STAY WYSE chats with Julian Ledger, YHA Australia
A well-known figure in the Australian tourism sector, Julian Ledger, CEO of YHA Australia and founding member of the NSW Backpacker Operators Association (BOA) and the Backpacker Youth Tourism Advisory Panel. (BYTAP), is a man with a finger on the pulse.
The recipient of a number of awards recognising his outstanding contribution to the industry, STAY WYSE spoke with Julian about his role at YHA and the evolution of the industry.
SW: It is one thing to have a career in the tourism industry, but quite another to amass 35 years of experience specifically in the backpacker segment. What is it about the backpacker market that appeals to you so much?
Tourism, youth, travel – what more could you want? The market has changed continuously and I have found that endlessly invigorating.
SW: the YHA network began as long ago as 1939 with the establishment of YHA Victoria. Today there are over 85 hostels and 8000 beds in the Australian network. How has the network developed over the years, and what changes have you seen in both accommodation standards and consumer expectations?
In the early days, YHA hostels were very small and the buildings were begged, borrowed and stolen from wherever they could be found.
SW: What makes YHA hostels different from other hostels in Australia?
YHA is both an operator and owner of Hostels and we are in it for the long term – this is all we do.
It means that we can focus on building places that are well designed and that will endure. The particular focus is on quality of location, facilities and people; great hostels in great locations.
SW: How has the guest profile at a YHA establishment changed over the years?
What has not changed is that most people are in their 20s, which is when travellers have the most time and energy to travel the ‘backpacker way’, including travelling alone or with a friend and being open to meeting a lot of people.
Expectations have changed, as people now have more money in their pocket and are looking for a higher standard of amenity, but still desire a place which is not a hotel and which has its primary emphasis on interaction.
SW: You now operate the yha.com.au site in Japanese, Mandarin and Korean. How important is it to know where your customers are coming from, and to make your product accessible to them?
For Australia, the ‘Far East’ is the ‘Near North’ and in a similar time zone.
It is quite easy to travel here for the majority of the world’s population. By numbers, Mandarin is more widely spoken than English and we have to adapt to that.
Australia is a multicultural society; a quarter of the population have Asian heritage. At last count, we had 34 nationalities working for us and in particular we have placed an emphasis on having people with Asian language skills on the front counter.
SW: YHA is a membership based organisation, both for the hostels themselves as well as the consumer backpackers. How does YHA continue to evolve to ensure it remains relevant, accessible and competitive in the industry today? How has the internet impacted on this?
You could write a book on this topic!
We have invested and reinvested and invested again in yha.com.au and of course we will never reach the horizon as it will keep moving away from us. However, the investment pays dividends and we aim to provide a rich experience. Membership means a community and provides a means for communication. As YHA is a not-for-profit, members have the opportunity to have input into how the organisation is run and how it develops. Any surpluses are reinvested in new and better hostels.
SW: over the last decade there has been a real trend towards design hostels or ‘flashpackers’ in Europe, and the development of hostel ‘brands’, often with substantial financial backing from private investment firms. How does the Australian market contrast or compare with hostel markets abroad?
The hostel that changed everything in Australia was the Sydney Central YHA opposite Central Station.
From there, YHA had the resources to keep developing new and better hostels. Most recently the Fremantle Prison YHA in Western Australia – located in a World Heritage site. This development continues a rich tradition of adaptive reuse of historic buildings.
SW: Australia has long been a popular destination for backpackers, especially those from countries with bilateral working holiday agreements, which enable travellers to take advantage of the opportunity to work in Australia as they make their way around the country. Australia recently proposed changes to the visas and laws around working holiday makers. What are the key changes and how do think these will impact the industry in Australia?
If there has been one thing which has made all the difference for Australian youth tourism it is the reciprocal working holiday agreements.
The average length of stay for backpackers in Australia is 80 days, and many stay for the full year or even two years. Australia now has reciprocal agreements with some 30 countries – most recently with Slovenia and Slovakia – with Israel, Greece and Spain in the pipeline.
For the first time this also applies to American work and holidaymakers.
SW: YHA Australia is part of a bigger international network via Hostelling International. Why is it important to be part of a bigger global community and remain connected with the industry abroad?
We have drawn great strength and inspiration from Hostelling International and its many member associations.
We participate actively and share information about such things as hostel design and development, sustainability, marketing and web development. The large collective membership within Hostelling International provides a competitive advantage.
SW: the discussion around the Online Travel Agents (OTA) relationship with accommodation providers appears to be a complex one that isn’t going away in a hurry. Tell us about the Sydney Declaration and how this has impacted on the hostel/OTA scene in Australia.
Back in 2013 a group of leading youth traveller accommodation providers and associations got together at WYSTC to consider online distribution practices.
The thrust for the effort was to reset the relationship and work towards fair practices in online distribution. That document was titled the ‘Sydney Declaration’. In particular, there was concern about license agreements with clauses that required rate parity, and which allowed online advertising against brand names without seeking prior authority.
Over the past two years, there has been consolidation of OTA ownership and reduced competition has resulted in the drive to increase commissions. In some jurisdictions rate parity clauses have been deemed illegal.
We recognise the symbiotic relationship between accommodation providers and distribution channels, but also support greater initiatives by providers to control their own destiny, and in particular by capping commission payable at sustainable levels.
I would encourage STAY WYSE to review the 2013 Sydney Declaration and make the updates necessary.
Particularly though, the one on one meetings are the core of the event where we have the chance to both catch up with our current partners and thank them for their ongoing support, whilst also meeting potential partners and coming away with a complete understanding of their business needs and expectations.
I serve on a committee which meets in Australia’s capital, Canberra, dealing with tourism visa policies.
To enable as many people as possible to travel there need to be rules, but they should be realistic, and fees at the border should be kept to a minimum, otherwise they can act as a disincentive.
SW: What’s your vision for the future of YHA Australia?
Australia is lucky to have a whole continent to itself with a young population of only 23 million.
There is great opportunity as visitation increases and people travel to parts of the country yet barely discovered.
YHA’s role is to have a comprehensive hostel network made up of a mix of properties that we own and operate, supplemented by private franchisees which help to provide the coverage and the variety of experiences that our guests expect.
Check out YHA Australia.