On the 11th of March, David Owens, CEO, Darragh Miller, Chair and myself Maria Shanahan, Vice-Chair, were lucky enough to attend the European Hostelling International Conference in Lille, France.
We flew in to Paris Charles De Gaul airport and took the speedy TGV through the lovely countryside of northern France. The weather throughout the weekend was gorgeous; vast blue sky and glorious sunshine. Neither Darragh nor myself had been to Lille before and we noted with interest on Google maps our proximity to Calais and the Belgian border, as the train sped past green fields, woods and wind farms. Arriving in Lille Europe train station, the Metro then zipped us through the old industrial outskirts of Lille and our hostel was a five minute walk from here.
Throughout most of the weekend, we walked when exploring the town but the Metro will take you in to the town centre in minutes and flat wide streets make it a great city for the red city bikes we saw many locals on. From the location of the hostel we took Lille to be (or have been) a very industrial city but we soon discovered that this part of town was very new with sustainable apartment blocks newly built and mix of new shops and restaurants slowly taking off. When we went adventuring we quickly discovered a beautiful old town. The height of our explorations took us to the Citadel of Lille – apparently known as “the Queen of the Citadels”, it is the best example of a citadel designed by Sebastien Le Prestre de Vauban.
Built in the 1660’s, it is still used as a military building so the inside is closed to the public but the public make up for this by maximizing the beautiful parkland around it. While walking around and admiring the outskirts of the structure, we happened across where the locals come to walk their dogs, cycle, run, exhaust their children and even practice the french accordion on park benches. We wandered through the trees and found ourselves along a picturesque canal with barges, and a bridge leading us back into the bustling town centre.
The hostel itself was named after Stephane Hessel, a French diplomat, Resistance member and concentration camp survivor. The building is as impressive as it is daring. In its design, FUAJ (Fédération Unie des Auberges de Jeunesse) combined the optimisation of energy consumption and management of rain and grey water, to offer us a prime example of a high environmental quality, eco-friendly hostel.
On the fourth floor, my room was bright with four bunks, large windows overlooking the city and an ensuite bathroom (apparently I was lucky to have both shower and toilet as some rooms only had the former – keep this in mind when booking, if you don’t fancy traipsing down the corridor in the middle of the night!). While the florescent lights were shockingly bright, each bunk had an inbuilt lamp (with wattage gentler on the eyes) and we were very impressed that the lamps included USB ports, enabling us to charge our phones and tablets and conveniently negating the need for power adapters. The ground floor boasted a large meeting room that could be divided into three smaller rooms, a bar and canteen and of course, a reception desk with very friendly local staff. The canteen was where our hosts treated us to delicious French food and wine and we left a few pounds heavier than when we arrived.
This was my first international event and it was a privilege to represent An Oige. On the first day we attended the British and Irish council meeting. It was interesting to note what had gone well for the other hostels in our network in the last year and what reasons they felt were behind this success. For example:
- Increased tourism in Northern Ireland from the Republic and the UK
- Selling off of buildings that were constantly losing money.
- Increase of staff driving hostels (rather than simply running them)
- Investment in ReviewPro – a software system that amalgamates customer feedback from multiple apps and benchmarks your accommodation against others.
- Better focus in the newsletters
- Increased funding for disenfranchised groups.
- Increased professionalism all round but especially in group bookings.
- Running of charity events.
On Day 2, we had several workshops on the need for and benefits of our existing international network. Recent frictions were highlighted and the need for solidarity emphasized. Ultimately it was our common mission that everyone could agree on – the passion that each member state has, to be part of a non profit organisation that facilitates everyone from the young to young at heart, to travel affordable and develop a deeper appreciation of our world and the human condition that unites us all.
One of the eye-openers of the conference was the understanding we gained on how deeply impacted certain European countries have been by events in the last year – the French described their personal losses and seriously decreased bed nights due to terrorist attacks in Paris and beyond. The Germans described the challenges and victories they’ve experienced in deciding to use some of their hostels to support the housing of refugees and how this decision lost them certain members. This example provided food for thought as other countries have been contemplating providing similar assistance.
On Day 3, we attended a talk giving a breakdown on the structure of the EU and various funding opportunities.
In conclusion, the conference proved to be a macrocosm of the best example of our volunteer weekends away with An Oige: by having the opportunity to come together with other members, we learned a great deal from their experience. The European conference has hopefully set a tone of solidarity that will enable each member organisation to get the most out of the International conference in Gatwick in September.
Maria Shanahan (Board Member, An Óige – Irish Youth Hostel Association)