For most hostels across the UK a sunny September weekend would mean fully booked rooms and busy bars and lounges. But this week hostels have been processing cancellations in response to the UK government’s “rule of six” announcement – on top of a severely challenging summer that saw a drastic reduction in occupancy rates as owners adjusted to social distancing guidelines. Some found operating a business based on large groups and shared experiences impossible under post-lockdown rules – according to Independent Hostels UK (IHUK), a network with 420 members, over a third of hostels did not open their doors at all. Even those that are full – albeit at limited capacity – face a fight for survival.
In research being carried out by IHUK, around a third of the hostels surveyed so far say they won’t survive more than six months in the current climate. Another quarter say they might have a year. This was prior to the “rule of six” which has added to the pressure now that groups of friends and families from different households, and school groups are barred.
“We are still trying to get our head around exactly what the new law means for our sector,” said Sam Dalley, editor of IHUK’s website and guidebook. “Hostels have gone one of two ways since re-opening: larger ones operating more like B&Bs and smaller ones like holiday cottages – but the rule of six has completely scuppered them. There are numerous bookings for next few weeks with groups of multiple households, which they’ve had to cancel.”
Operating like a B&B has been successful for many hostels over the summer, attracting guests with cheap private rooms – some for as little as £10 a night – in beauty spots such as the Lakes, Peak District and Cornish coast.
YHA began reopening its 150 properties in England and Wales from 17 July, including 30 hostels with private rooms on a B&B basis, the rest as exclusive hire. “We’ve always offered private rooms if you want them, but people have picked up on that more, so for the longer term, that’s positive’” said chief executive James Blake. “There are new people that have discovered hostelling through this.”
Cohort Hostel in St Ives has been operating at 40% of its usual capacity, offering private rooms and dorms for exclusive use by those from the same household (from £47). Each room was assigned a shower cubicle, and communal toilets were cleaned hourly.
“What saved us is our location. We’re really lucky, being in a prime spot in the town centre and in a beautiful building. So despite our lack of communal spaces, I think people were just really happy to be away,” said owner Lee Strickland, who runs the hostel with her husband Dan. “Our main thing has always been making St Ives affordable, and that’s still really important to us, especially now.”
A shortage of holiday cottages and campsite pitches over the summer has also led to bookings from people who would never normally consider a hostel, including families who had cancelled plans to go abroad.
“Because Cornwall is so busy, we’re getting a lot of people that have never stayed in a hostel before – we’ve had back-to-back bookings of families for most of the summer,” said Strickland.
Strickland said Cohort is getting by for now, thanks to VAT breaks and government loan schemes, but they won’t be enough to keep the hostel afloat long term. She estimates they have until April next year, when they will have faced what she calls “three winters in a row” with winter levels of occupancy from summer 2020 through to the start of summer 2021
“We can’t survive like this long-term. With the recent [rule of six] restrictions we can’t have any groups, such as student societies or schools – so we’ve lost our winter business,” added Strickland. “We’ll probably close soon until spring, unless we get more bookings, but even October is looking desolate.”
Saddle Mountain Hostel in Great Glen, in the Highlands, reopened at the end of August. “Full capacity” is down from 22 to 12 guests under the current restrictions in Scotland, and so far bookings have been minimal.
“In reality, the occupancy is nothing like 12,” said Greg Barclay, who co-owns the property with his partner, Helen Cunningham.
“Where we are, the only people that have had any interest in staying in hostels are traditional hostel and outdoors guests, who mainly travel alone or with groups of friends – who can’t now share a room. We were “full” last night with four guests, one guest per room. Their other four friends had to sleep in their van outside.”
With the hostel’s communal kitchen off limits the couple have been ferrying takeaways from the nearest restaurant. On top of a shrinking income, tightening restrictions could mean a rethink in 2021.
“In winter it’s generally walking clubs who use the hostel for the weekend, for 15 to 20 people, all from different households.” said Barclay. “But with the current rules [from Monday, a similar rule of six will be adopted in Scotland] this, our only source of income during winter, has now disappeared. We may have to change the nature of what we are doing, and think about being more like a B&B. However, people expect en suites in B&Bs, so that would mean major and costly renovation.”
Barclay, like Strickland at Cohort Hostel, thinks part of the problem stems from people’s outdated assumptions of hostelling, as a basic option for walkers. Last month’s Scottish Tourism Index report found that when given several accommodation options, just 2% of Scots said they’d considered staying in a hostel in 2020. Separate research by VisitBritain found a similarly low interest with 6% of UK adults who intended to take a trip between October 2020 and March 2021 saying they would consider hostel accommodation.
The unique challenges faced by the hotel sector were outlined in the recent Support Our Hostels campaign, which began in Scotland and was co-led by Saddle Mountain. It called on the the government to provide financial aid to help hostels through winter. The findings of the IHUK survey will be used to bolster its lobbying.
“Hostels are struggling more than other accommodation because of their shared nature,” said IHUK’s Dalley. “And in order to reopen they’ve had to shelve their main attraction – being social. Combine that with reduced occupancy and it’s a nightmare.”
In Scotland, the campaign group has already been told by the Scottish government that the “money has run out”. Without financial aid or a change in the law to allow more guests, the outlook is far from sunny, said Dalley. “A lot of them are in trouble. If you want hostels there in the future, you need to use them now, or they won’t survive,” said Dalley.