Nick’s thoughts on the YHA’s latest round of Hostel sales

There is lots of talk in the press recently about the YHA’s decision to sell off another 20 Hostels, leading to a heady mix of frustration and despair, and prompting me to reminisce on our own split from the YHA, who sold Elterwater into private ownership nearly 10 years ago. 

Those were nervous times from a personal point of view since I risked losing my home and job at the same time. The new owners took on two of us as existing staff… initially still nervous times but they turned out ok!

Cumbria Life article at the time of the Elterwater’s sale by the YHA

And… as a result, the YHA got funds to re-invest, guests got a hostel owned by passionate people keen to upgrade and improve the facilities, I got to keep my job and home and the new Elterwater Independent Hostel got knowledgeable and committed staff right from day one. A win, win, win… win by any standards!

I still have a soft spot for the YHA. I didn’t agree with every decision, nor liked every person I worked with… like all charities, some people used the organisation as a stepping-stone in their career rather than necessarily caring about ‘the cause’, but many others were very committed and likely still are within the current organisation. This latest tranche of sales inevitably provokes comment and criticism, but perhaps the charity is simply having to adapt to survive. 

Competition in the travel sector is now more intense than ever, with an overseas break sometimes costing considerably less than a domestic one, online travel agents muscling in for their cut, budget airlines and an overload of choice. If you add YHA’s 150 hostels, the 400 or so independent ones, and take into account the ever increasing array of shepherd’s huts, pods, yurts, and other quirky accommodations that are popping up, that’s a lot of competition for the YHA.

All of this overlaid on a tough economic climate, the legacy of the pandemic (particularly for group travel), and a growing desire for individual, artisan products (whether it’s beer, Christmas gifts, or coffee…), all part of the push-back against large, samey ‘corporate’ product. People expect uniqueness and quality – not something the YHA is necessarily known for. 

An old Elterwater Hostel post card showing the “good old days!”

Despite the nostalgia of many, customers’ demands are always changing. Long gone are the days of working for your stay at the hostel, or the water seeping down the walls in freezing cold buildings that I remember from early Hostel experiences. We have changed here at Elterwater too, investing heavily in the things that modern Hostellers demand such as usb plugs for every bed, fast wifi, improving the showers. We have been able to do this over time, by investing owner funds, and re-investing the profits we do make – fortunately Alan and Christine (our owners) are committed to the vision, and in a position to run the business as a more for passion than profit (though of course, we can’t run at a loss).

Shower upgrades in progress at the Hostel in 2013

The YHA is much the same – a charity, but one that must be financially sustainable on its own. It surely can’t be expected to run at a loss each year, that would endanger even more Hostels.

What is missing from the current dialogue, struggling to rise above the criticism and anger, is the opportunity and the hope. I have seen calls for more donations to the YHA, government support, or other stop gap solutions to the YHAs challenges. I hope, instead, that many of the Hostels that are now up for sale will get a new lease of life as independent business, and ably supported by Independent Hostels UK, become financially viable independent businesses, locally run, supporting their local communities and keeping the traditions of Hostelling alive, as we are here in Elterwater.