Wednesday 16 February 2011

Which Way For The YHA?

Last week the YHA announced it’s 2011 Capitol Strategy programme. This outlined plans to invest some £4 million in upgrading around 11 hostels across the England and Wales. Good news, you might think, and for those hostels included it certainly is. But it comes at something of a cost: 8 other hostels are earmarked for closure this year and are to be sold off. This comes on top of the 8 hostels closed in similar circumstances last year. A list of the closures appears below.

Over the years, the YHA has provided low cost accommodation to a huge number of young people and outdoor enthusiasts. It’s holds charitable status with the objective “To help all, especially young people of limited means, to a greater knowledge, love and care of the countryside, and appreciation of the cultural values of towns and cities, particularly by providing youth hostels or other accommodation for them in their travels, and thus to promote their health recreation and education.” As mission statements go, fairly succinct.

However, it is quite well known amongst members that the YHA has had problems in the last few years. The recent model seems not to have been financially viable with traditional hosteller numbers dwindling, so the organisation has decided to upgrade hostels and services to appeal to a new, more family-friendly customer (offering such things as smaller, family rooms for 2 – 4 people, en suite facilities, more mod cons, etc) which in turn means an expensive refurbishment programme, particularly testing in this new age of austerity when funding of all types is in short supply. On a more mundane level it could also do with resolving minor irritations such as the bedding packs and the infuriating booking situation.

So the plan appears to be to sell off some of the properties it owns – those that might realise a good income and/or which might require a significant spend to bring up to the new standard. Funds raised through the sell-off can then be used to upgrade other hostels in the network. It just seems a shame that so many of the properties up for sale are in countryside locations. Once sold off some properties may stay as hostels in the independent sector; but more will inevitably become private dwellings. Commercially it does make sense to sell off properties that can rake in the cash, but you can only sell off the family silver once, and although refurbishments, upgrades and new hostels are happening, they are often not in like-for-like places.

The loss of rural properties may be hard-felt by the outdoor community. Certainly some are widely used and very popular. Closure of the Derwentwater hostel is being questioned especially as it is regularly busy and seems to be more than paying it’s way. Of the 16 hostels up for closure 5 are in the Lake District. Anyone who tries to book – whether hostel, B&B, hotel, camping – anywhere in the Lakes will tell you how difficult it is to find availability, pretty much all year: so much so it would seem almost impossible not to run a profitable accommodation if it were run anything like properly. It is anomalies such as these that are making some members feel slightly uneasy; that maybe rural properties are being sacrificed in favour of city centre ones. I hope not.
I suppose this perfectly encapsulates the dichotomy facing the YHA: some hostels are good, some not so good; some are popular and some are not. It would be interesting to see whether there was any correlation between popularity and condition.

Another area that needs addressing is the pricing structure. Many hostels now are charging around £20 per person for a dormitory bed, with breakfast an addition £5. This adds up to a B&B type price without the B&B facilities (own room, often en suite, towels provided, beds made up, cleaned up after, etc, plus breakfast). I was recently offered room for two people (no en suite) for £55 – that’s £27.50 per person per night before breakfast - and it’s more for non-members. The experience will have to catch up with the price pretty quickly.

I have been a member of the YHA for several years now. Like many hostellers I meet, “youth” is something I only vaguely remember, but I enjoy the hostelling experience and always try to go at least half a dozen times a year. The camaraderie can be good, as can the option of self-catering if you want to do that. And you can usually make an early start if you do your own breakfast.

I hope the outcome of their new strategy is a positive one and that these sell-offs help to get YHA back on a more stable footing, allowing them to rejuvenate the rural part of the network in due course. If not, the loss of so many properties in such wonderful locations will be hard to bear.

The following YHA Hostels are closed or closing:

Derwentwater / Helvellyn / Hawkshead / Osmotherley / Salisbury / Arundel / Newcastle / Hunstanton / Capel Curig / Totland / Kendal / Scarborough / Grasmere Thorney Howe / River Dart / Saffron Walden.

Exeter in Devon will be on the market later next year.

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