Howard Hastings of Hastings Hotels: “The Pandemic caught everyone by surprise”

The Pandemic caught everyone by surprise. We all have less time as a result less time to complete our “bucket lists”. Research shows that a visit to Ireland is on many peoples’ list. Whether you are coming to visit The Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Belfast, the Home of Thrones, or simply to immerse yourself and spend […]

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The Pandemic caught everyone by surprise. We all have less time as a result less time to complete our “bucket lists”. Research shows that a visit to Ireland is on many peoples’ list. Whether you are coming to visit The Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Belfast, the Home of Thrones, or simply to immerse yourself and spend time with warm and friendly people, coming to see us has to be one of your priorities.

As part of my series about “developments in the travel industry over the next five years”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Howard Hastings.

Howard Hastings is Managing Director for Hastings Hotels, the largest independent hotel group in Northern Ireland.

A family run business, the Hastings collection has seven luxurious hotels offering guests an impressive choice of venues. From city centre hotels with easy access to all major air, sea and road links, to those that are located amidst breathtaking scenery and world famous golf courses, with a host of leisure and sporting pursuits for all the family — there is something for everyone! Luxury accommodation, gourmet dining and idyllic surroundings provide the perfect backdrop for a well-earned break.

Founded by Howard Hastings’ father, Sir William Hastings over 50 years ago, Hastings Hotels is Northern Ireland’s premier hotel group.

Thank you so much for joining us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Thank you very much for this opportunity. Hastings Hotels is a family business. Growing up I worked behind the bar, and as a chef during vacations, but I had not really thought about hotels as my vocation since I completed my law degree and my chartered accountancy qualification. Then, in 1989, my father, Sir William Hastings, had a major heart attack. It was put to me that if I had ever thought of entering the family business, now would be a good time to accelerate those plans. I returned to Belfast from London, my father recovered, and we enjoyed almost 30 years working together subsequently.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

We were building a steam room. The price seemed rather expensive, so our architect designed one which would be more affordable. I was nervous though, and quizzed him on how it worked. The following week I was at our hotel in Dublin, The Merrion, which also had a steam room. It was early in the morning and there was no one in the spa. So I opened the steam room door and got on my hands and knees in the thick steam to see where the vents were. And, you guessed it, I touched someone’s leg! I’m not sure who got the greater shock!

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

So many hotels today are owned by investors, and run by management companies. The choice of brands is now bewildering. We operate in Northern Ireland, and each hotel is different, capable of catering to its own local market and to international visitors alike. As a family run company, we can take longer term investment decisions. We know our fellow employees really well, and they reward us with their loyalty, an increasingly old fashioned notion with today’s graduates. We like to demonstrate the warmth of our welcome not only with the welcome smile, and authentic conversation, but also with a fire in the grate.

Which tips would you recommend to your colleagues in your industry to help them to thrive and not “burn out”? Can you share a story about that?

People who succeed in the hospitality industry draw their energy from meeting other people, be they customers, fellow employees, or suppliers. The Covid pandemic has in many cases deprived our leaders of these interactions, and so I think there is a greater risk of withdrawal symptoms from their daily high energy routines than from burnout. My father was definitely like that. He lived until he was 89, but I don’t believe he ever retired.

Let’s jump to the core of our discussion. Can you share with our readers about the innovations that you are bringing to the travel and hospitality industries?

In hospitality, I think that innovations are incremental rather than revolutionary. In your hotel bedroom, you like to see some elements of design that are nicer than what you have at home. But you do home improvements every year. In the same way, we have to constantly update what we are offering. Too often developers start to run out of money at the end of their project and buy a cheap bed. For me, a great bed is at the core of what guests come for, so we make ours as large and luxurious as we dare. Just as your television at home has increased in size over recent years, so have ours.

Which “pain point” are you trying to address by introducing this innovation?

It’s not about pain points. People are much more able to describe what makes them uncomfortable than what it is that puts them at ease. You can’t identify why Frank Sinatra sang so casually and flawlessly, but it grates if you hear someone sing out of tune. So in a world where flats and other living accommodation are getting smaller and more cramped, a spacious light airy bedroom is increasingly luxurious in itself.

Similarly with service. Many brands have stripped service away from their offering. Some guests prefer unserviced accommodation. However we believe in an authentic visitor experience, and post pandemic we think that this will increasingly be the case.

How do you envision that this might disrupt the status quo?

Much as brands say they are there to appeal to individual tastes, by definition they have commoditized their offering. Our skill is to be flexible enough to adapt to guests’ individual choices, and to offer a service that is authentic and engaging, and which speaks to the Northern Ireland brand, core to which is that we are a story telling business.

Can you share 5 examples of how travel and hospitality companies will be adjusting over the next five years to the new ways that consumers like to travel?

  • The Pandemic caught everyone by surprise. We all have less time as a result less time to complete our “bucket lists”. Research shows that a visit to Ireland is on many peoples’ list. Whether you are coming to visit The Giant’s Causeway, Titanic Belfast, the Home of Thrones, or simply to immerse yourself and spend time with warm and friendly people, coming to see us has to be one of your priorities.
  • So many of us cancelled our original holiday plans and stayed at home. And it was, in most instances, better than we thought it was going to be. And we will do it more often. So whilst Staycationing may not achieve this year’s heights in future, it has been reactivated as a key segment, and it is here to stay.
  • The upshot was that there were no escorted coach tours, either as part of a land based itinerary, or as part of a shore excursion from a cruise ship. We chose more personalized itineraries. As a result we were less “shepherded”, we met more people, either fellow travelers or locals. We had more spontaneous experiences, and these were richer than the scripted ones we sometimes purchase. And it was more fun, and we’ll do it again.
  • Suddenly we are wary of pangolins from wet markets. We want every element of our holiday experience to be local and authentic, especially our food and drink. It is part of what some commentators label “sustainability”. However for me, it makes a visit to a new culture all the more memorable.
  • We realized that we could conduct business by Zoom, and the like. So perhaps we won’t travel as much in future on business. However, you can’t build relationships on Zoom, you can’t share what some describe as market intelligence, and others call gossip. It is the opportunity to genuinely interact with others, to share and challenge ideas in unstructured settings that Zoom meetings are unable to replicate. So business travel will return, but with the emphasis not on long conference sessions, and powerpoint presentations, but on human interaction with your peers and colleagues.

You are a “travel insider”. How would you describe your “perfect vacation experience”?

For 50 weeks each year I am gregarious, I love the daily interaction with others, and the creativity of sharing ideas. For the other two weeks, on vacation, I pray that I’ll not meet anyone I know already and feel obliged to share a drink or a meal. So I normally go with my family to somewhere that is hard to get to, and I prefer not to be in a hotel, where I will be subliminally benchmarking and analyzing everything, but to be in a comfortable and relatively isolated self catering unit, with lots of walking, reading, and abundant good food.

Can you share with our readers how have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

When I chaired our national marketing body, Tourism Northern Ireland, I persuaded my sponsoring Minister (now our First Minister, Arlene Foster) that Northern Ireland should engage in a themed year promoting local food and drink. There were many skeptics who thought that our food and drink was not much to write home about, and anyway, these weren’t the sort of things that weighed heavily on visitors’ minds when choosing their holiday destination. I’m pleased to say the doubters were proved wrong, and Northern Ireland was awarded the Best Food Destination for 2016 at the World Travel Market Awards.

What pleased me most was that food is a great unifying force for good within society. The new food trails, the festivals and events meant that there were many new artisanal entrants into our food markets, and we made introductions that have endured, within our local society and beyond. Our chefs and food producers, our wholesalers and retailers responded enthusiastically to the challenge. We felt proud of what we could produce and where we come from. This is a highly propitious backdrop when you want to welcome new and returning visitors

How can our readers follow you on social media?

I’m afraid they can’t. I’m committed to ever increasing levels of investment in social media for Hastings Hotels. However I’m not a “poster”. Our guests come to enjoy our hotels, not to hear from me! Please feel free to visit @hastingshotels on Instagram, Twitter or LinkedIn!

This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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