EasyGroup's chairman Stelios Haji-Ioannou will target YHA's core backpacker market next year with the launch of easyDorm. The new venture, which will begin in London, aims to provide online hostel accommodation in a "no-frills environment".
Not only will the organisation have to cope with a new rival, it will also have to respond to plans by easyDorm to open internet kiosks in its new sites.
James Rothnie, director of corporate affairs at easyGroup, denied the venture is a threat to YHA. "One of the things we're good at doing is growing the size of a marketplace," he said. "Is it YHA that should feel threatened or the Hilton? We may have an impact on bed and breakfast accommodation or two or three star hotels."
But the YHA views the situation differently and is to step up recruitment activity this year by offering membership in 70 Flight Centres, the discount travel specialist, and through 220 Millets outdoor shops. YHA's current roster of outlets includes 100 Tourist Information Centres in England and Wales, 22 YHA Adventure Shops and 26 scout and guide shops.
It will also be building on its existing arrangement with the Student Travel Association, where it will be increasing its presence from 52 sites to 109.
Some of the outlets in the UK will pilot the sale of memberships using a web-based system. If successful, the programme may be rolled out in other countries including Australia and America via the International Youth Hostel Federation. "We're actively trying to engage new members," said Mags Rivett, sales and marketing director at YHA. "We've always been planning this expansion but we're kicking it up a step faster - we're prepared to fight back now."
The YHA aims to increase membership from 300,000 to 500,000 by 2007. It also wants to increase the number of overnight stays at hostels from two million per year to three million.
YHA operates 220 hostels in England and Wales and is affiliated to the International Youth Hostel Federation, which has a total of 5,000 hostels in 60 countries. YHA membership is valid in any Youth Hostel around the world.
"By selling memberships through retail outlets we're seeking to make joining YHA easier and quicker for everyone who wants to experience a youth hostelling break in England and Wales," said a YHA spokesperson.