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Last Updated: Thursday, 18 August 2005, 03:43 GMT 04:43 UK
Hostels tackle 'woolly socks' image
By Katherine O'Shea
BBC News website

As the Youth Hostels Association (YHA) of England and Wales celebrates its 75th anniversary year, it faces an uncertain future.

With dozens of hostels facing possible closure and the organisation suffering from debts of 35m, can this beloved national institution successfully modernise?

Hartington Youth Hostel (YHA)
YHA owns some of the UK's most picturesque buildings
The Youth Hostel Association is the first to admit it suffers from an image problem at a time of changing public tastes.

"People still think of youth hostels as places where you have to wear red woolly socks, bed down with strangers and help out with the chores," said spokesman Paul Fearn.

But he said this was "simply not the case".

The charity has already spent millions of pounds on modernising two thirds of its hostels.

Despite these measures 39 of its 227 hostels are running at a loss, with a further 39 only just breaking even, according to the YHA's own figures.

Now the charity wants feedback on a consultation document about its future from its members and the public.

People just aren't willing to put up with old-style dorm accommodation any more
Chris Boulton,
YHA chairman

Smaller old-style hostels in remote areas often struggle to attract visitors but even the popular ones find it difficult to make a profit, said Mr Fearn.

Staff and maintenance costs have risen with the demands of providing and upkeeping new facilities such as internet access.

The YHA tries to keep accommodation prices down in line with their original mission statement to provide young people of limited means with "a greater knowledge, love and care for the countryside".

But with prices as low as 10 it is a battle to compete against new budget hotels.

The charity puts its increasing debt partly down to the modernisation drive a decade ago.

This only increased with the downturn in bookings in the aftermath of the foot-and-mouth crisis and 11 September 2001 attacks on the US.

Business has since picked up, but the YHA still faces tough challenges ahead.

Better facilities

Changing public tastes are key to understanding the problem, said YHA chairman Chris Boulton.

"As standards of living have improved over the years, so too have people's expectations. People just aren't willing to put up with old-style dorm accommodation any more," he said.

Key facts
227 Youth Hostels in England and Wales
2,000 voluntary workers
300,000 members in the UK
3.2 million members worldwide through YHA International
Source: YHA
People were still happy to share kitchens and living rooms with other, like-minded guests.

"But the thought of sharing a bedroom with strangers makes people insecure."

They might love the ethos of the YHA but they still demand high-quality, modern facilities, said Mr Boulton.

Many properties now have a three-star rating, with a choice of smaller bedrooms and better facilities.

Long-term view

One hostel in the North Yorkshire village of Lockton has been given a 250,000 eco-friendly makeover.

Innovations such as solar-powered electricity and sheep's wool insulation attempt to lure "green-minded" tourists away from the competition.

We hope that... the YHA will work with other accommodation providers in the area to make sure that people aren't left out in the cold
Sian Brenchley,
Visit Britain
The YHA is confident that continuing to upgrade its accommodation will pay off in the long term.

It is even willing to contemplate selling off less profitable hostels in order to complete the modernisation of remaining properties, according to the consultation document which has been circulated to its members.

The tourist board Visit Britain welcomed initiatives to attract people to the hostels and said it appreciated the organisation had to modernise.

Spokeswoman Sian Brenchley said: "We hope that, if closures occur, the YHA will work with other accommodation providers in the area to make sure that people aren't left out in the cold."


Young people often do not even consider hostels for their holiday, preferring package deals or European mini-breaks, according to Mr Fearn.

The organisation accepts it needs to launch a new marketing strategy aimed at winning back the young people it was formed to serve.

But as hostels move towards offering new facilities how will they manage to remain distinct from low budget hotels?

"It's a challenge!" said Mr Boulton.

"But I think it will be all about our atmosphere - friendly and open."

The board of trustees meets next month to discuss the YHA's future when they will welcome input from members and the public.

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