The first thing one notices about Julie Hastings is her uncanny resemblance to her late father, Sir William Hastings, the affable, larger-than-life hotelier who, from the 1960s, established a prestigious chain of hotels across Northern Ireland, including the Europa, the Everglades, the Culloden, the Slieve Donard Resort and Spa, the Stormont Hotel and Ballygally Castle Hotel.
Having established his empire, in his latter years Sir William took a step back acting as group chairman, whilst his four children, Julie, Howard, Allyson and Aileen, took care of the day-to-day running of the properties, which now also includes the Grand Central Hotel, opened in 2018.
And now Julie, who will remain as a board member of Hastings Hotels, has revealed she is retiring to take more time for herself and her family – husband John, son, Gareth, 32, daughters, Rachel, 26, and Caitilin, 23, stepdaughter, Evie, 17, daughter-in-law, Roni, and “gorgeous new granddaughter”, Libbie who is just five months.
“The industry is changing rapidly as is the science of marketing and I have found someone who will take over my role with new and fresh eyes and skills. But I will always be on hand with my experience when asked, so it is a lovely
way to retire from the family business, to start to do new things I really would love to do and still be able to keep my hand in.
“I will never lose interest in the family business in which I have grown up. I would also love to travel a little more now my children are all up and away, and I have some great charities with whom I have also been asked to lend my experience about which I am very excited.”
Some years ago in an interview with this newspaper Sir William referred to Julie as ‘Three Degrees’.
“Yes, that’s right. My dad rather affectionately, and proudly I’d like to think, referred to me as ‘Three Degrees’, after the 1980s pop group! I did a BA in Social Sciences and Politics at Queen’s University, then spent a year in Atlanta at the University of West Georgia doing a Masters in the same subject. Following that I came home and completed a Postgraduate Diploma in Marketing from Ulster University. Hence my three degrees. People reading this might even think I am clever! “I have been a visiting Professor in the Ulster Business School at Ulster University since 2013, so I am trying to give back some of my experiences to students of hospitality and marketing. Our stars of the future.”
What is it like growing up in a family business, working alongside your father and siblings? Was there ever any friction or did you all get on well?
“I feel very proud that as a family, along with our late father, we have built Northern Ireland’s leading collection of hotels.
“As well as playing an important role in supporting local industries, we also employ over 1,000 people across our six hotels and head office.
“Nowadays my brother Howard has taken over the role of chairman from my father and subsequently our retired finance director, Edward Carson, my sister Allyson is events director and Aileen is sales director, so we all head up different departments.
“We all get on very well and like many families we sometimes have healthy disagreements, but if we do we resolve them in the boardroom, not in public. Our dad taught us that. I’m also proud that we’ve carried on our dad’s legacy. I
often wonder if he looked down now what he would have made of the pandemic, though I really don’t think he would have done anything differently – except when we couldn’t go out, he would still have found his way onto the golf
course, even if he’d had to climb over the gate!”
Television viewers are currently being treated to a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the chain with the BBC’s six-part series, The Hotel People, which charts the hotels’ bounce back after the pandemic (and more than £16m of losses) and the staff’s daily challenges.
“The interest it is getting is crazy! It gives real confidence to the staff who appear. Guests are coming in just to meet the personalities who they have seen on screen.
“I think it brings an understanding on the workings behind the scenes and makes people a lot more empathetic.
“I am delighted that millions of people are seeing for themselves the hard work and passion our dedicated employees have across the hotels.
“I hope it will encourage young people to join our industry, it really is so exciting and the friends you make are for life.
“The Hotel People’s first episode was the most watched TV programme on BBC 2 that evening with over a million viewers before the iPlayer numbers. Who would have thought? Congratulations to Waddell Media who had to film in our hotels for well over a year just after covid then edit the footage to end up with six fantastic one-hour episodes.
“In addition it has made me realise the hours and effort it takes to make a TV documentary. I loved helping behind the scenes, working with Waddell’s, highlighting events for them to film and help create stories to maximise the publicity. Like others behind the scenes such as camera people and editors of the show, I won’t be asked for my autograph, as the stars will, but the work behind the camera has to be commended also.”
Anyone who has stayed in any of the Hastings Hotels will undoubtedly be familiar with the little smiling rubber duck that waits patiently to greet them on their arrival to their room.
The ducks have become something of a collector’s item and there have been countless designs over the years, including the Ulster Rugby ducks pictured here with Julie, TV personality Pamela Ballantine and players Jared Payne and Simon Danielli.
Julie calls them Hastings’ ‘subliminal brand’.
“They were created by myself 25 years ago to supposedly relieve the stress of our guests by placing one in every bathroom for them to take away.
“Now we have given away over 1.5 million ducks, created 40 different types, and I am fondly known and have the title of Lady Duck!
“I had celebrities ask to have their photos taken with a duck, including Rory with his Rory Quack Ilroy duck during the Irish Open a few years back. They have been signed by Prime Ministers and VIPs, and photographs have appeared in press and on social media across the globe.”
Meeting celebrity guests, including former US president Bill Clinton
Over her 35 years in the business, the Europa and the other hotels have proved popular with visiting celebrities and dignitaries.
“I could name a lot of names and tell a lot of stories, but President Bill Clinton must have been a favourite, his charisma was magnetic, and I enjoyed my short conversation with him (not about anything political, but about him playing golf with John Hume at Royal Co Down).
“Michael Douglas and Billy Connolly left memories too. As A listers they chatted to the guests like they were friends, which was delightful to watch.
“Bjorn Borg and Pat Cash immediately said yes when I asked if they would open for us a new wing of bedrooms at the Culloden in 2009.
“As an international tennis player myself, back in the day, and an avid fan that was a big pleasure for me.
“Prince Charles and Camilla visited Belfast in 2019 and helped us celebrate our first year in business at the Grand Central Hotel.
“Locally I am supporting the Mary Peters Trust during her 50th year of winning her gold medal in the Olympics and now raising a lot of money to help young athletes to succeed as she did.
“It is a fantastic organisation and I am looking forward to working more with the Trust during my retirement.”