Northern Ireland’s premier hotel group
Dr Howard Hastings is the son of a giant in the Northern Irish hospitality sector.
Yet he holds his own.
Sir William Hastings founded the Hastings Hotel Group more than fifty years ago. The Hastings collection comprises six hotels in Northern Ireland, including the Culloden Estate and Spa and the Grand Central, Belfast.
Born in Belfast, Howard took his first steps on the lawn of the Slieve Donard Hotel, attended boarding school and university in England, returning home in 1989 to the family business.
An immensely affable man, Howard worked alongside his father until his passing in 2017 and continues to work with his sisters to drive the family business. He embraces a giant spirit that was once held by his father and is now in the solid hands of his son.
EBX: Tell me a little about yourself – post school years.
HH: I went to Nottingham University to study law. In those days you did Oxbridge in the winter term. I had a slight gap year from January to October when the Oxbridge exams were held, and I spent six months of that as a commie chef in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin, which was in Charlie Haughey’s era. Dublin then and now are two totally different places. I can remember cycling in from where I was living in Terenure to The Gresham every day, and you would no more dream of cycling that route now than fly to the Moon, it was different times. There wasn’t a big lot of traffic on the roads in Dublin in those days. From Nottingham I went to London and qualified as a chartered accountant with the company then known as Peat Marwick McLintock, now KPMG. After that I moved to Volvo Concessionaires. They had the franchise to import Volvos into the UK. I held a financial planning role. I was a couple of years into that when my father had a big heart attack, and that was when the call came. Have you ever thought of coming home? Your father is not well – now is a good time to think about it? I was recently married and we decided, yes, we would come home. That was in in 1989. The Troubles (conflict in Northern Ireland from the late 1960’ to 1998) were still on. My father made a good recovery, he passed away in mid-2017. I had a very extended period of working in the family business with my father, which was a great opportunity.
EBX: Do you feel you were destined for your current role?
HH: I hadn’t given going into the family business much thought. If you had asked me when I was at Volvo. What’s next? I was quite enjoying it and I couldn’t necessarily have said that I was thinking about the next move at that stage. I know in today’s world, if have been in the same job for 18 months, you feel completely left on the shelf. In those days, people did build rather more substantial careers with one company before they moved on to the next position. I guess whether subliminally or not, I hadn’t done anything that would prevent me coming into the business. But it wasn’t preordained.
My wife grew up in England and so it was a brave decision on her part to go to Northern Ireland. From my father’s point of view, and I guess it applies to everyone in business, especially a family business, if you push too hard to bring your children into the business and then it doesn’t work out, that’s your own fault for persuading them to do something which ultimately failed. It is a risky enough strategy.
EBX: The Europa Hotel is celebrating 50 years this year. Tell me about that?
HH: A lot of the history of Europa is wrapped up in its birth, which was during the height of the Troubles in 1971 and so it is very well known. I think the challenge for us is that it has that name recognition. How do we turn that notoriety into something that we can use to promote it from a brand perspective? Among journalists and politicians from that era, it’s still well known. It was it was built in 1971, the UK joined the European Union around that time, so its very name speaks to an era. Should we be renaming it Britannia or something? Once something has acquired a name for itself, then woe betide anyone who tries to change that. But it is curious that nobody would dream in the UK now of calling something Europa anymore, I don’t think.
EBX: How has the opening of the Grand Central in 2018 changed the focus of the Hastings Group?
HH: With the Grand Central Hotel, we could see that the trajectory of new hotel buildings in the city was more towards city centre properties rather than those on the outskirts. We acquired The Stormont Hotel and The Culloden, which are on the outskirts, during the Troubles when people didn’t really want to go into the centre of the city. Since the Ceasefire (1998) the city centre became more popular, and we wanted to expand. It was quite hard to find a good site. We’d been looking for a while and then the rather unloved Windsor House building came along. I was keener than my father to begin with and two or three times we looked at it and I couldn’t really get him to be enthusiastic about it. There was one point where the people who owned it were coming over. I was going away on holiday at that time, and I asked my father to meet up with them. By the time I came back, it was all his idea in the first place.
It was a big project, probably a bigger than we imagined when we bought the original building. We’re pleased with the site. It seems odd that we debated what to call it. There had been a Grand Central Hotel in Royal Avenue, Belfast that had been knocked down, so the name had fallen into abeyance. In its day it was the biggest and best in the city, during Titanic times, and we adopted that name. You can’t say more other than it does what it says on the tin. It is grand, it is the tallest building by some measure in the city, and it is central. We’re lucky, engineers today say that its built to a height that today wouldn’t be economic to build to. I think we don’t really need to worry that anything else is going to try and overshadow us at the stage.
EBX: How do you feel about the Slieve Donard Hotel , Newcastle leaving the Hastings Group?
HH: We weren’t looking to sell it at all. These Americans came along and said,‘ Everything’s got a price, it must have’. So, we got chatting. I was acutely aware not to let sentiment and emotion get in the way of doing the right business thing. It was one of those times where my sisters and I batted back and forth. Were we able to separate our sentiments and our history? We bought it in 1972, so we were almost 50 years in ownership. But even before that, it was on the lawns of Slieve Donard where I took my first faltering steps on this planet. It has a strong emotional tie.
If I take the long view, the hotel that we bought was about half the size of what it is now due to the way we’ve redeveloped it over the years. We brought it to a place where outsiders would take an interest in it. I think what’s unusual today, is quite often the properties are owned by one party and they’re managed by another party. The Hilton now don’t own any hotels. They are owned by different individuals, pension funds, investors, the Hilton run and manage them. As a family company, we’re the dinosaurs that still own and run our own hotels, which I think made the sale process slightly easier because we were in control of not only the bricks and mortar, but the day-to-day operations as well.
The people that have now taken it on have committed to going again and spending heavily on it. We spent an awful lot on it over several years. If you said to me ‘is there much left to do? I could name a few projects but not a whole laundry list so if someone else is coming in to go again, maybe that’s the nature of some of these buildings that you could say you own them. You’re a custodian for a period. If you can get a good account of what you achieved on your watch, then you should let others judge whether that was the right thing.
EBX: Tell me about the Hastings family management?
HH: I’m the Managing Director. My elder sister Julie is the Marketing Director, she came through a marketing route. Her degree and qualifications were in marketing, and she worked in retail travel agency for a while before she came into the company slightly before me. My younger sister, Aileen, is Director of Sales and very much came through the school of hard knocks. I can remember when she was in her very early days of selling mobile telephones when they were the size of large bricks. Middle sister Allyson looks after the events side of what we do. So, they’ve all been in the company for 25 plus years. We’re all very busy, and we don’t get too involved in interfering with each other’s fiefdoms. And on balance, it has worked out very well.
EBX: What is the Hastings brand excellence?
HH: From a consumer point of view, being excellent becomes more exacting year on year. If you think of the physical levels of comfort that someone expects in a hotel bedroom. People in their own domestic circumstances have even nicer bathrooms, even bigger televisions, and so if you were to offer something that makes them feel comfortable when they’re away from home, that’s a never-ending chain of upgrade for us. We looked quite a long time ago at how we would summarise who we are and what we do. I’m not a great fan of the vision word, but we agreed on ‘a desire to be recognized as a prestigious family company providing the finest Irish hospitality with style and excellence.’ Each of those words was carefully chosen, and it took a long time to get there, but we have stuck by it, and I think it works well.
Every piece of training we do in the group has to point back to where is this intervention going to deliver on that vision? And I think that’s important. The nature of Irish hospitality is different. I think each jurisdiction, has a as a unique way of delivering hospitality and for us, we need to make sure we’re not identical replicas of someone else’s hospitality. What people come away with following our hotel experience is not just remembering the physical grandeur, but I think, more importantly, the people they met and the stories they told. It’s quintessential to the nature of Northern Ireland that we’re a storytelling people. So, we must be allowed to give our staff permission to tell those stories and give them excuses to do so. We love to tell the stories about our local produce and the provenance of our food. Not just the green fields, but increasingly the individuals who were behind those stories. I think that’s what people can relate to. And we’ve set our stall out, to try and make sure that we can tell those stories and tell them well.
We were being sustainable before sustainability came along. You hear ‘I don’t care where you’re starting from, you’ve got to get better’.
EBX: How has the Covid pandemic changed thinking?
HH: I think we as an industry underestimated the strength of the domestic market last year. We would get huge numbers of particularly Americans in the summer months, and we didn’t think that we had the strength of the domestic market. In Great Britain there are sixty-five million people. There was plenty to go around. In Ireland there are only seven million people. How would that be enough?
Firstly, what we found was that the people who live close to home were rediscovering. A lot of people think, ‘oh yes, I’ve been to that hotel maybe 20 years ago’, but in their mind’s eye, it’s the same as the last day they were there. This was the year they returned. And I think for a lot of them, they were really impressed at how much the standard of what we have to offer domestically has risen. If you were habitually going abroad on your holiday, you don’t stop to think that the standards are improving at home as well.
Secondly, I think we’ve had the idea that people from the Republic of Ireland had not been motivated to come north. That idea was swept away last summer because we saw people coming up from the South as never before. It seems odd that Dublin, only one hundred miles down the road, should be able to regard Belfast as a as a discovery destination. That’s exactly what it was, and they came up and then they liked what they saw.
I think many of those people will be back in Lanzarote or Florida next year, in July and August, but I think they’ve probably made a mental note that if they get a chance for a weekend break then Northern Ireland is very definitely on the on the consideration set. The whole island is to is to play for in marketing terms. The staycation can also generate a certain amount of civic pride as well. People are rediscovering the visitor attractions that they haven’t visited for a very long time. This was a summer like no other where you left no stone unturned and people went further to discover places they haven’t been before, and that was great. So that’s one of the challenges.
Another challenge of the pandemic was that on the one hand, whenever you have shutdowns like we did its a good time to do some of the building work. But on the other hand, if you’ve not got a single penny coming in, you’ve got to take a very deep breath and realise that there’s nothing coming in and I’ll still spend what we have on redeveloping. For us we have a strong banking relationship and the bank manager said, ‘Look, you’ve had a really good business model coming into this. I know you have a very good business model coming out of this. Whatever you need to do, you get on and do it and we will back you’. It did mean that we were able to spend quite a lot on the Slieve Donard, Culloden and particularly Europa over the period. I’m very pleased that we’ve got the lion’s share of projects substantially complete. Hopefully that was one of those decisions that you don’t have to take very often.
EBX: How do you see the European tourism economy changing in the medium-term?
HH: I think the leisure traveler is fairly fed up with being cooped up and are ready to roll again. It’s rather more difficult with business conferences, when an organiser has got to book on the behalf of a lot of people. I think the various restrictions and the need to be seen to be behaving with all due regard to the restrictions and the perceived health and safety of everybody, means that organisers are loathe to organise too many in-person events just yet. I think we’ll see strong leisure traffic but weakened business traffic and conference traffic that take longer to recover. And that is a little bit of a worry because for especially the long-haul visitors, it’s the business traffic. The front of the bus traffic keeps some of the routes profitable for those airlines, and that’s important.
EBX: Which recent innovations are impacting on your business?
HH: We spent the pandemic doing catch up. Not so much in front of house. We looked at our whole accounting system and purchasing system, procurement, payroll, and some training. We also reviewed the reservation systems. Technology is marching on, and it can help the hotels to give more personalised customer experiences. In front of house, I think there are limits to how far you can go. We’re a full-service business and part of what people know they’re paying for with a hotel, that they’ll not get in B&B, is that personalised customer interaction. They want to be spoiled; they want that bit of luxury. That’s what we have to give.
EBX: What motivates you most – in practical terms, and in emotional terms?
HH: There are some ways in which I’m selfishly business-like. Business is a bit of a race and you’ve got competitors and you want to draw ahead of those competitors. You’d hate to think that you were missing a trick in business, that you were handicapping yourself by not being sufficiently up to date with modern business practices. I think as time goes on awareness that business is also a collective endeavour is building. If we can raise the profile of this part of the world and drive more footfall from leisure visitors, then there will be plenty to go around for everyone. It’s an old cliché to talk about the rising tide lifts all boats, but I think an industry, we used to be slightly more dog eat dog, now, I think it’s more about having pride in where you come from to tell the stories that will generate more activity. I think everyone can see the collective benefits of working together to deliver a better visitor experience and hopefully generate an economy that will allow the next generation of staff to come through and train and develop. It’s incredible that amount of people I meet in business life who’ve started out as a waiter or a bar man in one of our hotels. It is one of those rites of passage. And they never really forget either. I think that is a great motivator, that you’ve given them that opportunity to do so.
EBX: Who have you learnt most from? What are the five key lessons you learnt from them?
HH: It’s invidious to pick out individuals. People say to me ‘you’re running a very big business that must be very complicated?’. The one thing more than anything else, that I learned from my father is to keep it simple. If you have wrapped it round and made it so complicated that you can’t decide, that’s not the way to do things. If my father had a big decision, he might have had a couple of sleepless nights, but it didn’t persuade him not to make that decision and get on. Occasionally it was the wrong one, but you need to be big enough to say that that wasn’t the best day, we’re still here, let’s move on. I think that’s the nature of businesses. Nobody gets it right all the time. You must be big enough to admit that.
EBX: Which nations do you admire most in terms of business acumen? Why?
HH: In tourism terms you must really admire countries like New Zealand who have really put themselves on the map with their unspoiled natural landscapes and their storytelling. From the food point of view, you’ve got to take your hat off again to France and Italy, who showcase their natural produce and make that a strong driver customer decisions.
EBX: Who are your leadership role models? Why?
HH: I have learnt from different managers on the way through. I’ve really enjoyed seeing the way different people are effective at management level or at board level. Some are very good at making decisions, others are equally good at knowing when no decision is needed.
EBX: What is one characteristic that you believe every leader should possess?
HH: You do need a consistency of thought. That was that has stood the test of time for us very well as a company. You do get other organisations where every two or three years the chief executive changes like football managers. I think the managers would be forever tinkering. I think we would have been lesser for it.
EBX: What is next for the Hastings Group?
HH: Our current challenges, as with the rest of the industry, are around recruitment and retention. Although we’ve had tremendous loyalty from some long serving staff, we have quite a few newbies who’ve arrived recently. Before the pandemic we had a management training programme in place that we wanted to execute. That got derailed in early 2020, we must review that we’re still appropriate where necessary. We must reinvent programmes for changed times and then reignite the engines and set sail.
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