Howard has been with Hastings Hotels for the past 32 years. Before that, he studied Law at Nottingham University and qualified as a Chartered Accountant with KPMG in London. During his time with Hastings Hotels, the company has bought and successfully redeveloped numerous properties and projects including the Grand Central Hotel in Belfast. Howard has at various times been Chair of the Northern Ireland Hotels Federation, the NI Division of the Institute of Directors, Visit Belfast, and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board. He has Chaired a local independent Preparatory School, and he has been a member of the cross border marketing body, Tourism Ireland
Read on to find out more about his experience of running a family business, offering hotel guests an authentic Northern Irish visitor experience and his take on luxury.
Your father, Sir William Hastings, set up the family business over 50 years ago. Did you always envisage following in his footsteps?
Not at all. I was working in London for Volvo in 1989 when my father suffered a major heart attack. Only then was it suggested I might like to come home to take a greater interest in the company. I appreciate that I was never encouraged in this direction before this episode. I did come home, and my father recovered well, and we had 28 years working together as a consequence.
Do you feel an extra sense of responsibility to drive the business to greater success given that the business has been part of the family for so long?
It was very important to my father that he had all his children working in the company. My sisters and I do not have family who is showing the same urge as yet. We recognise the business philosophies that have enabled our success to date and the challenges of continuing to compete in an ever more international marketplace. Our responsibility is to our guests, our employees, our suppliers, and to the society in which we live, and I hope others will adjudge that we are making our contribution to these.
As a family run business, how much emphasis do you place on people and culture? And what are the key characteristics a Hastings Hotel team member must possess?
Our guests are looking for an authentic Northern Irish visitor experience. That is one way in which we can distinguish ourselves from our competitors. So we are always looking for individuals with that blend of positive attitude and native charm with will truly add to the guest experience. As a family business, we can take a longer-term view on our financial expectations, so we invest heavily in training and development, in the fabric of our properties, and in going the extra mile to do things with a little bit of style.
You have seven grand and iconic hotels throughout Northern Ireland, all with their unique identity. How do you nurture these characteristics yet remain true to the brand values?
I don’t see a conflict here. Good service, responsive to guests’ expectations, is possible whether you are in a City Centre hotel, or in a leisure resort. The fabric of each building speaks to its location and to its market, however, I think we have been successful in our local market especially in establishing in our guests’ minds the sort of welcome they can expect.
Do you have a favourite hotel and if so which one and why?
This is the question I get asked most at our Group Welcome sessions for new employees. And the answer is no, in the same way in which you would never declare yourself to have a favourite child. I have grown up with each property and invested time and again in each one, so I guess I have an emotional attachment to each that a manufacturer cannot have with his or her factory.
Luxury carries a different interpretation for everyone. What does it mean to you?
I have seen luxury defined so many times, and so eloquently. However, it is, as an abstract concept, hard to offer a one size fits all answer. My theory is that if guests experience comfort and service a little better than what they are used to, either in their own homes or at competitors outlets, then that is, in its own way, a touch of luxury. Of course with ever rising living standards, this is a moving target, so our job is never done, and I’m glad to be a part of that race to find better ways to look after our guests as their tastes and expectations develop.
The luxury travel sector is a dynamic one at the best of times and with the outbreak of the Covid pandemic the industry has had to become even more innovative. How did you adapt your own survival strategy and what are your predictions for the key trends in the sector over the coming years?
Covid was a huge challenge for our industry. At first, we searched around furiously to see if there was anything clever we could do, but all in vain. We were grateful for furlough which enabled us to retain so many of our full and part time staff, in order that we could re-open successfully. Of course there are pressures to train and recruit the extra staff we now require, and every week that passes we can see we are making progress on this front.
The hardest thing for me during lockdown was to continue building projects we had started. Of course it was easier to complete these with no customers who might be discomforted, however with no money coming in it was a leap of faith in the future to watch the overdraft grow each week. Thankfully we have traded with the same bank since 1940, and so the relationship we had is such that they trusted us to know our business and proceed.
This enabled us to invest over £1m in your two spas at Culloden and Slieve Donard, and to complete two thirds of a £10m investment in the Europa Hotel, which will be complete in time for that hotel’s 50th birthday later this year.
And what is next for the Hastings Hotel Group?
Well, in “getting back to normal”, I believe that Northern Ireland, which has never really fulfilled its tourism potential, has a chance for accelerated growth in the coming years. There are many guests this year from the Republic of Ireland who have never previously visited Northern Ireland. As a discovery destination on their doorstep, they have really very much enjoyed our visitor offering, and we hope to see them again, possibly more in the shoulder seasons in future as travel patterns return to normal, however this would be a welcome trend. The Great Britain market has used the melange of restrictions during lockdown, and discovered Northern Ireland as an ideal location for business meetings. In addition, our three film studios in Belfast are booked up for the next few years, and this too has brought new streams of income for hoteliers, as well as the wider economy. Finally, Dublin Airport reopens next month, servicing 25 cities in the US, as well as direct routes to Europe, the Middle East and China. One third of the world’s highly prized links golf courses are on the island of Ireland, and we have a queue of eager North Americans ready to catch upon the vacations they have missed. We are standing by to welcome them!
What is your life motto? (if you have one)
Life is too complicated to distil into a single motto. I admire the creativity and ingenuity of our local entrepreneurs, and their energy to change the world we live in, little by little. There have been so many changes during my career in hospitality, however, the desire to travel, to meet new people and explore new destinations and cultures remains undiminished. Here in Northern Ireland, we embrace the Giants’ Causeway, the Titanic and the Game of Thrones. Mythology and Geology, Authenticity and Make-Believe. We have so much to offer, which is why my enthusiasm for our industry endures.