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Meet Toni Shina of The Backpack, South Africa

01 May 2015
1 May 2015 -

Toni ShinaThe world’s first Fair Trade accredited hostel, The Backpack is a 100 bed multi-award winning hostel in Cape Town, South Africa. With strong connections to the local community and an emphasis on responsible tourism, Toni Shina, co-owner and founder of The Backpack, talks to STAY WYSE about what makes the Backpack so special.

SW: Tell us a bit about yourself.
I am Toni Shina, the co-owner and founder of South Africa’s original backpacker accommodation established in 1990. I run The Backpack with my childhood friend and business partner of 25 years, Lee Harris.

SW: The Backpack has been no stranger to award ceremonies over the years. You have been voted as the Best Value Hotel in the world by Lonely Planet, and were recently awarded the Best Hostel in Africa 2014 by Hostelworld. What is it about The Backpack that makes it so special – and keeps it winning awards year after year?
Gosh that is a tricky question, as there are so many amazing hostels around the world today!

I think that something that makes The Backpack special is our commitment to responsible action, which perhaps makes us more than just a hip, urban hostel. We choose to make a difference through our business, and in turn our clients do too, as they choose to spend their money more responsibly. The customer can see where their money is going and the positive effect their spend is having; we are not only selling an experience, but one that is making a difference.

SW: Tell us more about your commitment to responsible action.
We see responsible action as a choice. From the fit-out at The Backpack, through to our extensive environmental initiatives, the businesses and local artists we work with to offer guest activities or provide hostel services, right through to our relationships with our own staff, responsible action is something that we have chosen to place at the very core of every aspect of our business.Quote 3

For example, the interior design at The Backpack is 100% local. We use local designers, our carpets are made through community projects, the lights are made by visually impaired people, all our linen is local produced and some of it is even hand made. We know who has made all our furniture and the fittings.

Many of our guests are surprised when they arrive – our beds are comfortable – and we use the best quality linen, duvets and pillows. We also have a community shop at The Backpack, selling locally made gifts and other items. We display two prices on each item; the price we pay the local artist or crafter, and the marked up price of 30%.

We are also particularly proud of our commitment to our staff. By empowering them with life changing skills they become stakeholders in our business, and are able to share in the profits. We pay three times more than the minimum wage, and offer all our staff and their children educational bursaries. This good relationship we have with our staff rubs off on our customers.

Four bed mixed dorm

Four bed mixed dorm at The Backpack

SW: Guests are offered a number of different events at the Backpack, and you’ve partnered with Wine Flies to run monthly Wine Tasting evenings to showcase South Africa’s world renowned wines. How does that sort of offering appeal to guests, and how does it benefit the Backpack?
The difference between a hotel and a hostel is the “S” – SOCIAL. We are selling an experience not just a great bed, in a good location etc.

Our customer wants to experience local food, local wine and beer, local music and fashion. It is a time for us to showcase the cool stuff, and our clients become our brand ambassadors thanks to these events – using their own social media channels they inadvertently advertise us!

Wine Flies event at The Backpack

Wine Flies event at The Backpack

SW: Fair Trade is a term often seen on consumer products like food and coffee, but The Backpack became the world’s first Fair Trade Hostel. What does a Fair Trade accreditation mean in the accommodation industry, and what did you have to do to earn it?Quote 2
As a traveller, your choices matter: to people and communities, species and ecosystems, and to the climate as a whole. And the choices that travellers make influence the behaviour of the millions of businesses that make up the tourism industry, a sizeable global industry.

Being a Fair Trade establishment means we operate in an ethical, social and environmentally responsible way. Travellers are assured that their holiday benefits local communities, and that gives the traveller a more meaningful experience.

The accreditation process is tough – all our business practices are audited. There are many criteria which we have to meet: our labour standards and HR practices, skills development and employment equity, the community projects we are involved in, the impact our hostel has on the environment, how we manage HIV AIDS and other diseases in the work place. We actively promote Fair Trade Principles of Fair Share, Transparency, Democracy, Respect, Reliability and Sustainability.

SW: How has the Fair Trade accreditation helped your business?
As a hostel we have a unique opportunity to bring about positive change by participating, giving of ourselves, and considering the broader impact of what we do. Through the accreditation process we have a benchmark on where to make improvements.

Responsible tourism extends the experience for the traveller. It makes business sense to care about our communities, our staff and our planet. The customer wants to make a difference, and in turn our occupancy is high and our average room rate is high. We charge more because we give more in all ways.

The Rope Skipping Project

Community project, ‘The Rope Skipping Project’

SW: You have a range of very interesting responsible tourism opportunities that allow your guests to give back to the local community; the Bursary Scheme, the Stitch and Bitch program and the Soccer Project, among others. How have guests responded to these initiatives? What impact do you think it has on their stay and their time in South Africa?
We choose to make a difference in our community by addressing and helping the social needs of an economically and socially disadvantaged community in Cape Town, by working towards a just society in which all people get to share in the wealth of the country, and by offering our guests the opportunity to get involved in our outreach programmes.

The Bursary Scheme is one very simple initiative we operate, where we give our guests the choice to donate their key deposits to the Bursary Fund. The Fund is then available for use by our staff and their children or grandchildren, to pursue education and study. With our guest help, this scheme has enabled us to pay for school and university courses for a number of our staff and their children.

We find that there is a real desire to get involved in responsible tourism, and many travellers extend their stay or return so they can get involved in projects, whether it is ours or one of the many on offer in South Africa. Many travellers who never dreamed of making a difference end up changing their travel plans and even their careers.

SW: you’ve been open for some 25 years now. How have things changed in that time, in terms of who your guests are, and what they expect from a hostel?
Wow! The traveller has changed in many ways. 25 years ago they stayed at the hostel for 3 months, now it is an average of three days! We used to sell party tours where they would drink each other under the table – they were all about themselves and most of them had no travel plans.

In 1990 we had curfews, shared meals, no internet, and correspondence was via post. Bookings were done over the phone and by fax. We had no reservations systems, only a pencil and eraser. The traveller 25 years ago was looking for a hot shower and a clean bed (they brought their own sleeping bags).

Today the traveller is organised, conscious, well informed, educated and looking for meaningful experiences. The guest is looking for everything a 4 star hotel offers, and of course the ‘S’ in hostel – the social experience that hotels don’t offer. They want the opportunity to meet like-minded travellers in order to have face-to-face experiences.

SW: what do you see as some of the greatest challenges facing the youth travel and hostel industry in South Africa, and how are you tackling these

  1. The OTAs. The commissions are increasing annually. We have listed one room type on Airbnb to see how that goes, but we would love more advice about how to deal with the relationship with OTAs.
  2. Larger hostel groups are being formed which will threaten the small owner operated hostels.
  3. Visas are difficult to obtain and are having a negative effect on our volunteer and language sector. We are a member of SAYTC [South African Youth Travel Confederation], who lobby the government regarding visas.
  4. Constant increase in airfares.
  5. We have no trained hosteliers. South Africans’ perceptions of hostels’ clients are long haired hippies, who have no money occupying dirty hostels!
  6. The health of our staff is of primary concern. HIV Aids, TB and sugar diabetes is rife amongst our staff and many work hours are lost. We pay for four doctors appointments with an HIV specialist, which helps staff to manage their treatment and as a result, reduces the amount of sick leave taken.
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SW: The Backpack joined STAY WYSE as a member in 2014. As a relatively new member, what prompted you to join and how have you found your membership experience thus far?
We joined because the reports and trends produced by STAY WYSE and WYSE Travel Confederation are amazing. Also, we also want to showcase our hostel during WYSTC this year to the industry role players, and encourage other international hosteliers to form networks of responsible hostels that choose to make a difference like ours.

To date, our membership experience has been really positive. I thoroughly enjoy the reports and feeling connected to the rest of the world. Sadly, I have not had time to join the webinars though.

 SW: you’ve achieved a lot at the Backpacker and there’s a lot going on. What’s next?
I have wanted to start an International academy for hosteliers, offering short online courses with practical exchanges at The Backpack and other hostels around South Africa and the world that focus on responsible tourism.

I would love to start an International hostelier exchange program for staff, to give opportunities to those that could never dream of travelling or being a guest. Something similar to school exchange programs, but for staff working at hostels.

Find out more at The Backpack.