Imagine you’re playing Family Fortunes. The subject that comes up is the Youth Hoselling Association. The researchers have asked 100 people what they think of when they hear the term. You have to guess the top-five. ‘Hmmm,’ you take a second.
‘School trips’. Ding.
‘Bunk beds.’ Ding.
‘Erm... cleaning, cleaning up?’ Ding.
‘And for the mystery prize: What do you think most people thought of when we said ‘YHA’ to them?’
‘Is it... communal toilets?’ Ding.
‘Congratulations. You’ve won a washer dryer, a Sodastream and ten days for two in beautiful Benidorm.’
Now, if you’d said ‘quality, affordable, holiday accommodation’, there’d have been an almighty ‘DER DER’ and you’d be going home empty-handed, unlike the Slater family from Doncaster. It’s just not an association that the majority of the public make. An observation that neither surprises nor pleases Duncan Simpson.
“There’s an analogy I use that I think sums it up,” says the rather guarded Simpson from the YHA’s HQ in Matlock, Derbyshire. “That is, imagine that the only car you’ve ever driven is a Morris. Then someone approaches you today and they invite you to drive a brand new car. It wouldn’t take you too long to realise that they were entirely different beasts. The same (in principle) perhaps, but one has been completely updated.
“That’s the problem we have,” continues the organisation’s head of communications, marketing and corporate affairs. “Our research shows us that there’s huge misperceptions about our offer. A lot of people only stayed with us when they were younger – during their schooldays, or when they were travelling in their youth – and since then they haven’t come back or had anything to do with us. I just don’t think they realise how much we’ve changed, how we’ve modernised what we do.”
And, unfortunately for the septuagenarian charity, Simpson is probably right. To me, the YHA is like public libraries. It offers something almost too good to be true and, as a result, the uninitiated consumers stay away in droves, opting to pay more for competitors that essentially offer the same thing, but without the luxury of choice.
Just consider the sales pitch: It boasts over 200 hostels, in often breathtaking locations, offers meals, private rooms, modern facilities, it doesn’t turn you away if you’re not a member, or a ‘youth’ and – the clincher – will put you up of an evening for about the price of a large Travel Lodge pizza.
Yet still, with all that there for the taking, the YHA has spent the last few years floundering through the quicksand of increasing debt (a reported £35m in 2005), burdened by parlous trading conditions. This has forced them to shut hostels (32 were earmarked for closure in 2006, although some have since been given reprieves) while membership has nose-dived from over 300,000 to the currently stated 230,000.
It’s a situation that is galvanising the association into action on many fronts, with the battle for hearts, minds and bookings being waged primarily on the internet. And, thanks to a new website from Manchester’s Reading Room, the YHA appears to have brought in the big guns.
“The new website is a major push for us and marks a fundamental update for the brand,” explains Simpson, who, as an organisation ‘lifer’, has risen through the ranks from hostel helper upwards (“I wouldn’t like to be quoted on how long I’ve been here,” he doesn’t reveal with a hearty laugh).
Back to the site: “One of the main drivers was really just to try and update our image, to give the website a better feel and tackle some of the misperceptions head on. To that end we decided that it was fundamentally important to show people the locations of the hostels by including far more images, which we didn’t have the capacity to show previously.”
He expands, “There’s a misunderstanding that we’re just for walkers, out in the countryside, but we’ve always had great city and coastal locations too and we need to communicate that variety to people that don’t know a lot about us. Yes, we’re great for walkers – hopefully everybody knows that – but we’re also great for families on holiday too and we need people to start making that connection.”
A quick scan of the website, a veritable leviathan in scale, certainly demonstrates a new approach that should help gently prise people away from their ingrained prejudices.
There’s a focus on city breaks, special offers (B&B in York for £10 per person anyone?), new tactile sections such as ‘inspire me’ and, crucially, an online booking system that marks the completion of YHA’s 18 month push to get the entire network available, in real-time, from one umbrella location.
Perhaps one of the best compliments you can offer it is that it’s all very ‘un-YHA like’.
However, could that be a problem? The YHA membership, like Simpson himself, is notoriously passionate and loyal and may not take kindly to this new direction and drive to attract common or garden ‘holidaymakers’, rather than seasoned outdoor enthusiasts. One YHA group website I visited were really quite unsparing in their assessment of the new site – showing perhaps an unwillingness to evolve, but more likely just getting in a propriertorial huff because ‘their’ organisation was changing things under their noses. This could be a tricky situation – does Simpson see an issue here?
“Well, we do have to balance the two groups,” he says, carefully. “Our members are a really important asset, they’re our advocates, so it’s vital that we bear them in mind with everything we do. That said, when we’ve spoken to them, they genuinely seem to realise the need that the organisation has to reach out to new audiences. That’s a necessary part of moving forward and preserving the YHA.”
“Let’s not forget,” he continues, “that in many cases they’re also not aware of everything we offer either. They may use us for one specific purpose, say walking, while not bearing us in mind for others. So, I think there’s a job we have to do with them too. We have to take everybody forward with us.”
It’d be easier to take everyone forward if they had enough money to send out invites and ask them along for the ride. But, being a not for profit organisation, that’s one of the challenges that Simpson and co face on a daily basis – they simply don’t have the budgets for mass marketing.
“It’s no secret that we’d like to do a lot more than we actually do,” confirms Simpson (who makes up for the paucity of pounds by marshalling a dedicated in-house marketing department of 20, nearer 30 if you add fundraisers).
“The website gives us a good platform for online communications and we will be doing more (courtesy of The Reading Room again), but in March we’ll also be launching a new campaign to support our activity.”
Understandably Simpson goes back into guarded operating mode when discussing this, but does reveal that “it’s likely to be press”, adding “and I think we’ll be looking at broadening our horizons to consumer press rather than specialist outdoor magazines.” Which will mark another interesting new direction for the charity. Incidentally, all the creative will be handled in-house with bookings going through Dorset’s Raw Media.
It’s Simpson’s hope that once people have actually re-visited the accommodation the misperceptions will crumble away and a good proportion will re-assess the benefits of membership. Whether that happens or not will depend on the standard of the estate, but if this push can just persuade people to initially ‘suck it and see’ then really half the battle will be won.
There’s a genuine need, and a great deal of latent affection, for the YHA in the UK, so one can only hope that this drive helps them in their quest to get heads on beds and decrease that debt burden. Surely this is one ‘family’ that deserves a change in fortunes. I think we can all say ‘ding’ to that.