The world has changed, and how far and how permanently this will affect the future of hostelling we are yet to discover.
What we do know is that Coronavirus, and the forced closure of our hostel, has been a body blow in our six-and-a-half-year journey to take Elterwater Hostel from a fairly run down old-school YHA establishment to a well-equipped, modern, vibrant and friendly destination that today’s hostellers can rely on.
During the closure period I’ve been thinking about the future of hostelling, as well as reflecting on the past and trying to deal with the present. For perspective I studied some of the history, from the humble beginnings in 1929 when the overriding aim was to create chains of hostels where young people could stay safely overnight, through the YHA’s struggle to stay relevant as times changed.
It is incredible to think that Elterwater Hostel, which opened in 1939, has been serving hostellers for some 80 years, with the only known closures being in war time and during the foot and mouth crisis (in Spring 2001). You can read more about the history of Elterwater Hostel here: https://www.elterwaterhostel.co.uk/history/
There is no doubt that hostels will have to change and adapt in response to the current pandemic. Many hostellers may no longer wish to share dorms or other facilities with strangers. More might want private rooms and en-suite facilities. The danger is that we become like a boutique hotel, rather than a hostel – and that pricing structures have to change in order to pay for all the investment required. Is it worth it? Will we lose our core value and loyal customer base? How far should we go in making changes? These are all questions that we have been asking ourselves – without knowing the answers.
We are in un-charted territory. While we have been able to cut some costs and have had help from the government, the fact remains that the business has been operating at a substantial loss during a period of the year in which cash flow should have been strongly positive. Fortunately, 2019 was our best year on record so we had some fat on the balance sheet coming into the crisis. That has now all gone and we have had to resort to the government’s ‘bounce back’ loan scheme to see us through the rest of the season and the coming winter.
Hopefully there is some light at the end of tunnel. After a huge amount of work on risk assessments, booking terms and conditions, new policies and procedures around social distancing, cleaning, the closure of the self-catering kitchen and the purchase of a number of high-quality screens, the hostel is open from this weekend. It will be a slightly different experience, with a maximum of 16 guests (compared with our full capacity of 38), allocated showers and no self-catering. But it should still be great fun, with cooked breakfast included and dinner available in accordance with new guidelines. And, most importantly, still a great opportunity for rest and escape, with access to the wonderful Great Langdale valley and surrounding hills remaining exactly as before, and all that the Lake District has to offer.
During the closure, my wife Christine has worked tirelessly to keep the business going, staying in touch with guests, dealing with cancellations and refunds or moving deposits to next year. There has also been the matter of handling the admin around putting staff on furlough, while maintaining some physical presence, and of course staying in touch with all our employees as much as has been allowed. We are fortunate indeed to retain such capable and committed staff.
My role is, thankfully, less hands on, but I have been trying to understand and interpret the big picture and think about the virus’s impact on long-term investment and cost decisions. That picture is hard to see at present. We might return to near normal. What we are experiencing now may already be the new normal. We could have a second wave or, heaven forbid, a new pandemic around the corner. All we can really do is our best. We hope that many hostellers will be confident in retuning to Elterwater Hostel very soon, where they will find the same warm service and access to the heart of the Lakes. I have missed it greatly and am looking forward to returning next week – our first visit since lockdown.
As always, thoughts, ideas and feedback from you, our guests, are welcomed – and we hope to see you at the hostel as soon as you can make it.
Alan Thomas, Elterwater Independent Hostel Ltd