FACED with a crisis unlike anything it has seen in its 90-year history, the youth hostelling charity YHA (England & Wales) has documented its survival over the last 12 months in a new publication – COVID stories.
Documented in real-time and from the perspective of YHA’s senior leadership team, hostel managers, volunteers and partners, the 64-page publication covers the period March 2020 to February 2021. It tells the story of the first year of the pandemic from the perspectives of those responsible for YHA’s recovery.
James Blake, Chief Executive of YHA (England & Wales), explained:
“COVID stories is a testament to the huge effort, energy, dedication and passion of YHA’s people, supporters and partners who have come together and enabled us to survive the last 12 months.
“We entered 2020 in great shape, as a result of 10 years of work on the commercial viability of the organisation and the quality of our products. We also have a very good relationship with our bank, HSBC. This foundation has been critical to our ability to weather this storm.”
Riding high at the beginning of 2020, having had one of the most successful years ever with income topping £55 million, a new 10-year strategy on the brink of being launched and a year of 90th-anniversary celebrations planned, YHA’s plans came to an abrupt halt when the pandemic hit.
Lockdown forced the closure of the entire network, numbering 153 youth hostels in England and Wales. It was the first complete closure in YHA’s 90-year history and resulted in the immediate furloughing of more than 90 per cent of YHA’s 1086-strong workforce.
The closure of the network saw hostels helping the local communities in which they were based, donating thousands of pounds of food to community groups and Food Banks. YHA’s surplus signature green bed linen was also donated to address the national shortage of PPE and turned into scrubs, face masks and wash bags.
As well as devastating YHA’s communities, beneficiaries, supporters and people, the closure of the youth hostel network also deeply affected the charity’s ability to generate income and deliver impact.
Arguably at a time when the population needed it the most, with one in eight British households living through lockdowns without a garden, 200,000 young people missed out on a residential with YHA between March and July 2020 alone.
With 90 per cent of the charity’s income coming from hostel stays, 2020 became a fight for survival for YHA.
Pausing capital investment, making cost savings where it could, applying for all available funding and grants, and broadening its income streams enabled YHA to save £28million. Despite cost-cutting, grants and fundraising efforts, YHA, unfortunately, had to make nearly 400 redundancies.
Looking at ways YHA could help nationally in the pandemic response led to YHA repurposing 47 hostels to councils to provide accommodation for homeless people and women experiencing domestic abuse. Repurposing contributed more than £3million and supported 650 vulnerable people.
YHA’s 90th-anniversary fundraising campaign, Project90, was also turned on its head. Initially established to raise money to provide residential activity breaks for disadvantaged young people, Project90 was expanded to include NHS and keyworker families. To date, Project90 has raised £380,000, funding breaks for 50 families. A further 500 families will receive breaks when the YHA network re-opens.
Project90 has also enabled YHA to continue to deliver its charitable purpose – to help all especially young people of limited means. And it hopes to help many more young people over the next 16 months through the Generation Green project.
Together with partners The Outward Bound Trust, Scouts, Girlguiding, Field Studies Council and the 10 English National Parks, Generation Green aims to connect young people to nature, create and save jobs and build an aspirant workforce for a green recovery. The £2.5million project is funded by the Government’s Green Recovery Challenge Fund.
Through the project, more than 100,000 opportunities will be delivered to connect young people to nature. It will also enable the retention of 20 jobs, 10 new jobs, one paid internship, 30 Kickstart placements, seven apprenticeships, and 659 skilled volunteer roles in the outdoor sector.
Anita Kerwin-Nye, Director of Strategy and Engagement at YHA, added:
“We recognised from the offset of the pandemic that access was still important. Rather than abandon our strategy or ambitions for access, if anything, we doubled down on them. This strategy in itself has proved the right course to take.
“What the last 12 months have shown us all is that our 10-year strategy is right for the times in which we now live and will enable YHA to play an active role through our partnerships in helping rebuild society post-pandemic. In fact, our strategy only proved more urgent in the wake of the crisis.”
From 29 April, YHA’s network will begin to re-open supported by a £478,000 grant from the second round of the Government’s Culture Recovery Fund. The grant will cover essential costs, such as staff training and the essential cleaning of hostels which have not been used for 12 months as YHA gears up to reopen the network.
James Blake added:
“This funding and support is critical for YHA’s recovery. Giving hundreds of thousands of people, particularly young people, access to the rich and vibrant heritage of our country is something our charity has been doing for more than 90 years. The pandemic has hit YHA hard. This award through the Cultural Recovery Fund will ensure we are ready to welcome guests safely this year and for generations to come.”
YHA ended the financial year with a £40m drop in income. However, through immediate and decisive action, it has safeguarded the charity for the future.
“It has been a long haul and a period of huge disruption. YHA colleagues may be spread across two countries and live and work in remote spots or highly populated urban areas, yet YHA is one team and a team that looks out for one another and together, we are weathering this storm.
“The charity’s immediate priority now is planning for the 2021 summer season and meeting the already high demand for YHA stays. With the renew programme now underway, we look to the future with hope and ambition.”
To read about YHA’s year like no other, download COVID stories at:
To join the conversation on social media, use #yhacovidstories.