«Every opening is a very special moment»

Happy Birthday Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism! In an anniversary interview on the occasion of its 50th birthday, CEO René Dobler talks about the Foundation’s greatest challenges, unforgettable moments and future prospects.

On 11 May 2023 the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism will be celebrating its 50th anniversary. The Foundation is responsible for the construction and maintenance of the properties run by the Swiss Youth Hostels. CEO of the Foundation since 1999, René Dobler talks about its foundation, varying tasks and his personal highlights.

The most important milestones of the SFST at a glance.

René, why does the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism exist in the first place?

The Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism was founded on 11 May 1973 by the Zurich Youth Hostels Association. The aim was to separate responsibilities: While the association is responsible for all operational concepts, the Foundation assumes the role of property and asset manager.

What is your goal?

The aim of the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism is to promote tourism in Switzerland that is affordable for all. The Foundation achieves this by building and furnishing youth hostels for young people, youth groups, schools and families, by promoting youth and family travel, and by cooperating with institutions involved in leisure activities and youth and social tourism. Even after 50 years, our goal has not changed.

Together with partners, the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism is committed to making leisure activities meaningful. © Corsin Näff

What have been the biggest changes in the last half century?

With the merger of most youth hostel districts in 1992, the Foundation took over responsibility for all youth hostel properties throughout Switzerland. A planning team developed a construction concept and with it the basis for professional property management. Today, there are a wide range of hostels in the most beautiful places in Switzerland.

You started in 1993 as a consultant for the Foundation. You’ve held the position of CEO since 1999 – aren’t you bored after such a long time?

With every project and the changes of time, we’re constantly facing new challenges. In my role, I am involved in both the planning and construction process and in operation. After construction, I see the use phase and can check how well the architecture is suited. And I have the opportunity to work throughout Switzerland, experience regional peculiarities at first hand and discuss with the leaders of the national youth hostel associations around the world.

How time flies: René Dobler at the delegates meeting in Davos in 2003. © Swiss Youth Hostels

How does a new project usually come about?

Each project has its own story. It usually starts with the desire to be represented at a location. However, it’s often also third parties who combine their ideas with a youth hostel and want to offer more than just an accommodation option. This is the ideal basis for us to offer real added value together with the destination or private individuals: with wellness, museums, radio, music schools or bouldering halls.

What challenges need to be overcome?

The challenges are many. As a non-profit organisation, we are under constant cost pressure and rely on financial support from sponsors and the public sector. In addition, building law requirements in terms of fire protection, energy and security are becoming increasingly complex.

The home of the stylish Basel Youth Hostel used to be a silk factory. © Michel van Grondel

What standards has the Foundation set for itself?

We have very high expectations of our projects, especially in the area of quality and sustainability. For all our projects, we consider comprehensive sustainability criteria of the environment, society and the economy. The numerous environmental and sustainability awards and the 66% reduction in our carbon footprint since 2000 show that we are on the right track.

What has been your biggest highlight since joining the Foundation?

Every opening is a very special moment. It marks the end of long-standing cooperation in a project-specific community with many ups and downs. At the end of the day, everyone is relieved to look back on a successful result. Perhaps wellnessHostel4000 in Saas-Fee stands out because it has combined so many new and uncertain challenges from timber construction to wellness and almost failed several times before becoming one of our flagships.

wellnessHostel4000 in Saas-Fee is proof that perseverance and endurance pay off. © Michel van Grondel / Dominik Gehl

What does the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism mean to you?

After 30 years, I guess it’s a second home. The Foundation represents an enormous network of wonderful partnerships with which we have overcome many challenges in all regions of Switzerland. It stands for a lot of passion and dedication and, of course, a few sleepless nights in addition to a lot of joy. The Foundation is an employer with values that I fully support.

What do you want for the Foundation over the next 50 years?

I hope that the Foundation will maintain its objectives while constantly changing in line with the new requirements. It should approach its tasks with courage and conviction. What is particularly needed is tourism that is environmentally and socially friendly – I am looking forward to new implementations of climate-friendly construction, good architecture, regional integration and many new combinations of uses that are more than just a youth hostel – new places created for real encounters between guests, locals and interested people.

About René Dobler

René Dobler trained as an architect at ETH Zurich and also completed a supplementary degree in construction economics. He started working for the Swiss Youth Hostels in 1993 as an external consultant. In 1999, he was appointed General Manager of the Swiss Foundation for Social Tourism, which is responsible for the construction and development of the youth hostels. In his many years of work, he has shaped the buildings of the youth hostels into a corporate architecture. His great commitment to sustainable development has received numerous awards. In the international youth hostel association Hostelling International, he has played a major role in the development of global standards, quality assurance and sustainability management.

Anniversary Behind the scenes

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