The key to getting bookings, or how to launch your hostel the right way

Image for Blog Post: The key to getting bookings, or how to launch your hostel the right way

Coming up with the right title for this post was a bit harder than usual. You see, getting bookings is the most important part of any hostel launch. But it's also key if you've been around for a while and still don't have a consistent flow of bookings!

What we're talking about here is momentum. In the beginning (for any new hostel), there is none. Nobody knows about your hostel, or has heard of it. Your job in the beginning is to create that traction. This post is all about helping you build that momentum so your business can thrive.

For the rest of this post, I'll talk about how to get bookings for a new hostel, but I actually mean it to be for any hostel that needs more bookings. Not just newly launched hostels. If you still haven't built up that momentum in bookings, and are just barely surviving, I would strongly recommend you follow the suggestions below! Even if you've already done them, go back and make sure you've put in the right effort in the right places.

Before launching

Yes, getting bookings and gaining momentum is everything in the beginning.

But before you launch, you should know exactly what your hostel's economics look like. What happens if you only manage 25% occupancy for the first 6 months? What if it's only 10%? What if the rates you can manage to charge are much less than expected?

Answer these questions before you launch. Don't punt on them!! And definitely don't get caught on the wrong side of bad financial planning.

Let's get bookings!

There are a lot of actions we can take to potentially bring in new bookings. If you're just starting out, the number of tasks ahead may seem daunting... Building a website, adding a booking engine, listing your property on every Online Travel Agency (OTA) that exists (and trying to understand all their differences), figuring out how to connect them all on a channel manager, setting up a property management system (PMS) and so many more things every new hostel is supposed to do.

But, as is the case in most situations: The Pareto Principle (aka 80 / 20) applies perfectly here. With just 20% of the actions, we can get 80% of the benefits. This is key because in the beginning, with our limited resources, prioritizing is fundamental! Basically, we want to focus our time and money on the things that will have the biggest impact on our business.

In our experience at BananaDesk, helping new hostels get off the ground, there are a few things that make an enormous difference in the beginning:

  1. Listing on the right OTAs (usually between 2-4 in total),
  2. Making those listings DAMN good, and
  3. Having SOLID photos.

Let's dive in a bit deeper...

Listing on the right OTAs

Listing your hostel on the right OTAs is critical. Everyone knows there are hundreds of Online Travel Agencies (OTAs) these days. Listing on all of them would be impossible and not worth your time.

You should only list your hostel on the OTAs that will actually get you bookings. Generally, there are 2-4 OTAs that you'll want to list your hostel on. The rest of the OTAs will not bring you a material number of bookings, and will be a waste of you time. Seriously.

I see it all the time. Hostels that want to sell on 15 channels and then spend a few weeks jumping through all the hoops to get setup, connecting everything, only to sit back and receive 3 bookings in a year (in a good case). Then, when they make updates to their rooms or have new photos to put online, they need to login (and so recover a lost password since they haven't logged in for months), re-learn how to use that OTA's back-office, and update photos; or they just ignore updating those OTAs. Both options are bad. Sometimes those hostel owners even forget they are listed on those OTAs! It's lost time from the very beginning that gets worse as time goes on. The best situation is to be updating OTAs that are worth your time and are bringing in bookings.

Don't believe me? I'll let you in on a small secret...

Let me tell you the story about how we decided to integrate direct with 2 channels. We always had an integration with Myallocator that allowed hostels to connect tons of channels with BananaDesk. At the time, we were processing roughly 50,000 reservations monthly for our clients. Of those, about 60% (about 30,000 reservations) were coming through OTAs. And of those 30,000 roughly 93% were coming from only 2 OTAs. Yep, that's right.

Let me say that again: 93% of OTA reservations that we were processing came from only 2 channels.

So naturally, we decided to integrate direct with those 2 channels. Do we still offer integrations with tons of other OTAs? Yes, we do, via the same Myallocator integration. But realistically, most channels just don't bring in the bookings.

So, what are those 2 channels?? Well, I'll tell you what channels they are, but before I do remember that this will change over time! Today, it's Hostelworld and Booking.com. But a few years from now, it may be only 1 OTA (hopefully not...) or 3 or 4. I do expect there to always be a few that have massive consolidation though.

I'll probably write a post in the future about how to pick OTAs. For now, just know that you should be looking into indicators that will give you an idea of how many bookings you can get from them. Usually, the number and recency of customer reviews at other properties on an OTA is a good gauge of how many bookings hostels are receiving from that OTA. There are also other factors to consider like whether the OTA's customer profile is right for your type of property. Your party hostel probably shouldn't be listed on an OTA for honeymooners for example. No matter how good your parties are, people will probably leave very unsatisfied...

Make your OTA listings DAMN good

Since you've decided to list on the few platforms that bring in tons of bookings and can make a difference in your business, you'll have the mental bandwidth and energy to blow it out of the park on those OTAs.

Your hostel's success comes down to three things:

  1. How relevant your promise is,
  2. How well you articulate that promise, and
  3. How well you deliver on that promise.

A promise is the value your hostel offers to travelers. What is it that you offer? Are you a party hostel that promises young backpackers the best parties of their lives? Or maybe a home away from home for adventure backpackers? This is probably easy for you as it's the dream you've had since you thought about starting a hostel.

Now, how well you articulate that promise is another thing entirely. This point is the meat of this section, so read carefully.

What I mean with "How well you articulate that promise" is that the place where you show off your property (your OTA profiles) should reflect that promise in the best possible way. You need to blow it out of the park.

Your photos especially should be spectacular. Your property description on the OTA should be well written and relevant. If you can translate it (as in the case of Hostelworld), do it. Get a guest from that country to write it out for you and give them a free night or two. It'll be worth it. People that don't speak your language and see a well written property description that speaks to them will be more likely to book. And you'll be benefiting from a higher ranking on the OTA if your property description is in the booker's language (in the case of Hostelworld at least) which will help you get more bookings too.

Does the OTA have a place where you can add all the detailed amenities in the common areas and in each individual room type? Do it.

I would even suggest that you call the OTA's Customer Support line after doing everything you can. Ask them to check out your profile and make any suggestions on how you can make it even better.

Remember: since we're focused on the few, most important OTAs, we can now go the extra mile to blow it out of the park.

SOLID Photos

You may have noticed that I already mentioned this in the last section! I'm reiterating this point though because it's so important, that it deserves its own section. Skimp out on your property's photos at your own risk.

I can't tell you how many times I've seen owners invest countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars in a property just to completely ignore their photos. I've seen exterior photos of a property, taken at night, that scream "OOPS, it's 6pm and we need property photos ASAP for this Booking.com listing! QUICK! Let me grab my iPhone and shoot some photos." The truth is that your property may the best thing since sliced bread. But if nobody can see how awesome it is, then it doesn't matter.

Don't do this to yourself. Unless you're a good photographer, don't waste your time. Find someone that can take the photos your business needs to shine. Hire a photographer who knows what they're doing and let them communicate your promise through their photos. Let the photographer know what promise you're making to future guests so they can help you.

Don't believe me that property photos can make or break your business? See how Airbnb took off when they realized that professional photos were the key to their success.

What about my website? What about everything else??

Ah! Your website! And everything else... Well, since I promised we would only cover the 20% of actions that would get you 80% of the success (when you're looking to get more bookings), I had to skip these.

Having a website is definitely important and pretty much a given today. But in the beginning, when you don't have momentum, having a website doesn't really matter. I mean who's gonna be searching for your hostel anyways? People booking at your hostel will be doing their research on the important OTAs, then maybe jumping over to your website. Although in the beginning, most people will want to book on the OTA so they have some "insurance" against a bad experience. After all, they are taking a risk staying at a brand new hostel that nobody has reviewed yet.

So, my suggestion: if you want a website, go for it, but do a very simple one. One that has your logo, some property photos, location info and contact info. That's it. It can even be a one-pager.

Later on, once you have momentum, and have moved on from Survival, you'll definitely want to revisit your website and build it out to convert as many bookers as you can.

Be real: People aren't searching for you yet. They are searching for hostels in your city. You can get away with a website that has your logo, some photos, map with your hostel's location, and contact info. But you can't get away with a shitty profile on an important OTA. You make the call.

What about a Booking Engine?

Same thing! If you haven't built momentum, and nobody is showing up to your website, what do you need a Booking Engine for? Focus on getting bookings where people are already booking (the important OTAs), and then later on a direct booking strategy.

Deliver on your promise

One last thing! Just as important as everything else: make sure you deliver on your promise. If you promised in your OTA profiles that you're a party hostel, then make sure everyone leaves with that impression. Try as hard as you can to blow it out of the park as that will help you get your first positive reviews.

This is a short section, but not to be overlooked.

Remember: make sure your guests have an incredible time at your hostel. That will lead to stellar reviews on the OTAs and that will lead to the momentum you need to survive.

Wrapping it all up

Building momentum is everything in the beginning. To build momentum, focus on the actions that will bring about the biggest impact!

List on the most important OTAs, and publish an incredible profile on each of those channels. Make sure you have photos that live up to your property's potential.

Do your best at these simple tasks, and you will be helping your hostel gain that momentum, and plow through to the next stage of your business.

Photo by Ben Dutton on Unsplash.