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COVID stories: YHA’s response in the first year of the pandemic

The coronavirus pandemic has been devastating for our communities, beneficiaries, supporters and people. It has also deeply affected YHA’s ability to generate income and deliver impact.

It was YHA’s 90th year, and easily one of its toughest. In response to the first year of the pandemic, YHA published COVID Stories, written as the year unfolded. It is full of stories of resilience and hope, of the contribution that YHA has made to society through a devastating year, and of belief in the future.

You can download the full publication (PDF, 5MB) or read on for a few key excerpts.

COVID stories

YHA’s response in the first year of the pandemic, a people’s perspective


Planning was broken down into stages:

  1. Closure
  2. Repurposing
  3. Reboot
  4. Renew
COVID stories cover


The lockdown in March 2020 meant the entire network of 153 hostels had to close for recreational use. This was the first complete closure in YHA’s history.

Within a week, 92% of hostel teams and the majority of national office staff were furloughed. It was devastating, but YHA had strong foundations to weather the crisis.

Developed in 2019, a new 10-year strategy called Adventure. For the first time and a lifetime. set the direction of travel for YHA in the run-up to its centenary. It launched in April 2020, a month into the pandemic, with a conviction that its vision, mission and aims would only prove more urgent in the wake of the crisis.

We were clear early on that our strategy is right, and that there’s nothing about the pandemic that changes the overall strategy. It was about what we wanted to see in 10 years’ time. And the impact that we would have on society and people. COVID-19 has made those priorities even more relevant.

James Blake

Chief Executive, YHA (England & Wales)


A specialist reservations task force was set up to find ways to repurpose our hostels and answer how we could assist the national effort to support key workers, NHS staff and vulnerable people.

Across the organisation, we considered where the network could best support the needs of communities. Early on, we identified homeless people and women experiencing domestic abuse as people we could offer real support. YHA worked with a domestic violence charity to provide crisis accommodation. The charity, which will remain anonymous for safety, run a variety of services for people — mainly women and their children — who are fleeing domestic violence.

A representative from the domestic violence charity said: “A lot of feedback from the women is really positive. They’re happy and they appreciate the space, the meals, the input, the support, the children can run around. The freedom aspect is really important for us because that’s exactly what they didn’t have.”


“Reboot is, saying at its simplest form, how do we go from a closed network to reopen accommodation and activities, and having an impact again, in the safest possible way in the new climate,” said Associate Director of User Experience Jon Smith.

A framework for decision-making was developed along with a matrix of YHA accommodation options that we could safely open given various criteria that the Government might impose.

The Government indicated the hospitality sector was expected to reopen from 4th July. As a charity with a duty of care to our supporters, beneficiaries, staff and partners, the situation compelled YHA to progress with caution and careful consideration — guarding against financial and reputational loss.

On 17th July, we began a phased reopening of selected properties. To meet the requirement for social distancing, we were unable to open dorm rooms or social spaces such as self-catering kitchens — unique and fundamental features of the hostelling experience.

The COVID-19 flexibility guarantee was introduced to give bookers confidence that they wouldn’t be left out of pocket if Government restrictions related to COVID-19 prevented them from travelling or our accommodation became unavailable for any reason.


The Renew programme began in November 2020 and will run through 2021 and beyond. It is a programme of activity to enable YHA to recover from the pandemic in the best possible shape to deliver its mission and strategy in the years to come — the aim, to ensure YHA’s future prosperity.
The solid financial footing upon which YHA entered the pandemic meant YHA was shielded from having to offload capital assets at short notice. Through borrowing and rigorous financial management, YHA avoided the need for a fire sale.

YHA began 2020 on the back of another record-breaking year for impact and income. Following 10 years of investment in our hostel network, in 2019/20 we had our busiest 12 months. We passed the million-guest mark, as more people discovered our unique offer and quality, affordable accommodation.

YHA ended the financial year with a £40m drop in income. Through immediate and decisive action, we have done all we can to safeguard the charity for the future. This has included pausing capital investment, making cost savings where we can, applying for all available funding and grants, and broadening our income streams. Overall, this helped us save some £28m.

I think there is huge strength, huge resilience in YHA as an organisation and in just about everybody I meet in YHA. We will get through and we will find a new future, and we will take the crisis as an opportunity to reshape the organisation in a way that when we emerge will mean that we’re in better shape.

Margaret Hart

Chair, YHA (England & Wales)

After a year to forget, let’s make this a summer to remember. Book your summer holiday with YHA.

Next: follow in the footsteps of early visitors at YHA Wye Valley.

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