Ben Davies
On Providing Quality Accommodations To Backpackers
El Rio Hostel
from Santa Marta, Magdalena, Colombia
started December 2016
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On Providing Quality Accommodations To Backpackers

Hello from Buritaca in Colombia. I’m Ben Davies, one of the two founders of El Rio Hostel, a 3 and-a-bit-year-old hostel situated close to Colombia’s Caribbean coast. We normally provide ever so slightly higher-end backpacker accommodation, decent international food, and a tasty espresso martini so those traveling around Colombia. We cater mostly to 18-40-year-old Europeans, Canadians, Brits, Irish, Aussies, and the rest, looking for a good time on their big trip.

We are known for having won Hostelworld’s best hostel in Colombia and 2nd best in Latin America in our first year, for being a reliable spot to come and relax and party, plus we occasionally throw quite a big rave-up every once in a while.

Right now however we are closed until further notice, following a mass exodus of tourism following the COVID-19 pandemic.


What's your backstory and how did you get into entrepreneurship?

I have worked doing all sorts: retail when I was very young (my parents owned outdoor equipment shops), plenty of hospitality work, and in advertising in London for a while. I and my partner always planned to open a hostel and had talked about it for a long time but finally came back to the idea in 2015 when we had the right amount of capital.

Don’t be afraid to try new things and do things your own way. We definitely have done this, for better or worse!

In March 2015 we traveled to Colombia to research the project and to see if it could work, which we duly decided that it would. So we looked at the land and within a relatively short amount of time had found something that we believed could work legitimately.

Take us through your entrepreneurial journey. How did you go from day 1 to today?

We spent around 16 months on the property purchase and building process, with the help of local builders and some very well qualified volunteers that were traveling around at the time. Our building style and aesthetics are very local to here (woven palm and thatch) so we worked with locals for the majority of the construction. International volunteers that we found through Workaway helped with everything from carpentry to architectural designs to landscaping.

After we opened the popularity of El Rio grew quickly. We had rolled out a good marketing strategy, with a mixture of online and social media, some SEO stuff and posters, and business cards throughout the local area. Word spread very quickly and we were full after just 3 weeks! El Rio remained until recently a big stop on peoples’ trips around Colombia, so hopefully, we can pick up from where we left off in the post COVID world.

How are you doing today and what does the future look like?

The business (when we aren’t closed indefinitely!) is going well, and El Rio is a popular hostel. We are working on our monthly events, having recently hosted the likes of Shanti Celeste and Francesco del Garda, which were huge for us. It is normally profitable, however, now we are working on how to stay afloat with next to no guests. We have relatively low advertising spend normally, depending a lot on word of mouth and socials, plus the website which I manage in-house.

We have been focussing on developing our foundation, the charitable arm of the hostel, having fully funded the renovation of a school and teacher, a reforestation project plus various others. We are currently running a food packages program in the area, which is taking up a lot of our time during the pandemic.

Right now we are focussing on how and when to re-open and what that will entail, which is unchartered territory for us and definitely not what we expected to be discussing in year 4! Hopefully, we can get back on track and look at other projects in the future.

Through starting the business, have you learned anything particularly helpful or advantageous?

Opening our first business in Colombia was never going to be easy and we’ve definitely encountered a fair amount of challenges, most of which we’ve been able to overcome. I’d say we are mostly very happy with how everything has gone, but there have been some speedbumps. The area of Colombia where we are located is undoubtedly very beautiful, however, it is still very much developing and at times (particularly with the foundation projects such as attempting to implement recycling schemes) we have felt a little like we have been filling roles normally taken on by local governments. We also built the hostel next to a river (hence the name) and lived through a couple of rainy seasons without seeing anything too crazy… until in our 2nd year, the river broke its banks and flooded all of the accommodation. Luckily there was no lasting damage!

In general, however, the project has gone well, it’s been a steep learning curve and personallyI’d never worked in a managerial position before, so have been learning on the fly. I think we’ve managed to stay relevant, and in that respect, we are fortunate as our clientele changes all the time (but we do have our fair share of repeat customers, which is great.

What platform/tools do you use for your business?

We use Instagram, Facebook and our website is via Squarespace, who has been terrific. Very user friendly and good customer service. We have also had a good experience with Google My Business, which was difficult to set up as we are in the middle of the jungle, but they managed to get us up and running.

Hostelworld has been brilliant; they have a superb team that is very attentive and good at getting back to us whenever we have the smallest issue.

What have been the most influential books, podcasts, or other resources?

I’m not one to read business coaching or self-help books, or much non-fiction in general. There was definitely a lot of guesswork on our end, so maybe don’t be afraid to wing it, go with your intuition, and learn via trial and error. Plenty of errors happen that way though so you’ve been warned.

Advice for other entrepreneurs who want to get started or are just starting out?

Don’t be afraid to try new things and do things your own way. We definitely have done this, for better or worse!

Where can we go to learn more?

Ben Davies   Founder of El Rio Hostel
Pat Walls,  Founder of Starter Story

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