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Youth hostels head upmarket and into the cities

Youth Hostels Association plans £30m investment in Olympic Park site to help fund rural hostels.

Rickety bunk beds, spartan shared bathrooms and walkers and backpackers in woolly socks returning from a refreshing hike in the countryside. These are the images many people associate with a stay in a youth hostel.

Yet the Youth Hostels Association has been overseeing a gradual process of modernisation and, this week, will make arguably its most significant move since it was founded by philanthropic members of the Holiday Fellowship in Liverpool in December 1929.

On Monday the YHA will submit plans for the biggest commercial venture in its history, investing £30m in a partnership with Westfield, the company that owns Britain’s largest shopping centre. Work is due to start early next year on building a new hostel in the Olympic Park, next to Stratford station in east London. It will have 850 beds, nearly three times as many as any other YHA property.

From woolly socks to Westfield is quite a leap but the transition is the climax of the organisation’s evolution over the past few years. “We’ve never been busier, never been healthier, on the back of our modernisation programme,” said YHA commercial director Joe Lynch.

Most significantly, the YHA has switched its focus away from the traditional, often remote countryside hostels to concentrate on city centre properties. In 2014 a hotel near Brighton pier was converted into a hostel and major refurbishment has been carried out in the past two years at three properties in London, plus others in Cambridge, Bath, Bristol, Liverpool, Manchester, York and Oxford. The next cities on the wishlist are Birmingham and Leeds.

There have been grumbles, mainly from “traditionalist” members, but modernisation may just have rescued the UK’s youth hostelling movement, which less than a decade ago was floundering.

In 2001, a foot and mouth epidemic saw rural travel restricted: hostels closed and the charity took a multi-million pound bashing. “That really knocked the stuffing out of us,” said YHA chief executive Caroline White. There was a cash loss of £2m and revenue was down £4m year on year.

The next setback was bird flu, then along came the recession. Some staff doubted the organisation’s ability to cope with another financial battering. “They would ask me, ‘Do you think we’ll survive?’ They were worried,” said White, who was appointed for six months in 2008 to sort out the worst of the problems, but has stayed on.

The YHA decided to spend millions of pounds on city centre hostels, using the income from these to help to fund investment in the rural network – 11 of the 12 projects planned for 2017 and 2018 are in the countryside, including a major new build in Northumberland.

Only 15% of the YHA’s 140 properties are in urban areas, “but with 99.5% occupancy rates in London, it is clear that they can generate far more income than the rural hostels,” said Lynch. In London, Brighton and Cambridge, more than half of all stays are by overseas visitors; in rural areas it is one in 10.

Speaking at the new hostel in Brighton, Lynch added: “The traditional concept of membership has probably had its time. Today, we’ve had families, individual travellers, and an Irish youth football team staying here. Our walkers, surfers and cyclists will be aged from mid-30s to mid-90s, but our biggest single customer base is school groups. There was grumbling when we modernised but the argument in favour has won the case. In the past our biggest problem was image, but not now.”

A problem at a hostel in Ambleside in the Lake District this year emphasised how much that image has changed. In days gone by it might have been boys sneaking into the girls’ dormitory or someone refusing to do the washing up. This time it ran out of prosecco.

Until the 1980s there would have been no prosecco crisis because alcohol was banned at YHA hostels, as was using cars to reach its properties: arrival had to be on foot, by bicycle or in a canoe. Now there are family rooms, en suite bathrooms, “exclusive hire” parties, free Wi-Fi and 24-hour reception desks.

Looking back to the dark days of the foot and mouth epidemic, White can see positives. “It forced the closure of several hostels that should have been closed a long time ago,” she said. “It helped us to start looking at what it needed to do.”

Source: The Guardian

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