You are very right about the changes that have occurred to the YHA management practices. Not only at hostel level but at board level as well. I have never worked for the YHA, so don't know the intricacies, but have watched them closely for many years now.
I want to just quickly address board level and hostel level separately actually.
Without offending anyone here, but the YHA used to be run by well intentioned elderly types who had fond memories of rambling the hills of the coutryside in their youth. They maintained the ethos of hostelling but at the cost of running a sustainable, and ongoing, business. Of course the YHA is a charitable body, but they do not have an endless supply of donors to keep them afloat and have needed to think more like a business for many years now. Roger Clarke (CEO England and Wales), before his resignation, did what he had to do to keep them afloat and sold off many properties and created a feeling of 'Swim, don't sink' amongst the board and membership. I can speak first hand about Keith Legge (SYHA CEO) and he has very much streamlined and improved the Scottish YHA's business operations. He too has sold off properties. Of course there is a cost to this as well... the loss of the ethos.
The rapidly expanding growth of independant hostels in the last two decades has also forced the YHA's to rethink their management ways. Youth Hostels were always the cheapest option around, but with competition comes savings for the guest. And the guest, whether a YHA member or not, will be led by the money in their pocket. Last winter you could get beds in Edinburgh city centre for a flat fiver... for example.
Now, at hostel level, these business streamlining practices will always be seen as a negative thing. But, for the sake of future generations, shrewd management of costs and wages etc are vital. These skilled managers (mostly) may not always be the sociable types that we know and want, so therefore, there is sometimes a lack of atmosphere.
It is a fine line between employing a manager that is the 'Face of the hostel', loving the interaction with the guests, and one who is a bit of a bean counter. We need both in many ways, but finding them in pne person is not always easy. Many places are moving towards 'Guest Relations' staff who take on these roles. Obviously not in the smaller YHA type properties, but in the large independants this is the case.
We very much encourage our staff to interact with guests in an informal and very friendly way. They are trained to always use a guest's first name and never use Sir or Madam. Us, in the background, have all come from the desk at some stage and know how important it is. It is also extremely important to have fun with your staff. I love going to work and joking around with the guys, for if they're not having a good time, it's a sure bet that the guest will not either.
I think that mostly the managers in smaller properties are still doing the job because they love it and still doing ok. It's certainly not because of the 'big bucks' now is it?