‘One politician was such a regular, a suite was named after him’
Future Proof : Peace process brought new competition for luxury Hastings Hotel Group
Howard Hastings: “Our competitors today are different from those 20 years ago.”
Fifty years on from its formaiton, the Hastings Hotel Group now has a portfolio of six luxury hotels stretching across Northern Ireland. A seventh, the Grand Central, is currently under construciton in Belfast.
Sir William Hastings founded the group when he moved from the pub business into hotels in the mid-1960s. One of his first purchases was the Stormont Hotel in Belfast, his son and current group managing director Howard Hastings recalls.
When the Grand Central is complete, the group will have more than 1,000 hotel bedrooms in Northern Ireland alongside its 50 per cent stake in Dublin’s upmarket Merrion Hotel.
Today, Sir Billy is chairman, and Howard’s three sisters, Julie Hastings, Allyson McKimm and Aileen Martin all have senior executive roles in the company.
“Growth has been steady over the years but The Troubles were difficult,” he says. With no tourist market, the hotels were reliant on the domestic wedding and entertainment markets. Sunday lunch became a big part of business at that time as did nightclubs as the Hastings struggled to get local people through their doors.
“Venues such as Cindrellas Rockerfellas and Clockwork Orange kept the doors open,” says Martin, now sales director for the group. “However, the losses were difficult to plan for in the case of unforseen events like a bride cancelling her wedding booking after an attack on a hotel – an event that was not covered by insurance.
“The Culloden was considered a safe hotel because it was outside the city without easy access making it difficult for a quick getaway during troubled times.” she added. “Government business was key to it during the Troubles. Politician Willie Whitelaw was such a regular that a suite was named after him at the Culloden.”
Two of the group’s hotels – the Rostrevor and the Laharna – were burnt to the ground during that period but it was after a major bombing of Belfast’s Europa Hotel that the group picked up the property at a bargain basement price in 1994.
Hastings regarded trading through the Troubles as akin to a recession. The one million visitors to Northern Ireland in 1969 had dropped to 400,000 by 1972. In some ways, it prepared the management team for the challenge of coping with recessions that followed.
“We were fortunate that we were not too highly leveraged at the start of the last recession. The lowering of VAT to 15 per cent in 2009, together with an exchange rate that encouraged residents of the Republic of Ireland to shop and to stay in Northern Ireland gave us a soft landing, and time to adjust our cost base to meet the new post Celtic Tiger economic realities.”
With the return of a tourism market since the peace process took hold and an economy recovering from the financial crash, Hastings says the group has had to contend with increasing competition from new entrants into the hotel market.
“Happily, we also have increasing demand, he says. “Our competitors today are different from those 20 years ago, and we have to fight to win our share of business every day.”
Continuous reinvestment in their properties has ensured the group has remained comfortably in the four and five-star market, even at a time when guests expectations continue to grow, year on year.
“We added spas to the Culloden and Slieve Donard hotels, and we have expanded our conference and banqueting facilities at the Everglades Hotel and Ballygally Castle.”
Hastings feels this philosophy of reinvestment meant that their hotels were already in “good nick” at the start of the recession, “futureproofed”, as it were, and did not suffer from the “carpet fatigue” that was complained of in other parts of the industry.
Now another challenge looms - Brexit.
“If Border restrictions on travel are introduced, it is more difficult for us to sell, and for visitors to buy, and this could be damaging,” says Hastings.
“Equally if it becomes more difficult for us to recruit the very best staff from all over the world, there is a risk of reducing the quality of the visitor experience.”
He suggests that if the UK government wants to maximise the overseas earnings potential of Northern Ireland’s tourism sector, it might look to adjust tax rates post-Brexit. This would remove a major source of competitive disadvantage that exists between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
As for the future, the Hastings Group have just completed a two-year €5 million investment in the Culloden Estate & Spa.
The first five star hotel in Northern Ireland, it offers something to compete with the best of offerings south of the Border to the international conference and incentive market and means the group can look forward to the next 50 years with equal confidence.