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Posted by: Justina Poškevičiūtė on Hostel Trends. March 30, 2015
Although most players in the hostel industry are for-profit and care about their finances as much as any other businesses, we can choose to see it as an industry that in a way resembles a social institution. In doing so, the idea of social responsibility gets entangled with budget tourism extended and transformed into something much broader.
These hostels have morphed volunteerism into voluntourism, where through the assistance of these hostels, travelers become immersed in local communities with the ability to support them through physical work or donations. The list of interesting social projects that some hostels choose to incorporate into their work is, honestly, infinite. Hence, HostelTrends has decided to look into several of them and ask the hostel managers themselves to share their experience that may be applicable to different causes.
To begin our series of articles on this engaging topic, I have talked to Fabiana, the manager of El Misti Salvador, one of El Misti chain hostels in Brazil, about the discount program they offer to their more active guests.
How to Arrive at the Best Idea
Essentially, El Misti hostel chain offers up to five consecutive nights in each of their hostels for free for guests travelling the country (or the continent) by bike, and offers 50 percent discount for five nights for surfers and climbers. These programs are called, respectively, Bikepackers, Surfpackers, and Climbpackers.
‘How did this all start and what should other hostels take into consideration if they are thinking about promoting some good cause?’ I asked Fabiana as we began our chat at El Misti Salvador under several ceiling fans. Apparently, in addition to the owner of the El Misti chain being a big cyclist, Fabiana told me that this idea got developed very organically since El Misti would receive many bikers in their Rio de Janeiro hostel, and given that Rio itself has a cyclist marathon and many bikers. In Salvador, for example, there is a surfers’ festival, which sparked the idea of the Surfpackers program. Most of the El Misti’s hostels would attract guests who lead pretty active lives, therefore, Fabiana’s advice was to observe current trends in your location and to see what project naturally emerges from your current situation. Basically, instead of trying to push a new trend, capitalizing on what is already happening might be the smartest way to go. Even their hostel staff is passionate about sports, Fabiana told me, so this only made the implementation of the programs easier.
Of course, I must add that at least three problems might arise if you take this approach. First, precisely due to the fact that you are adapting to the present situation, you might find the market already saturated with similar projects, so it may make your branding more difficult. Second, despite the fact that pushing a new trend might seem risky, noticing an untapped niche could bring even more benefits in the long term. Third, some causes that you may want to consider promoting require deep insights into your local community and not just your guests (for instance, maybe there is a demand of volunteer English teachers, a need for supporting local infrastructure projects, etc.), so spotting a niche for your idea might require more research. Hence, El Misti’s case is an interesting example of promoting a good cause, yet it is not intended to embody some magical universal formula.
Although El Misti could not identify if they have received a significantly larger number of travellers just because of these programs introduced, Fabiana told me these programs create and to extent rely on two different marketing outlets. The first is the word-of-mouth: travellers who take advantage of El Misti’s offers are expected to share their experience with other fellow bikers, surfers, and climbers encountered further on their travels. That is assumed to be most efficient among cyclists, since some of them are travelling long distances using the same routes. The second outlet is travellers’ blogs: only travellers who are documenting their trips can participate in the discount programs, so El Misti is hoping that by being mentioned in some of them they can attract more travellers of the same type.
“It’s not just about marketing, it’s about branding,” Fabiana told me. By having introduced programs for more physically active guests, the chain is in a way reinforcing and forming its image, by also placing itself in a more narrow (yet not necessarily exclusive and limiting) niche. Thus, marketing and branding go hand in hand here.
I asked Fabiana for some last general advice El Misti could give to other hostels considering implementing some social project. “After planning everything, make sure communication is efficient”, Fabiana said and then explained that in the specific case of their programs, clear communication has been crucial. For example, the guests who would like to use El Misti’s offers need to book in advance, they also have to have proper documentation (e.g., a blog) of their travels, and they can only use this offer during the low season. Basically, it is not enough for some backpacker on a bike to show up one evening at El Misti and ask for a free bed; it needs to be a bit more formal and premeditated.
To do a basic cost-benefit analysis was another tip Fabiana shared with me. For example, for programs like Bikepackers, Surfpackers and Climbpackers, you have to take into consideration your bed capacity and see how this deal would work in both low and high seasons. Can you afford to offer this deal during the low season? What if travellers come in big groups? Also, some programs/projects would work better in chain hostels, of course, than they would in single hostels, etc.
To sum up, El Misti’s programs are still relatively new and only time will show how successful they are. At the same time, there are plenty of lessons that this example can teach other hostels considering broadening their scope of work.