from the inside without requiring a key. If the door is locked at night and there is a fire, is should be possible for the guests to easily unlock the door from the inside without having to fumble for a key.

Linens

Charging for sheets and pillowcases encourages people to use their own linens or sleeping bags which could spread bedbug eggs to your hostel.

If the hostel gets cold in the winter, provide blankets. If the rooms get hot in the summer, provide either fans or air conditioning.

Bunk Beds

The Hostel Management Forum has a discussion comparing wood vs. metal bed frames.

Avoid bunk beds that support the mattress with a metal mesh. The mesh will eventually sag, creating scalloped dips in the mattress around the support bars that can be extremely uncomfortable for guests. If you have this kind of bunk bed, consider covering the mesh with a single sheet of wood or closely-spaced wooden slats so that the mattress has even support.

Too many hostels offer minimal mattresses that make it difficult for people with sensitive lower backs to sleep on. Some people may not even be able to walk upright after sleeping on one of these. There is also a common belief that hard mattresses are better for a person's back, but the older a person gets, the more sensitive their skin becomes. Hard mattresses can become quite uncomfortable for older sleepers, and create unwelcome pressure points for people with chronic back pain. Consider offering thicker softer mattresses for an additional price. You may find that you'll get customers who choose your hostel for the quality of the bed because these people simply cannot sleep on the thin hard mattresses that most hostels offer.

Another problem facing hostel patrons is a bed frame that has a closed end where the person's feet are. Tall patrons may be unable to sleep in the beds because they cannot stretch out fully. It's important to offer beds on the ground level that do not have frames that are high where the feet are to let taller patrons' legs stretch out fully.

Ideas For Dorm Rooms

Some hostels have curtains on the dorm beds which can be a nice feature for people who have been on the road a long time. Many hostels in Japan and Taiwan have curtains on the dorm beds:


If the room doesn't have windows, one idea for ventilation is a fan above the door.

Ventilation fan above door in a dorm room without windows.

Some hostels provide a lamp for each dorm bed.

A reading lamp for each dorm bed.

As more people travel with electronic gear, some travelers are looking for power outlets within reach of their dorm beds.

A reading lamp, power outlet and shelf for each bed.

To avoid long lines and crowded bathrooms, installing a basic sink, mirror, light and a power outlet in the dorms can be a great help, wall should be treated against humidity or tiled around the sink area and placed separated enough from the beds.

Dorm sink.jpg

Kitchen Planning

A well-designed hostel common area and kitchen in Japan. There is a "central island" for preparing food. This is also a "no shoes inside" hostel.

Having a single group kitchen is better than having kitchens in each room because one kitchen is easier to keep clean and helps guests meet each other.

"Hostel kitchens work best when the stoves and food preparation benches are on a central island bench so guests face each other when they are cooking. This encourages travellers to talk to each other, which is difficult when they are staring at a wall when they cook their dinner." -- Tim

Bathrooms

If you have ensuite bathrooms, consider putting the lightswitch inside the bathroom. Otherwise guests have to keep the bathroom door open when they switch the bathroom light on at night, potentially waking the other guests.

Toilets

  • Wall hooks in the toilet stalls are helpful for guests who may have a daypack or bag with them. The hooks make it so that guests don't have to put anything on the bathroom floor.
  • Keep toilets well-stocked with toilet paper.
  • Each toilet stall should have a toilet brush.
  • A toilet plunger should be available.
  • If you have instructions in the toilet stall (like "do not put paper in the toilet") it is a good idea to translate it into common backpacker languages and include an image that clearly explains the point of the notice. Humor or cartoons can help make the message more interesting and memorable.
A cartoon and humor makes the message memorable and friendly.

Sinks

  • Single faucets are better than double faucets because with the double faucet you can only get very hot water or very cold water. With single faucets you can adjust the temperature. One handle to control the water temperature is easier than having two knobs (hot & cold) to control the water temperature.
A single control for water temperature and pressure makes the sink or shower faucet easier to use.

Showers

Clean, well-designed hostel bathroom at Wombats' Munich hostel.
  • Hooks in the shower stalls to hang towels or small bags are helpful. They should be actual hooks that can securely hold clothing and bags.
  • Some hostels offer free soap and shampoo. Buy in bulk and fill up the reusable bottles.
  • Many hostels have a place where backpackers can leave their extra soap and shampoo when they leave for other guests to use.
  • Showers must be clean. No mildew. If you wouldn't step in it to take a shower, guests aren't going to like it either.
  • Consider ventilation, insulation, and the prevention of future mold problems. Mold is unhealthy, looks bad, and smells bad. Prevention is easier than the cure. See also this thread for ideas on mold prevention.
  • Army-style group shower rooms are not appreciated by modern backpackers. At least give guests their own shower stalls.
  • It is recommended to give the hostel guests a choice when taking a shower. At one extreme is the shower in the image below which doesn't allow any control by the guest:
    1. The shower head is locked into place and can't be moved. The direction of the shower head should be adjustable. Because fixed shower heads can't be pointed to the side while adjusting water temperature, they can be uncomfortable if the water is too cold and dangerous if the water is too hot.
    2. There is no temperature control. Water was sometimes too cold and even dangerously hot on one occasion.
A hostel shower that is difficult to use. (1) The shower head is locked into place, and (2) there is no temperature control; only an on/off button.

Common Areas

  • Design the common areas in a way that encourages people to break the ice. For example, have the couches and chairs arranged facing each other. Use furniture that can be easily rearranged by guests. Put books, cards, games, and musical instruments nearby. This will help guests break the ice, meet each other, and have a good time.
  • If you have one common area where you play music (CDs or radio), try to design the hostel with another common area where guests can sit without the music. Some people prefer quiet, and not all guests like the same music.
  • Guests will appreciate it if you can design at least one common area where guests can talk all night without disturbing sleeping guests.
  • Consider buying a couple of inexpensive guitars and making them available for guests to use.

Front Desk Area

Guests will ask a lot of questions about things to do. Having a bulletin board with maps and the answers to frequently asked questions can cut down on time the front desk spends answering the same common questions over and over. Ideas for the bulletin board:

  • A map of the area with attractions marked on it. Help guests feel excited about being in your city and they will leave better reviews.
  • How to get to the airport, train station, and bus station.

Hostel Bars

Though not possible at all hostels, a hostel bar can be great for encouraging guest interaction. It can also significantly increase the hostel's income. This is not to be understood in the way that you will make a fortune directly with selling booze. A hostel bar needs to be cheap. A vibrant hostel bar will add "atmosphere" to a hostel. People will book beds in that particular hostel because it gives them the chance to mingle.

Some hostels (eg Flying Pig Downtown, Amsterdam / Heart of Gold Hostel, Berlin) have their bars attached to the reception. Hence, the lobby is also the hostel bar. This has the advantage that the front desk staff can also sell drinks during times when there is not much to do. In the evenings when more people hang out in the lobby/bar, there is a bartender. The obvious disadvantage is that the reception area can get quite noisy, making it difficult for the front desk staff to communicate on the telephone or with guests checking in.

In order to run a separate bar efficiently, a hostel must have sufficient capacity (say, 250 beds). There is a "critical mass" of people to make a bar fun. If you enter a bar and see only a few people you will most likely leave again and look elsewhere to socialize.

Hostel bars can be open to the general public or cater exclusively to the hostel´s guests. While the general public can increase the revenues dramatically, there is the problem that hostel guests prefer to be among themselves inside the hostel for security reasons. Besides that, do you want to attract local "old farts" who will only come to stare at young female backpackers?

If a hostel bar is open to the public, one option is to have separate entrances for the hostel and the bar so that non-guests can't enter the hostel directly from the bar.

When planning a hostel, keep in mind that a bar is very noisy while the rooms (where your guests want to sleep) need to be quiet.

Security

Lockers

Decent hostel lockers that are large enough for a daypack, though it would be ideal if they were a "bring your own padlock" style, or electronic key system.

Security lockers should be large enough for a laptop and camera. The best kind of locker is the kind that allows guests to bring their own padlock, or an electronic locker system that uses the same electronic keys as the locks to the dorm rooms. Many guests are traveling with expensive electronics like MP3 players, laptops, cell phones, and cameras, and they want sturdy lockers in the rooms, especially in big cities where theft may be more common than off the beaten track.

Here are perfect large lockers that use electronic keys:

Large Electronic Key Lockers for Dorms.jpg

A closeup of the electronic keys. A guest uses a single key for the front door of the hostel, their dorm room, and their personal locker:

Electronic Key Dorm Lockers for Hostels.jpg

These lockers are just large enough for a laptop, camera, and money belt. This is probably the minimum size for lockers, otherwise travelers with laptops won't be able to lock up their computers:

The minimum size for a locker.

If you provide lockers where backpackers must provide their own locks, be sure to stock padlocks for sale at the front desk, and also consider that backpackers carry various sizes of padlock.

Can your lockers accommodate various sizes of padlock?
Forum Discussions About Lockers
  • "The Urban Central hostel in Melbourne, Australia have specially made lockers that feature a power points inside each locker. It's a brilliant idea as it lets you recharge your mobile phone, iPod and computer while it is safely locked away. I think that lockers where guests supply their own padlocks are best - it's more secure for the traveller and easier for the hostel operator." -- Tim
  • Other perspectives on lockers
  • Key Card and Locker Systems (USA)

Luggage Storage

Backpackers will often want to leave their bags for a while after they checkout, usually because checkout is in the morning and their flight isn't until the evening. The luggage storage area should be secure. Don't let non-employees into the luggage storage area unattended or it will make other guests nervous. If theft is a problem, the luggage storage area could be restricted to only people who have access to the cash register. (I.e., if you don't trust certain employees with the hostel's cash, don't trust them with the guests' valuables.)

Here is an example of a nice system for tagging guests bags before they go into the luggage storage area:

Tags for guest luggage - the longer strips go on the bags, and the guest tears off the small section and presents them to the hostel front desk to collect their bags. The number on the small section matches the number on the longer section.

Keys vs. Electronic Key Cards

Electronic key card systems are more expensive than traditional keys, but if you have a larger hostel they are a worthwhile investment. Possibly the best key system is an electronic key card system that also works with the lockers in the dorm rooms.

If you use traditional metal keys it helps to have a system for quickly counting keys and making sure that the front desk doesn't run out. (A spreadsheet can work well.) It is embarrassing for the front desk to start to check someone in and then realize there are no keys available to let the guest into the room.

Prices for electronic locks in the USA might range between around US$100 - US$200 per lock (2009 prices) and in Australia they might be around AUD$200 - AUD$300 (2010 prices). There are also costs for the encoding machines, software, and accessories.

The initial investment in the electronic locks are outweighed by:

  1. Security -- It's difficult for people to duplicate key cards
  2. Convenience -- When someone loses their keys it is not an inconvenience to the next guest as another can be quickly 'made'
  3. Long-term Cost -- To replace lock cylinders every time someone forgets to return their keys is costly.

Female Dorms

If you have female-only dorms, it is a good idea to enforce the "female-only" policy. Some female travelers get very upset if men are in the female-only dorm at any time, but they may be too shy to complain to the front desk (but not too shy to complain in online ratings).

Some hostels even market female-only areas of the hostel to guests. Examples:

  • Plus Prague Hostel - a "girls-only’ space allows you to forget you’re a backpacker and be a girl again. There are big bathrooms, cosmetic tables with large mirrors and hairdryers. When you check in you’ll receive a nice fluffy towel to use during your stay with us and a complimentary cosmetics bag stuffed with goodies for you to take along. See what we mean by luxury?"
  • Plus Florence Hostel - "...you’ll receive a free personal care pack along with a big fluffy towel for you to use for the duration of your stay. Larger bathrooms, free hairdryers and comfortable spacious dorms...book one of the beauty treatments available through the Plus Port. From eye brow shaping, pedicures, waxing and facials the beauty technician is in the hostel to help you look and feel your best."
  • Smart City Hostels - smartcitygirls
  • Base Backpackers "...a girls’ only level or area that offers a stylish and safe haven for female travellers. It’s a no-go zone for boys...On arrival in your Sanctuary room you will receive a gift pack with quality hair care products and your own personal fluffy towel to use during the duration of your stay. Beds are made up with 5-star quality linen, plush pillows and most Sanctuary bathrooms feature hairdryers and movie star mirrors."
  • Orient Expresso Hostel - The third floor of the Orient has been transformed into a sanctuary for the weary female traveller. You can take your pick of a private, twin, 4-bed or 8-bed room, all of which are decked out with the fluffiest pillows, the warmest duvets and the newest mattresses. Extra measures have been taken to ensure that the area remains female only – including an extra lock on the entrance to the floor.
  • Generator Hostels - Luxury Female Dorms: "These unique rooms have additional features to the standard female dorms and include private reading lights, relaxing area to read and chat, dressing table with hair dryers, full length mirrors, complimentary toiletries and welcome drink – all the little things that make your stay more enjoyable."

Laundry Facilities

Add tips for laundry facilities here

Maytag and Miele are said to be good laundry machine brands. If you sell detergent from a large container rather than in pouches, don't buy a concentrated kind because people want to feel their clothes are getting really really clean, and the small amount confuses them.

Activities

Television

If anything, televisions at hostels seem to get in the way of people meeting each other, especially if there are TVs in the rooms. Nothing wrong with an occasional "movie night", but many great hostels do well without a TV at all.

"Don't have an XBox or Playstation! It is one thing when a TV kills the atmosphere in a hostel, but at least you can watch the TV. Imagine how boring it is when one or two people are playing on the Playstation but everyone else is bored out of their minds watching someone else play a game. It's okay to have a TV, but it works best when it is in a smaller room away from the main common room. That way guests have the opportunity to talk to each other but they still don't have to miss their favourite TV show." -- Tim

Music

If there is an area where loud music is played, there should be a place where people can gather that does not have radio or CD music pumped into it all day. Musical tastes are too varied.

24-Hour Area

Ideally there should be a place where guests could sit and talk as late as they want without disturbing other guests. It doesn't even have to be on the hostel property.

Activities Calendar

Here is an example of a very well designed hostel activities calendar. It lists paid tours as well as weather and daily free activities:

Wall-sized hostel activities calendar

The format is similar to the table below:

Mon
Tue
Wed
Thu
Fri
Sat
Sun
Weather
Morning
Afternoon
Evening
Night
Free Activity
Special

Housekeeping

A filthy hostel shower. This was not a good hostel.

Having a nearly-spotless hostel will help ratings a lot. Dirty hostels are often a result of work-exchange cleaners that aren't supervised well, or in some cases, complete lack of any cleaning.

Some hostels use work-exchange backpackers to clean the hostel, and others use outside cleaning staff.

Smoking

Some hostel guests may have asthma, bronchitis or other health problems. It's best to make the inside of the hostel no smoking, or at least have a place where non-smoking guests can be away from the smoke.

One problem at some hostels is that they have a smoking area inside (e.g., the kitchen) and the smoke comes out under the door and goes into the dorm rooms while guests are sleeping. It can be very unpleasant for some non-smoking guests.

Mosquito coils are another source of smoke that can affect some guests. If you have mosquitoes inside, consider installing better screens or using other methods besides lighting mosquito coils inside.

Additional Ideas

  • Hostel guitars with spare guitar strings and picks (two guitars are better than one)
  • Games room
  • Mobile phone charging
  • Book of comments on other hostels/activities in country/area-listed by location
  • White board with weather forecast
  • Buy a mini bus or 7 seater decoratd with hostel logo and colours and go to the local bus stations/airport/harbours etc to tout for newly arriving backpackers and collect, check the arrival times on timetable first to meet the arrivals. Have a deal ready to offer to outdo other hostels in area.
  • If located near national parks etc, buy couple 4 wheel drives so groups can hire for trips, one guest gives over their insurance details and group pays deposit towards damage etc.
  • Suggestion book/surveys
  • News from the world bulletin board
  • Book exchange
  • Offer free breakfast either free toast or porridge and a piece of fruit
  • Have merchandise advertising Hostel for sale at reception, T-Shirts, Pens etc also have some essentials to buy i.e padlocks, toiletries, basic food items sugar, tea etc, washing powder.
  • Art & decoration by people who have stayed at hostel
  • Campfires/wood burning stove
  • Honor roll of people who have volunteered at the hostel
  • Warm & colorful
  • Lots of Maps
  • Free coffee & tea
  • Keys left in rooms with vacancies for late arrivals-pay in morning
  • Aluminum showers w/lots of hooks and tall shower heads
  • Large sinks
  • Bicycle rentals
  • Internet Access & Free Wifi
  • Be aware of Residency Laws -- in some places you have to be careful about long term guests becoming "residents" from a legal standpoint.
  • Consider installing condom vending machines.

There is also a forum discussion about starting an ideal hostel.

Operations

Employees

If you are considering to use unpaid interns or work exchange staff, check with a lawyer to see whether it is legal in your country. For example, unpaid internships are legal in the USA except under certain conditions[1]. "Work exchange for rent" also may be illegal in some places because the Government wants taxes to be paid. Check with a lawyer to find out your local laws.

Front Desk Operations

Tour Desk Operations

There are several ways for a hostel to offer tours:

  • Hostel leads paid tours. Example: Arnott's Lodge in Hawaii.
  • Hostel leads free tours. Tour guides are often hostel staff and they generally get tipped by the backpackers. Example: Maui Hostel
  • Hostel offers a combination of free and paid tours. Example: HI New York
  • Hostel sells vouchers for tours at an activities desk by establishing relationships with local tour operators. The hostel's tour desk would probably be able to take a 20% to 30% commission on each tour sale.

One advantage of the last method is that it can be used to offer additional income to the front desk at no cost to a hostel. Employee morale at some hostels is not good partly because of low wages. Offering commissions on tour bookings to front desk staff can be a way to help that situation.

  • Click here to discuss ways that hostels can offer tours.

Internet Cafe Operations

The area where you keep your guest Internet computers are a prime area for guest interactions. Make sure there are plenty of chairs, a table or two, and a sociable place to sit while waiting to use the computers. Guests who meet other backpackers have more fun and will leave better reviews. If you set it up well, this area of the hostel is one of the best places for backpackers to meet.

Guest Internet-access computer with webcam
  • Consider outfitting your Internet cafe computers with Free Software that can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars. Guests will appreciate being able to do word processing, photo editing and other tasks on your guest computers.
  • Consider using Ubuntu Linux on your guest Internet computers instead of Microsoft Windows. Ubuntu is free, easy to use, and doesn't have problems with viruses.
  • Guests will appreciate it if you have a webcam, headset available, as well as Skype installed on your computers.
  • Free wifi access is very important to many backpackers. Learn how to setup free wifi Internet access.
  • See forum thread until more information is added here.

Budget Planning

Here are two budget planning spreadsheets by metty9:

Avoiding Bad Reviews

See the How to Improve Hostel Reviews page for tips on getting good reviews.

Getting the Word Out

Some ideas for getting backpackers to a new hostel quickly

Additional Resources

If you are thinking of starting a hostel in Canada, definitely contact Backpackers.ca for assistance and see their excellent Start a Hostel Guide.

Notes

  1. Growth of Unpaid Internships May Be Illegal, Officials Say NY Times, April 2, 2010
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