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Q&A with Best Buy Label Independent Hostels

Independent Hostels is a Best Buy Label company in our guide to ethical travel booking companies. We talked to them about the philosophy behind the company, challenges and the future. 

Tell us a bit about Independent Hostels UK

Independent Hostels is a support and marketing network for hostels, bunkhouses and camping barns. With over 330 members it is the largest network of hostels in the UK.

Founded in 1993 by Dr Sam Dalley, cyclist, traveller and hosteller, Independent Hostels started as a hobby with just 15 members. Since then it has gone from strength to strength, growing steadily each year (with the exception of the Covid years). With Sam still at the helm, this small company provides a vital marketing and networking platform for these small and often isolated hostel style businesses.

Together with the YHA and the two Scottish Hostelling bodies, our impressive website and the iconic Independent Hostel Guidebook (now in its 32nd edition) are the go-to place for outdoor enthusiasts, families, schools and clubs looking for value for money, hostel style accommodation.

Why do you think you received our Best Buy label? What separates you from other ethical travel booking companies?

We are one of the very few travel booking companies that supports the accommodation on our site and gives readers access to their websites and marketing channels.

Our philosophy is to generate direct bookings. We feel this is the most ethical way of doing business. Our members are completely in control of their bookings and communicating with their customers. Likewise our readers know that when booking on our booking platform, they are booking direct with the accommodation.

Our motto to our readers is: ‘Everything you pay and everything you say goes direct to your host’.

Hostelling is a naturally ethical way to travel. Shared resources leave a smaller carbon footprint and mixing with other guests from diverse backgrounds is good for society too.  

Hostels are widely used by outdoor enthusiasts, some of whom travel from hostel to hostel without the use of a car. A throwback to the days of traditional hostelling. Some of our members encourage this with discounts for those arriving on foot, by bike or on public transport. Many of our members make an extra effort to operate their accommodation super sustainably.  

We support and encourage these endeavours with extra publicity on our Sustainable Travel and Eco Hostels promotions. We encourage our members to operate their businesses sustainably with regular tips and recommendations. It's not a hard job, in fact, we are constantly being inspired by the social conscience and planet awareness of our members, and are often just passing their good tips on.

We also behave ethically ourselves, taking good care of our staff, watching our own carbon footprint in the office and for the publications we produce.

Do you see a growing demand for ethical travel booking options?

Many of our members are seeing more UK-based guests enjoying outdoor holidays, and fewer overseas tourists.   This movement towards healthy outdoor holidays in staycation locations has got to be good for sustainable tourism. 

Two women outside stone building in snow
Sam and Penny from Independent Hostels UK outside Elterwater Hostel, Lake District. Copyright Independent Hostels

What is your advice to consumers?

Always book direct.

If you need to use the big tech sites to find accommodation, that’s fine. Once you know where you want to stay, search on the internet for the accommodation’s own website, and if it’s possible book with them direct.  

This will save the small business owner up to 20% of your overnight fees. Money they can spend on you and in their local community.  

Of course, if it’s a hostel or bunkhouse you are looking for, you can search by location or availability on our site

As our bookings are always placed direct on the hostels own booking systems, there is no commission for them to pay.

Have you ever had to make a business decision that challenged your ethical standpoint?

For years we felt ethically challenged when ordering the paper to print our guidebook: oscillating between using recycled paper which only comes in thicker sheets and using FSC paper in thinner weights.

In 2020 we realised that the adage, ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ puts ‘reduce’ way above ‘recycle’ and by reorganizing the layout, and printing on the lightest FSC paper available we were about to reduce the bulk of our books by 42%. This affected both the quantity of paper consumed and the cost of transporting the books. So recycled paper was never the way to go after all. It was great to have addressed this ethical quandary.

On a sadder note, we are most ashamed of the time when we let-go a productive and sensitive member of staff. This staff member had come to us via the government-funded Kickstart scheme. Over the course of the 6-month placement they became an essential member of our team, and we felt that our team had become a valued part of their life too. However, the business could not afford to keep them on at the end of the placement. It was a requirement of the Kickstart funding that the employer must be unable to offer that position without Kickstart help, so when the scheme ended we did not have the budget. This was a sad day, and all the good wishes and leaving cards could not mask it. It was the ethically lowest point of the business.

Where would you like to see Independent Hostels UK in the next 5 years?

We would like to see all the hostel networks of the UK combined on one commission-free booking platform. We would like to see Independent Hostels UK as one of a number of providers working on this platform, jointly supporting hostel operators to provide low-cost holiday accommodation with shared resources.  

The result would be a huge network of financially-viable hostel accommodation that would be available to all, promoting social inclusion and healthy outdoor travel.

This is a big ambition involving lots of people outside of our small company, so perhaps we are best to settle for a larger network providing more support to more hostels, at the forefront of ethical, sustainable staycations, where profit is not put before environmental and social issues.