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    12/08/2015 11:09

YHA AGM 2015

YHA AGM 2015

By Caroline, YHA Young Champion

"This has to be the SMELLIEST AGM that YHA has ever held!" declared outgoing Chair Chris Darmon. It was indeed a curious venue: a grand marquee on the lawn of a gothic mansion, beautifully bedecked with chandeliers and fairy lights, but nevertheless open to the aroma of cattle manure wafting in on the countryside breeze.

Whilst checking in to the venue, YHA Castleton Losehill Hall, just outside Castleton in Derbyshire on Friday evening, I was impressed by the facilities. To me, it perfectly represented the face of the modern YHA: bang-up-to-date services (including free Wi-Fi), tasteful furnishings and attractive menus, but with every practicality for the roving traveller - a stellar self-catering kitchen, well stocked shop, spacious drying room, etc. Not to mention the gloriously extensive grounds - complete with roaming pigs and goats!

As usual, the distinguishing touch was the YHA Welcome and we were all invited to take afternoon tea in the marquee with the Board members. One of the key strengths of YHA is its ability to break down barriers and bring people together from all walks of life. This was clearly in evidence today - ordinarily, I would be too nervous to approach anyone more senior but suddenly I found myself sitting next to the Chairman, discussing the agenda for the following day. With such a diverse crowd, all united by a common love for exploring the countryside, the conversation flowed as old acquaintances reconnected and new friendships were forged. It also gave me the chance to have another look through all the paperwork outlining the proceedings tomorrow! Later in the evening, before a convivial communal meal in the true YHA style, we were able to peruse the displays in the conference room showcasing some of the latest YHA initiatives. These included the recent launch of the Young Champions Programme, the work of Project Bike to improve facilities for cyclists within Peak District Youth Hostels and the use of alternative accommodation, such as yurts, to attract new customers to YHA. Seeing these ideas and strategies assembled together en masse was a powerful reminder of how YHA is an evolving entity, acutely aware of, and responding to, the changing needs of its target audiences.

There was no chance of a lie-in the next morning: we had a lot to get through! Back in the marquee, CEO Caroline White opened the formal meeting by presenting a brief history of YHA, describing how it was originally inspired 85 years ago by the hostelling movement founded in Germany by Richard Schirrmann. The aim was to help working people, particularly the young, to escape the confines of the city and meet new people whilst travelling across the countryside. With its long history however, one has to ask: is YHA still relevant for the modern generation? Moving on to her review of the past year, Caroline made it clear that this was indeed the case. Presenting the results of the first ever YHA Impact report, she said, "This is the first time we have empirical evidence of the difference we make to young people." Besides improving physical health, the social and psychological benefits of outdoor exercise are becoming increasingly recognised. Taking part in communal activities forges common memories between children, improving self-confidence and combating bullying and exclusion. Research by Sport England also shows that 11-18 years is a critical gap for children to take up new activities, and YHA is in a powerful position to facilitate this. Last year, 150,000 young people stayed at Youth Hostels as part of school and educational trips and 74 YHAs are accredited to provide learning experiences outside the classroom. Furthermore, 8,000 children benefitted from YHA bursaries last year, showing the organisation's commitment to reach those who may otherwise have to miss out on these fulfilling experiences. But YHA shows no sign of slowing down its agenda for young people, instead setting the ambitious goal of reaching 1 million under 26s every year.

Besides young people, YHA has also been acting on the needs of the wider membership. "Our customers love our association, they love our hostels but we have to focus on what they don't like," Caroline said. Using customer feedback for direction, the organisation has focused on improving general cleanliness, toilets and showers, providing free Wi-Fi and bolstering its online presence through the website and social media. This appears to be having an effect as customer satisfaction is healthy, and TripAdvisor reports often glowing. "The award which YHA has received that I love the best has to be the 2014 Guardian Readers Travel Award for Best Hotel..." Caroline said with relish. "We beat Premier Inn!"

As well as providing excellent accommodation for roaming travellers, YHA is also becoming widely recognised for its volunteering opportunities. Last year, over 2,000 volunteers were actively involved with the organisation, contributing 176,000 hours worth approximately £1 million. "We are seen as one of the leading charities now," Caroline stated, with organisations such as the Duke of Edinburgh Award seeing YHA as the go-to place to send their members for volunteering experiences. "We are on the map," Caroline concluded, "We may still have challenges and a lot more young people to reach but we are a force to be reckoned with."

With that optimistic introduction, there was no doubt that the YHA brand was still delivering on its promises to make fulfilling outdoor experiences more accessible to all. But I felt a little nervous as Treasurer Alan Bourne took to the platform. With the general economy in such a gloomy position, surely the YHA finances would have suffered this past year? Alan admitted that the organisation had faced the usual challenges - keeping up with repairs, paying staff a living wage and losing income from hostel closures. But overall, income had been considerably greater than expected, creating a £1.7 million surplus over that calculated by the budget. A main factor in this has been a 2.5% increase in the number of overnights, boosted by YHA's alternative accommodation and Exclusive Hire schemes. "These are really taking off," Alan enthused, "And they are introducing YHA to a whole new bunch of people." In addition, the investment in IT infrastructure and the YHA website is starting to pay dividends as an increasing number of people book hostel accommodation online. Meanwhile, add-on sales have also contributed to revenue, with food and beverage sales now generating a third of YHA's income. Membership rates have also remained stable, with a 6% increase in members aged under 26.

It was reassuring to hear that this surplus, rather than sitting in the bank, was going to be ploughed back into improving the network of existing hostels. "We can't expect this fantastic growth to continue and the pressures are still out there," Alan cautioned. This year, income is likely to drop due to the loss of YHA Holland Park from the network when the lease expired, and new legislation setting a higher living wage for staff. Besides this, the organisation has invested heavily in three new flagship Hostels including YHA Cardiff Central. "To make more money, we have to put more money IN," said Alan. "These new hostels are very worthwhile projects and will pay back but it will take time to build up the business." Hopefully, as the organisation continues to broaden its reach and customer base, these hostels will help to attract the next generation of members.

The floor was then given over to the audience, who were ready with their questions. These included asking what YHA could do to encourage ethnic minorities to use the network more? Caroline acknowledged that, "This room is NOT a reflection of the ethnic mix of the country," and stated that more should be done. There were also enquiries as to what plans there are to make Youth Hostels more energy efficient. In answer to this, the YHA Green Spirit programme is investing heavily in renewable energy sources including solar, biomass and air source heat pumps and has set a target of diverting 97% of waste from landfills. One delegate also asked about the possibility of reintroducing Family Activity Holidays - apparently, this is already in progress with the aim of promoting a range of activity-based YHA holidays next year.

A more controversial topic was that of hostel closures. Given the current surplus of revenue, some of the audience members suggested that smaller hostels, such as YHA Stow-on-the-Wold should be given longer to become profitable before being given up from the network. Alan assured us that the issue of hostel closures was under continual review and said, "If circumstances change, we can change our minds. However, we closed Stow because we didn't believe that it would ever become profitable." Chris Darmon added that, "Whenever a hostel's future is discussed, it is one of the hardest times for all of is never easy."

After a quick break for coffee on the sunny terrace, we reconvened to elect the new Board and trustees. The key change here was the loss of Chris Darmon as Chairman, with Peter Gaines being appointed in his place. Meanwhile, Rt Hon Richard Caborn was thrilled to be re-elected as President, and affirmed his commitment to "take the values of YHA and put them in a modern setting. YHA brings people together and plays a major contribution to society through developing the leaders of the future".

A far more difficult choice was appointing the new trustees. A rigorous application and interview process had resulted in the shortlist of eight before us but unfortunately only five positions were available. Each of them would have been an asset to YHA, bringing specialist knowledge in financial planning, property management and working with young people. You would struggle to find a group of more motivated candidates, with their passion shining out in their speeches and the wealth of worthy causes they were already involved with - helping young offenders, restoring historic buildings, organising cycling road races, etc. There was very little to choose between them and I was glad it was not to be solely my decision! By the time I had eventually marked up my ballot sheet, I was ready for lunch! When we gathered again for the afternoon session, we learned that Josie Murray, John Heasman, Vishaal Virani, Paul Wright and Graham Turnock had been voted in. Newly appointed Chair Peter Gaines was pleased, "We're very much in the hands of competed and skilled people, as well as being passionate for YHA."

Having moved through the formalities, we now arrived at the critical business of the meeting. Years of planning and campaigning had been leading to the question to be put to the assembly this afternoon: should the YHA AGM be a truly open event, where any interested member can participate? After all, this is the format adopted by many large organisations for their shareholder meetings. However, even opening up the meeting to an extra 35 member delegates had been a logistical challenge - at this meeting, the accommodation had been split between three local Youth Hostels, with a team of minibuses ferrying people to and from YHA Castleton Losehill Hall. However, the Council were proposing that in future any YHA member (that is, an individual member of YHA who is over 16 years) could choose to attend the AGM and vote on any motions raised. Furthermore, there would be no reserved places for regional councils, affiliated groups or partner organisations - but these would be able to apply for a place as with every other member. According to Treasurer Alan Bourne, this reflects "a desire to make it easier for the wider membership to participate in governance". The motion raised a number of questions from the audience. For a start, how will members be informed about when to register? We were assured that "as many channels of communication as possible" would be used, including emails, posters at hostels and publications by partner organisations. Meanwhile, why is the lower age limit to be an Associate Member 16 and not 18? Alan argued that this took into account "the increasing pressure building up to give people as young as 16 the ability to vote in national elections". Finally there were pleas from sports fans to avoid a summer date. "Right now, we're missing the Tour de France and the cricket!" Bemoaned one delegate. Unfortunately, due to the way in which the financial year is structured, that particular aspect is unlikely to change...but at least it gives the chance of stealing some sunshine in the refreshment breaks!

Discussions over, the proposal was put to the vote. An almost unamionous approval nearly moved the outgoing-Chair Chris Darmon to tears. After all, whilst my part may have been limited to a simple choice of yes or no, an immense amount of time and effort had taken place behind the scenes to make an open AGM a possibility, and now the future, for YHA. But it is going to mean a lot more planning and more beds for the next meeting!

However, the plans to involve more members in YHA governance don't stop there. We moved on to Motion 1: Wider Member Engagement. The Board were acutely aware that "We absolutely need to find the next generation of YHA for a sustainable organisation". It had also been acknowledged that the traditional AGM format was often perceived as stuffy and formal, particularly by the younger demographic. This motion sought to introduce dynamic new channels for members to interact with the management teams and contribute towards YHA policies. The first part of the motion proposed the establishment of an annual Members Day, which combined the Annual General Meeting with a National Conference. This would mean that the AGM would adopt a more interactive format rather being strictly driven by an agenda. Whilst the necessary formal business would still take place, there would also be break out sessions for special interest groups - such as fundraising, work with young people and sustainability. The hope is that this will facilitate a real interaction between members and the Board about what works well, and what doesn't.

Whilst this sounds exciting, it cannot be expected that a single meeting would be able to encompass the entire demographic of YHA members - many will be constrained, for instance, by the location chosen to host the AGM. Hence, the second part of the proposal called for the introduction of a series of Local Exchange Forums across England and Wales. This is to replace the scheme proposed last year of establishing six to eight Local Support Groups, each headed by volunteer Support Group Coordinators. Unfortunately, this idea had to be shelved; perhaps due to the considerable time commitment required, no one came forward to be a Support Group Coordinator. This just reaffirms how the success of many YHA initiatives depends on the time its members generously give for free. But instead of being abandoned, the idea was reinvented as local forums where YHA members could share ideas with one another and members of the Board. It is hoped that these will act as "hubs for communicating what is going on and where we can get all the right people in the room, discuss what to do and get a programme for moving forward". Based on the attendance and enthusiasm shown at the first Exchange Forum, held in Manchester on 13th June, there is real potential for this to be a success.

The motion was put to the vote and passed with enthusiasm. The way is now open for all YHA members to take a more active role in preserving the momentum of the organisation for future generations. As Chris Darmon summarised, "This is now in all of our hands - we have to look at how we can make the countryside attractive to young people. It's a national problem but we are part of the solution if we put our backs and our minds to it."

The final motion of the day called for greater attention to be given to the provision of self-catering kitchens. These are one of the distinguishing features between Youth Hostels and hotels and can make a critical difference to those of limited means - or who have special diets, cultural preferences or fussy children! As we were short of time, the audience weren't able to share all of the horror stories of self-catering facilities that they clearly had to tell. Nevertheless, it was evident that the network would benefit from a policy of minimum standards with regard to the size and facilities of self-catering kitchens. CEO Caroline White agreed but cautioned that completely standardising self-catering kitchens across the network may not be possible. "We have to work with the nature of the buildings and equipment in self-catering kitchens walks at an alarming pace!" She said.

With the formal business done, it was time to indulge with the more social aspect of the meeting. I had volunteered to assist on the Young Champions activity. We had decided to run a condensed version of the John Muir Award, which aims to help people to Explore, Share, Conserve and Discover the natural environment. To do this, we sent teams of delegates around the grounds of YHA Castleton Losehill Hall to find markers that each had a jumbled up word written on them. It was perhaps just as well that we had walked the course beforehand as some were a little tricky to spot! Finally, to channel the YHA passion for the countryside, we got our hands dirty by planting a small forest of hazel saplings. It felt a fitting way to end the proceedings of the day, to return a natural gift to the outdoors that the YHA seeks to bring closer to all. On a less spiritual note, a lot of the delegates decided to go on a brewery tour instead!

For me, it was a tantalising glimpse into the inner structures that support large, charitable organisations. I had always known that YHA had great character, but had not appreciated the extent to which the movement is carried by the enthusiasm, commitment and perseverance of selfless members. And that is a role that we can all take up more fully, thanks to the changes approved at this meeting. I would encourage anyone who has never previously considered attending the AGM to make the meeting next year. There can be no more effective way to feel connected to and valued by an organisation than by helping to shape its direction over the following year. Special thanks must go to Val Derbyshire for all of her efforts in organising such a fantastic meeting and I wish her good luck as she embarks on her PhD!

See you at the next AGM - you've got no excuse now!

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