For more than 34 years, Hastings Hotels’ marketing director Julie Hastings has been an integral part of her family’s hugely successful hotel collection which owns and operates six luxurious hotels across Northern Ireland, including the five-star Culloden Estate and Spa, the world-famous Europa Hotel, the four-star Stormont Hotel, and Northern Ireland's largest new hotel, The Grand Central Hotel––all situated in Belfast. Hastings also owns the four-star Everglades Hotel in Derry-Londonderry––Northern Ireland’s second city, and the historic Ballygally Castle set on the stunning Antrim coast at the gateway to the nine Glens of Antrim, a short drive from the Giant’s Causeway and world-famous Games of Thrones Tour.
Hastings’ family consists of three grown children, a step-daughter, daughter-in-law and husband, John Dullaghan. Hastings states “it hasn’t always been easy juggling motherhood and working full time, but I’ve has been driven to do my best and contribute to my family business.” The business is now run by Julie and three siblings since her father, Sir William Hastings, passed away four years ago. We chat to Julie about what it’s like working with your family, lessons learned from her legendary father, balancing raising children with working full-time, and of course, a bit about Jamie Dornan in the new film Belfast.
Hi Julie, you’ve been with the company for over 30 years and it was started by your father, who was a legend in hospitality in Northern Ireland. What was your father like as a leader?
Excellent leader, great teacher, and very fair. Also, a wonderful diplomatic referee who kept his four children in the business all working peacefully together.
Many successful women credit a close relationship with their fathers to giving them confidence in the workplace, would you? Please share how he influenced you.
He was such a good businessman he taught me so much. He went into business from the age of 16 without a higher university education, but he didn’t need that education. He started in pubs, bought his first hotel in 1964, learned, and grew his operation from there. He did not let the Troubles in Northern Ireland put him off, he kept believing and expanding. My father even dabbled in local politics in the late 1960s to allow him to understand life in Belfast from that perspective. He was the best ‘educated’ man I knew and was so respected in the business, hospitality, and tourism world by everyone who knew him. He was a real people person, and his mantra was not to sit in your office if you are a hotel manager, get out and meet your customer. People buy people, that is what will bring them back so often.
What are the three best lessons you learned from him?
Be fair – he used to say to me, “It’s nice to be important but it's more important to be nice.”
Enjoy your work – again he would tell everyone he spoke to (and particularly when he lectured students in the hotel and catering department in Northern Ireland’s Ulster University) “Choose a job you love and you will never have to work a day in your life.” Right throughout the good and bad times growing up in Northern Ireland, I never saw my dad go to work not being in a positive frame of mind.
Due to his love of his work, he stayed in the business until he was 89, and he truly enjoyed every minute. People asked him was he not going to retire and he used to say, ‘If I take a back seat I will take the steering wheel with me.’ He never wanted to take a step back, he was the type that had to have something to get up for in the morning.
Sorry to hear your Dad passed away four years ago, you and your siblings are truly carrying his legacy. Do you still work with your family today, how?
Yes, along with my brother Howard and my sisters Allyson and Aileen, we are the principal shareholders in the company. We have three other directors on our board. Many families fall out, have disagreements, but if we do we resolve them in the boardroom, not in public. Our Dad taught us that, so we have been very happy over many years now.
Was your mother also a role model for you?
My Mum was a stay-at-home mum who taught us a lot. She supported Dad in every way and she took us everywhere we needed to go. It is thanks to her that I enjoyed years of tennis (she sat for hours at the side of the court) and I played for Ulster and Ireland up until the age of 50. Mum was also very musical which we enjoyed and before she left her teaching job to have us her children. Mum’s claim to fame was teaching George Best (famous Irish soccer player who played for Manchester United), whom she said was a very polite and intelligent lad.
You are also a mother, how have you balanced parenthood and your career? What tips do you have for other women?
It was a slight challenge for me when I began to have my three children in the late 1980s. Perhaps some people thought that I should stay at home and look after them, but women were going out to work and leaving their children in the care of childminders (nanny). I was very lucky that I got a lovely childminder, whom I was very comfortable leaving my children with when I wanted to go back to work. That allowed me to go back full-time. I started in 1988 and I have worked full-time since then. In terms of being a working mum, mantras that I live by are: 'Don't sweat the small stuff' and 'Act now and seek forgiveness later' - which hasn't got me into trouble yet. Now, I am excited to soon to be the grandmother to a little girl!
Any tips on working with family in general? Do you expect your kids to join the family business? My children live in Dublin and Edinburgh and are not as interested in joining the family business. My son and daughter-in-law work for TikTok my daughter for Salesforce and my other daughter is in her final year studying geophysics at Edinburgh University. All have worked casually in our hotels serving, making beds, and cooking, but they have their own paths to follow now.
Pivoting a bit, you’ve said in a recent interview that the pandemic was one of the most challenging times in your career, how so?
It was an uncertain time, and we all had to pitch in everywhere. The pandemic is coming to a close now, restrictions are being lifted and I think it’s fair to say we used it to our advantage. We refurbished where we needed to while we could with no customers to disrupt. We used the time to create new advertisements and other marketing assets which we are using now to attract the staycation market again so we were able to hit the ground running. We did not rest on our laurels, but like all proactive businesses, we carried on and did our best to ensure we were ready to open all prepared.
You mentioned having to do many different tasks, do you think it is more important to be a generalist or a specialist? Yes, those who stayed with us (and many did leave for other industries not knowing how stable hospitality would be) were prepared to help out in every way they could, and this stood by them. Some learned new skills, others were promoted. I like to think I can turn my hand to most things marketing, reinventing my department as budgets became tighter, and training new staff to work as smartly and creatively as possible.
Before the pandemic what percentage of your guests were foreign? Industry data has shown an increase of domestic “staycations” and some resort properties in the UK actually had their best year ever during the pandemic once lockdown was lifted, was that true for Northern Ireland and your hotels?
Yes – before the pandemic, only 30% of the population from the Republic of Ireland had come to holiday in the North, after last summer this number increased to 66%. Northern Ireland is only a short hop by plane from the UK or a few hours by ferry, and prices have become so competitive, we are enjoying the visits of so many from the UK also. There is so much to see and do in Belfast and beyond and that message is really getting out there, thanks largely to Tourism Northern Ireland and Tourism Ireland who have worked so hard in recent years to push our country to the world. Screen tourism has helped our business and the tourism industry as a whole a lot. The movie Belfast, Game of Thrones, Line of Duty, Derry Girls, to name but a few. We get the actors, the production crew and then the visitors all come to stay with us.
How has Brexit impacted your business?
Well, it is a bit of a cliché now, but it’s all about goods, prices, and the Northern Ireland protocol making it more difficult to receive goods from the UK and abroad.
Belfast is having a moment thanks to the new film by Sir Kenneth Branagh. You lived through that era, what is your opinion of the film and its depiction of the Troubles, the ongoing conflict between the Protestants and Catholics in Ireland that ended up dividing the country?
Belfast is a great movie. I saw it the day it came out in Belfast. We are proud of Sir Kenneth Branagh, Ciaran Hinds, Jamie Dornan, Sir Van Morrison for the soundtrack and the budding young actor Jude Hill who all hail from our shores and did a super job creating the movie. It was a very accurate account of growing up in the 1960s for many, and now I would like to see the sequel! What happens to young Buddy when he grows up––will he come back to Belfast? If Sir Kenneth writes this I want the credit!!! and share of the Oscar!
As we look forward, what are you most excited about for 2022? Becoming a grandmother, taking a step back after 34 years working in the family business, but retaining my passion in the business and becoming part of the exciting new developments we have planned… watch this space!