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Chatting with Darren Barker, new CEO of Hostelling International

13 August 2015
13 Aug 2015 -
Darren Barker

Darren Barker was appointed CEO of Hostelling International on 20 April 2015. A qualified chartered management account, Darren joined HI after roles with Emirates Holidays UK and Orbitz Worldwide, along with Virgin Mobile. STAY WYSE chatted with Darren about his first 90 days on the job,  the HI mission and what it’s like to be in charge of an international network of over 4000 hostels across 70+ countries.

SW: as Michael Watkins best-selling book suggests, the first 90 days in a new job are critical. How have you found your first 90 days as CEO of one of the largest networks of youth travel accommodation providers in the world?
DB: I’m a people-person so I set out to speak with as many people as possible.

That truly is a challenge given we have 70+ national associations who run hostels in their domestic territories.

I’ve been collecting information from the management of those organisations and my team here, and I’m now working towards confirming a vision for how our international office represents and strengthens the network. I’ve found it very enjoyable indeed.

SW: while you’ve had travel industry experience, you haven’t had specific youth travel experience in the past. What have you discovered about the industry since joining HI?
DB: I have very deliberately tried to take on new challenges that will help me grow throughout my career.  It was that desire to learn more that originally brought me into travel and now I’m enjoying learning about the youth segment.

You will notice that a lot of the brands in my past are consumer champions in a certain way and it’s fair to say that my mind always defaults back to “what will the customer think”?

The most surprising thing has been the vast variety within the sector with customers ranging from German School groups to UK Gap Year travellers, Aussie backpackers and Swedish sports teams.  They are all expecting something slightly different, hence discovering those needs and ensuring they are catered for is a challenge and an opportunity.
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SW: how has your experience at Emirates Holidays helped you in your new role?
DB: Emirates is also a very large global organisation so my experiences there really helped me understand how to make firm and steady progress within a large organisation with many different cultures, viewpoints, traditions etc.

Whilst it was a different product, the process of identifying competitive advantage and building a vision and strategy around that is transferable.

One example I sometimes quote is that when you board an Emirates plane, they announce where the cabin crew come from and how many languages they speak.  I’ve not heard a number less than 20 to date, and I do believe that the hospitality industry in general could learn from that example of inclusive customer service.

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SW: what are your immediate priorities at HI?
DB: The plan for the first 90 days was to learn as much as possible, identify some of the themes that are common across our National Associations and to make good strides towards agreeing a vision and strategies for how our international office contributes to the network.

We’re well on the way to having that so I hope to be able to talk more about it in the coming months.

SW: Hostelling International is a global community of hostels and travellers. When hostel operators often face local challenges and issues, why is it important for them to be connected to a global community and the industry abroad?
DB: One of our colleagues based out of Argentina has a saying that I really enjoy: “My outbound is your inbound”.

I really love that saying as it visualises how we can come together.  If a customer is travelling from England to Argentina then seeing a familiar logo and knowing that local entity is different but believes in similar things and shares similar standards, is really encouraging.

I like the fact that our network is made up of lots of National Associations who are all different but believe in something very similar, because that reflects on human nature, especially youth travel.  We may all look, sound, behave slightly differently but learning about that and embracing differences is a key part of our mission for customers and National Associations alike.

Our hostel managers have a great advantage in that as they have a community from whom to source information and share best practice.

SW: what need do you see HI filling for the hostelling industry?
DB: If you go back and look to our mission which was first scribed in 1932, you will see that we’re aiming to give young people, especially those of limited means, the chance to learn other countries, cities, cultures and people.

We’re a network that is generally not for profit or mission based, hence it is in our interest to be inclusive, keep things accessible and focus on cultural exchange and education.  In some places that happens naturally and in some places we make a conscious effort to encourage it.

Our motivations are different to for-profit entities hence we are likely to connect well with those seeking something different to commercialised hospitality.

It’s important we do things well, but for us those things are centred around a mission, not a profit.

SW: What are the major challenges you see facing the industry in the next 5 years?
DB: Activity in the youth sector is booming and that will certainly shake things up.  Companies like Generator, Citizen M and Airbnb are offering customers relatively new offerings and that will inevitably provoke some thought.

Online Travel Agencies are starting to get interested in the sector and making pushes, which will present both challenges and opportunities.

Customer behaviours change gradually over time and the millennials will be taking an increasing share of demand, hence understanding that cohort will be increasingly important

SW: with a global membership base, HI members must often have different needs and objectives. How does HI deal with competing demands from national associations with varying degrees of size and power?
DB: The answer here is that we need to look for commonalities and ensure we use the network to help each other.  That might mean one of our stronger entities designing processes that a smaller entity can replicate with less effort, or coming together to exchange best practice.

I’m very respectful of the differences and often comment that the answer to any problem will likely live somewhere in the network.  By my estimates, there are tens of thousands of very knowledgeable hostelling professionals in our network so we need to play to that strength..

SW: practically speaking, how does HI deal with the diversity that comes from a global network, with respect to language and cultural issues, regional legal and regulatory differences, national tourism policies etc.?
DB: One joy of our setup is that we have local entities, our National Associations in 70+ countries around the globe.

Those entities are ideally positioned to lead on local specifics such as language, culture and law.  There really is a wealth of hostelling knowledge within the network.

With that said, the challenge comes to ensure we can work with that knowledge and share important information.  I’m a sporting fan and like the analogy that your team would not perform well if it had 11 goalkeepers.  Having different skills is a blessing as long as we can work together well.

The local knowledge I reference is so important to the end consumers hence I embrace it fully!

SW: HI is a membership based organisation, both for the hostels themselves via national associations as well as the consumer backpackers. How does HI continue to evolve to ensure it remains relevant, accessible and competitive in the industry today? How has the internet impacted on this?
DB: There are some theories out there that millennial generation don’t really connect with membership organisations and that innovations like Facebook taught that generation that they can HI quote 1get a great service without signing up for a paid membership.

I think there is some merit in that thought but there are also examples in our network where staying close to our roots and beliefs has led to growing membership.

I can understand why in an age of promo codes and internet booking engines a customer might not want to buy a membership to a hostel network, but I believe that can be different when the customer sees a mission based, not-for-profit organisation trying to make the world a better place through cultural exchange and sustainable business.

Membership also comes with a host of great local discounts which the guest probably wouldn’t get access to without membership.

SW: The HI mission is to promote the education of all young people of all nations, to develop a better understanding of people both at home and abroad. How important is the HI mission in today’s globalised era?
DB: People travel now more than they ever have and our societies are becoming much more multi-cultural.

At a time when the world is full of conflict that originates from geographical or religious disputes, what is more important than putting young people into an environment where they can learn tolerance and understanding?

Young people are our future and I’d like to grow old in a world where they can look at each other without judging each other and taking the world into more conflict.

SW: The concept for HI grew out of school camp expeditions by German school teacher, Richard Shirrmann, back in 1909. Back then, guests were often expected to participate in running the hostel, doing chores, cooking and cleaning as part of their stay. A lot has changed since. How has and will HI continue to adapt to changing demands of consumers?
DB: A lot has changed since then, but a lot has also remained the same. We have many volunteers around the world that share our beliefs and mission and still run hostels, cook, educate, engage with local communities or clean as part of their stay.

HI’s members participated in more than 5,000 sustainability projects recently whilst some of our members such as Bolivia, USA, Canada, or England and Wales have huge volunteer projects aimed at helping the surrounding communities.

There is growing interest in participating while travelling and customers are increasing their expectations in having a unique and different experience.  I’d recommend you check out some of our sustainability projects in our Annual Report.


SW: HI has made a commitment to sustainability, advocating for and promoting sustainable tourism practices among its network. Why is this important and what impact has it had?
DB: Sustainable tourism is an intrinsic part of HI, it has always been important to us. Our HI mission, defined in 1932, is one of the earliest examples of sustainable tourism.

This remains one of the key corner stones of our work and is ingrained in all that we do.

Having had a sustainable charter for over 40 years we constantly review our activities in this aspect to ensure that they are aligned with the UN Millennium Development Goals.

For over 80 years Hostelling International has been the ideal base for youth tourism, encouraging young people to travel, to meet each other, to learn and experience new places and cultures, about other people, environment and about themselves.

We don’t conceive tourism without being sustainable and that is why we will continue advocating, promoting, and supporting the network in fulfilling our sustainability objectives. You can read more about our sustainability policy here. 

SW: What are the major challenges facing HI in the next 5 years?

DB: As I mentioned earlier, there is more competition in and around the youth travel industry than ever before.  That is great for youth travel but does mean we need to be very clear about what our role is.  We need to stay close to our mission in doing that.  Russ Hedge of HI-USA summarised it nicely in his blog.

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SW: What’s your vision for the future of HI?

DB: Myself, my senior team and our Board of Trustees are working towards having a vision and should have that sorted in the next few weeks.  We’re working on the vision of the international office and how that contributes to the network of National Associations. We can share more information when we are ready to launch the vision.

Check out Hostelling International online at www.hihostels.com, on Facebook, and Twitter.