Travel Q&A: Margo Paterson, chief executive of Hostelling Scotland

Kirsty McLuckie meets Margo Paterson, chief executive of Hostelling Scotland, and hears about her career journey so far and her organisation’s ethos of being open to all – so that everyone in the country can afford to take a break

Job title I am the chief executive of Hostelling Scotland. I’ve worked for the organisation for 21 years and I’ve been in my current position for five years.

Hostelling Scotland is a self-funding charity and we have 60 youth and affiliate hostels, 12,000 members and 200 employees.

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Pre-Covid, we were hosting more than 365,000 guests a year with a turnover of £8.8 million; this year it will be around £7.4m but we are working to get that up again.

Rowardennan Lodge Youth Hostel
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The organisation has existed for more than 90 years and we host people from all over Scotland, the UK and the world, providing affordable and welcoming accommodation in some of the best locations.

Our ethos is that we are open to all, so that everyone can afford to be able to have a break.

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How is the organisation relevant today?

I think we are more relevant than we have ever been. We were formed in 1931, with the purpose to get people living in smoky, polluted cities out into the country – it was seen as vital then, and it is just as important now.

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Margo Paterson. Image: Andy Taylor Photography

In my position it is good to be able to see how the organisation has evolved over its history – what were the challenges in the past and what they are now as we move forward.

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How did you get into the hospitality industry?

I studied accountancy and previously worked for a publisher, in retail and in service industries. When I joined Hostelling Scotland it was my first experience in hospitality however, but I knew of the organisation and what it does so I was really interested to get involved.

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I have been very fortunate as I came in as an accountant in the finance department, and then became involved in various other parts of the business over the years before taking on the job of chief executive. I am a member of the council of the Scottish Tourism Alliance and I was also a non-executive director in Cairngorms Business Partnership, so that – along with 21 years experience in the business – really gave me a wider perspective of such a multi-faceted industry.

Edinburgh Central lounge area
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I was particularly interested in my current role because I could see the potential that the organisation has and I really wanted to be part of that.

What is a typical day like?

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Over my time here, I don’t think I’ve had two days the same, but that is hospitality – it is unpredictable and very varied, but that is what makes it exciting.

I lead the operation of the organisation, so I drive the strategy, safety, health and wellbeing of our staff and guests.

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Glen Affric Youth Hostel

I’m also company secretary, which involves leading the governance process and working closely with the chair and trustees. I definitely wear a few hats. The most rewarding part of the job is working with such amazing people across the organisation and seeing their passion, commitment and pride in their work.

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We often visit and talk to the teams running the individual hostels. They are delivering the service so it is always important that their ideas are heard. And those of us who work at head office always relish being able to get out and about.

We are part of an international organisation so I also attend conferences overseas and talk to other hostelling CEOs, and I always try and stay at hostels in different countries to see how they vary, their best practices and new ideas which can go back and forth.

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Talking to guests and reading reviews is always a pleasure too. I stay in our hostels in Scotland as much as possible, which you might say is a bit of a busman’s holiday, but I love it.

What are the current challenges?

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With the cost of living crisis, everything is more expensive but we are working really hard to maintain the levels of affordability.

Glen Affric Youth Hostel . Image: Airborne Lens
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During Covid everyone had pent-up frustration as they couldn’t get out but as a result there was a real rise in interest in cycling and walking.

Over 2020 and 2021, we managed to open some hostels whenever possible and we could have hosted people three deep because of the demand.

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But, I think that the experience has sparked a whole new generation of hostellers.

What does hostelling offer today?

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We were the original sustainable travel organisation, so very ahead of our times.

All our hostels are unique and if you want to see the real Scotland you should try them all! There is real flexibility of choice – you can book a bed, a private room or the exclusive use of the whole hostel for a larger party.

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We have had reviews from people who have tried it for the first time and they are really delighted. You can bring your own food or there is breakfast provided, some sites offer other meals, so there is something for every budget.

If you are a member you are supporting the charity but we offer temporary memberships for a small fee so we are open to all.

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We are also flexible enough to respond to changing demand. Recently we’ve introduced “WoofHostelling” which allows people to stay with their dogs and that has been hugely popular. There are many people who have bought puppies in the last couple of years and they want to take their pets with them on holiday, and so now many of our hostels allow you to bring them along.

What else does the charity do?

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We give back through our Explorer Fund which offers holidays to youth groups or school groups, families and young people who might otherwise not be able to afford a break. We work in partnerships with various organisations such as Respitality (which provides breaks for carers), Parent Network Scotland, ScotSpirit, and we work with other charities who provide equipment such as outdoor clothing to those who want a holiday, so there are no barriers.

We were recently contacted by a nursery, which is usually outside our age range, but we hosted the children, parents and nursery teachers at Rowardennan and the feedback was wonderful.

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Families are key to what we do but we also hear from teenagers who have had their first taste of outdoor sports.

And we’ve recently had a review from an older gentleman who said he’d like to stay in more hostels, but at his age he better get on with it, so it does cater for all ages.

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What advice would you give someone wanting to work their way up in the sector?

Stay curious and ask questions. Anyone can talk about difficulties but if you can talk to others to come up with solutions, you will go far. And love what you do, because we spend a lot of time working so it is really important.

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Do you have a favourite hostel?

Rowardennan is probably the most popular and we talk to people who were there 40-plus years ago. But then at the other end of the scale is Glen Affric, which is really remote –a four- or five-hour walk to get to it, but there is always a homemade scone waiting when you arrive.

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Scotland is the most beautiful country in the world, and I know I’m biased but hostelling is a great way to explore. You can do remote, rural, towns and cities and there should be something there that suits everyone.

How do you raise the profile of the organisation?

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We have worked really hard over the last few years, because I think hostelling is sometimes overlooked. Being part of the Scottish Tourism Alliance is a way to raise our profile.

We have a Hostelling Together group which involves teaming up with other organisations across the UK and Northern Ireland.

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And inviting bloggers to stay and write up their experiences is a very modern way of getting the word out. A recent review, from blogger The Chaotic Scot, really nailed it for me. She wrote: “The hostelling experience transcends generations and brings people together. Age is irrelevant when you share a love of travel and the outdoors.”

I would add that it is a great leveller. When you are sharing a kitchen in a hostel people don’t care what car you are driving, what you do for a living or what school you went to. They are asking where you got to today, and sharing tips for great walks, and things to do to really get to know the area.

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Life File

Born and raised Born in Glasgow and raised in Stepps.

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Family Husband John, who is a training designer.

First job Paper round when I was about 13 or 14, and I trudged with a very heavy bag of papers.

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Hobbies I’ve started yoga classes which I thoroughly recommend. I also play piano and I’m part of a mentoring programme which sees me going into high schools and talking to kids about personal development.

Favourite holiday Anywhere in Scotland, but especially the East Neuk of Fife.

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Plans for retirement I’d love to move to the East Neuk, keep busy and involve myself in the local community.

Personal motto Be humble and learn from those around you. No one person has all the answers, it is a team effort

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https://www.scotsman.com/lifestyle/travel/sustainable-travel-fifes-many-riches-r...