Futureproofing - Hastings Hotels look to the future
Dr Howard Hastings OBE, Managing Director of Hastings Hotels reviews the group's illustrious past and looks to the future in this Q & A feature
Hastings Hotels are the go-to luxury travel company in Northern Ireland. What sets the hotels apart from the competition?
It is easy to say this, but harder to achieve…however we think that being family owned gives us an edge, because of the authenticity and individuality we bring to each hotel. This, and the mission we have to constantly reinvest in every one of our properties. Therefore we work harder on sourcing local produce, and concentrate of showcasing local artists. These are the things that enable our staff to tell our local stories, allowing our guests to feel that they can immerse themselves in the environment and surroundings where each of our hotels are located.
Talk us through the history of the Culloden Estate & Spa. How did your family come to own it? Also how did you come to acquire Ballygally Castle?
50 years ago my father was moving the family business from one that concentrated on licenced premises (pubs) to investing in hotels. The Culloden Hotel came on the market, and at that stage it had eleven bedrooms, and a busy restaurant, in a historic property that was losing money. He was attracted to the Culloden because of its magnificent setting, and because he thought he could turn it into a better business proposition. He purchased it for £100,000.
50 years on, and all that reinvestment shows. The Mitre Restaurant is still thriving, and so are the two major banqueting suites. The former Bishop’s Palace has had two bedroom blocks added and now has 97 oplent bedrooms. There is an eight treatment room Espa spa, and a stand alone hunting lodge style grill bar in the grounds, called the Cultra Inn.
Ballygally Castle was purchased the following year. It is the oldest inhabited Castle in Northern Ireland, with four of its bedrooms in the original tower of the 1625 Castle. It was formerly a vanity project of Cyril Lord, the magnate who earned his fortune developing the technology and manufacturing foam backed carpets. He had already left Northern Ireland and was living in the Bahamas when the sale to my father was completed.
How important is the heritage of your hotels to you and your family and to the Hastings Hotels brand? Is it difficult to balance heritage with modernity?
Three of our hotels are “heritage” hotels, and three have been developed since the 1960s. The heritage hotels bring their own in-built history, and their use as hotels allows our guests to be part of our “living history”. It is sometimes difficult to meet present day customer expectations in a property not designed for that purpose, but we have not resisted the investment required to ensure every room is properly sized and equipped, because it is not just expected, but demanded from today’s discerning customer.
So our brand mixes heritage with city chic, and we talk about our “sense of style”. I think that phrase captures what we offer to our visitors irrespective of when the hotel was first built.
How would you describe the luxury, high-net worth traveller? What are their needs and how do their needs differ from other markets?
Some of the highest net worth travellers can be totally demanding…others are there to seek out genuine warm hospitality with the minimum of fuss. There are no two travellers alike, and so we seek to respond to their needs, rather than offer a “one size fits all” service. There is only one constant….customer expectations rise every year, just as their own living standards rise. Only by reinvesting in our people and our properties can we stay ahead.
You have invested greatly into your 5 star property, the Culloden Estate & Spa. Do you think renovating historical buildings keeps them fresh?
It is not all about keeping them “fresh”, though I abhor any sign of worn carpets or frayed soft furnishings. There are design trends that we have to follow…more customers like large showers, all customers love big comfortable beds and the latest televisions in their rooms. All guests expect a good wifi service. Dining trends have become more informal, though traditional uniforms are expected in heritage properties. Part of our reinvestment is in what our guests se, and part is in the kitchens, the IT enhancements, the air-conditioning, and other elements guests will not immediately notice, but which are essential for us to make the luxury offering they expect.
What are the biggest travel trends you have noticed and that you think will make a big impact in the next few years?
We are seeing more and more visitors from the emerging markets of the middle East and Asia. We believe that our guests wasn’t that immersive experience, where the people they meet are as much a part of their visitor experience as the physical attributes of the hotel they are staying in. This is the reason they will pay more for a full service hotel than a budget property. In Northern Ireland our natural instinct is to engage with those we know to be strangers to our shores and to share our stories, so we have an inbuilt advantage in that regard.
What are your plans for the Hastings Hotels group over the next few years? Are you looking to expand?
We bought an office block in the centre of Belfast last year. At 22 storeys, it is the tallest commercial building in Belfast. And, towering as it does over Belfast City Hall, it is located very centrally and is an ideal location for a hotel, no matter what your motivation for travel might be. The finished product will be complete next year, and will have 300 bedrooms. The entire project represents an investment of over £50 million. And we are reviving the name of the finest of the heritage hotels in Belfast. When complete, our new venture will be named The Grand Central Hotel.