Q. The pandemic is proving hugely challenging for the hospitality industry in Northern Ireland. How has it impacted the Hastings hotel group?
A. It has been tough for everyone. It's a very strange feeling to see nobody in the hotels. We've been allowed to take key workers in the Grand Central and elite sports are allowed to continue so we've had a few footballers coming into the Stormont and Culloden. The film industry is also doing well here so we have had some actors and crew in. But people have been cancelling weddings for the third or fourth time and they still don't have clear guidance as to how many guests they can have. I really feel for those people because a wedding is such an exciting occasion.
Q. Of course you've had personal insight into how upsetting that can be…
A. Yes, my son Gareth's wedding reception got postponed again until August so he went ahead and tied the knot with his bride Roni last week in Dublin. Gareth works for Facebook and Roni, who is from Israel, works for TikTok and they both live in Dublin. Gareth will be 31 soon and Roni is 33 and they have been going out together for four years so they were ready to get married. The registry office was closed so they had to get married in the hospital across the road from it, believe it or not. The first time I met the in-laws was on a Zoom call two days before the wedding because they haven't been able to come over and we haven't been able to meet them any other way. But we have all that to look forward to. I think Gareth felt a little hard done by only having two witnesses as well as his sister Rachel there - she lives in Dublin too. But the five of them had some champagne and a wee bite to eat afterwards. Gareth and Roni will go to Israel as soon as they can and then they'll have the reception - they've three guest lists - one of 25, one of 45 and one of 80, depending on the regulations at the time. Maybe they'll get a honeymoon after that. If Gareth thinks positively about it he can get the whole year out of it and make something of it. And it will make for interesting photos to show their children.
Q. Do you feel frustrated and let down by Stormont?
A. I think everybody does, don't they? It's difficult for Stormont because they don't know everybody's business so it's difficult to make generalisations, but yes, it's frustrating. Everybody is suffering in some way. At least I'm past home schooling and I've more time for my elderly mother.
Q. Your family is one of the best-known and most respected in business in Northern Ireland, with your late father, Sir William (Billy), building the hotel empire. Tell us about your childhood.
A. Dad inherited pubs from his father in the mid-Sixties when I was a child. Dad had working class pubs in working class areas and he thought it would be nice to be a hotelier, that it would be a more credible career. So (in 1966) he bought the Adair Arms in Ballymena and then he bought the Stormont Hotel, which had only 10 bedrooms - but 10 bedrooms was enough to have a hotel licence. The hotels started to go well, bedrooms started to go well and dad extended everything from there. We now own the Culloden, the Europa, the Grand Central, Ballygally Castle, the Everglades, the Slieve Donard and the Stormont. We grew up knowing the hotels and living that life. Although a lot of my childhood was during the Troubles, it was a lovely upbringing and we were quite well sheltered. We lived on the Malone Road in Belfast and I, my sisters Aileen and Allyson and brother Howard all went to school locally, though after a while Howard went to school in England.
Q. Your dad bought the Europa Hotel in 1993, but there's an interesting story behind that - initially he wasn't the favourite to clinch the deal.
A. It looked like the peace process was coming to its completion when the Europa went up for sale. The Tourist Board and the government were very keen to bring in a big international brand like the Hilton, Holiday Inn or Radisson as there wasn't one of those in Belfast. But my dad was also very keen to buy it because he knew that it was the finest hotel in Belfast city centre and whoever owned the Europa would be the best hotelier in Northern Ireland. But then it had its final bomb and was left gutted so these other guys from England walked off, saying it was not for them. Dad was the last person holding the cheque so he got it at a very much reduced price. I remember dad saying he had three choices: he could put it back as a three-star hotel and it would be fine as a mid-range hotel; he could turn it into offices for a consistent rental income, or he could make it into a very nice four-star hotel, which was the biggest risk. But he said that he wanted to make it an icon in Belfast so that's what he did and it became the best hotel in the city. It's done very well for us. Shortly before he died, the journalist Chris Ryder said to me: "Isn't it ironic that all through the Troubles no bombs or bullets could close the Europa but a pandemic came along and the Europa closed." Having no customers has given us a chance to do up some bedrooms. The Europa is like the Forth Bridge - as soon as something is done, something else needs to be done. But when we open the doors again it will be with pride.
Q. In June 2018, six months after your father died, and just a few streets away from the Europa, the Hastings Group opened the £53m Grand Central Hotel, the most expensive hotel to be built in Northern Ireland.
A. It felt like the two hotels were very close together so we wondered if they'd compete with each other. But the Grand Central doesn't have the same conference and function space that the Europa does and they are in different price ranges. Grand Central has the Observatory Bar on the 23rd floor, offering a panoramic view of the city, while the Europa has the history, the reputation and the legacy so they actually don't compete and each does well in its own right. We have kept the Grand Central going in the pandemic for key workers. We don't get very much (for doing that) but it's a goodwill gesture.
Q. Was it taken for granted that you, your sisters and brother would all go into the family business?
A. No, not really. We all went and worked elsewhere first. I did a degree in social sciences and politics at Queen's University in Belfast, then spent a year in the States, at the University of West Georgia, doing a Masters in the same subject. Career-wise, I didn't know what I wanted to do and I'd won a scholarship so it seemed like a good idea.
I'd a terrific year, not just in classroom, but also making friends and travelling. When I came home I still didn't know what I wanted to do so worked in a travel agency before joining a market research company and going back to Jordanstown to do a post-grad diploma in marketing. Then, when I was about 28, dad said to me "Would you like to come and work in the hotels?" I said "Doing what?" and he said "Well, I need a sales person." I said "That's not me, I don't sell" and he said "What do you do?" I said "I do marketing" and he said "What's the difference?" I said "Well, give me an interview and I'll tell you!" So, I went into a sales and marketing role. Then, a few years later, my sister, Aileen, who'd been in a selling role for a drinks company in Scotland, joined the company so she did sales and I did marketing. In between that, Howard joined as operations director and subsequently became managing director - he'd worked for a few years in England in an accountancy role with Volvo. A few years later, Allyson, who had been living in Spain, became events director, organising everything from Van Morrison concerts to tribute bands, wedding fairs and Christmas party nights.
Q. Any sibling rivalry?
A. No, we all get on well... most of the time (laughs). We all have the same goal in mind. There's no point not getting on well - and my dad made sure of that too. If there was any disagreement, he'd have stepped in and refereed it. Because we see each other every day we don't really socialise that much together though we'd meet up at mum's house, though obviously that hasn't happened so much during the pandemic.
Q. What did you learn from your father?
A. Whether dad was talking to students at the then University of Ulster or to us, he'd dispense the same career advice: "Choose a job you love and you'll never have to work a day in your life." But there were lots of wee things he taught us. I've a wall in my office with inspirational quotes on it, including many of dad's sayings, such as "It's nice to be important but it's more important to be nice" and "A meal without wine is like a day without sunshine". We all learnt a lot from him and his resilience was tremendous. Dad was all about keeping your feet on the ground, being kind and treating everybody with respect. When he died, so many people said what a gentleman he was.
One other thing he'd say, which was probably relevant during tough times, were lines from a poem that his mother taught him. They're from The Psalm Of Life by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, "Let us, then, be up and doing/With a heart for any fate". Dad would say there's no point in moaning, just get up and do it with a good heart. People would ask him "Are you not going to retire?" and he'd reply: "If I take a back seat I'll take the steering wheel with me". He often talked about his mother, who clearly had a big influence on him.
Q. Just as your mum, Lady Joy, now 89, has had an enduring influence on you.
A. Mum taught English and French. Her claim to fame was teaching George Best at Lisnasharragh High School. She said he was a very clever boy but it was his choice to go to a high school because high schools played football and grammar schools played rugby. When she married dad she stopped working, that's what people did then, and then she had us. What she instilled in me was the fear - "God forbid I make a grammar mistake!" I'd ring her up and go "Is that written right? Is that apostrophe in the right place?" She's always been very accurate on things like that.
Mum lives in a cottage beside my sister Aileen and her family on an island in Strangford Lough. It's a very beautiful setting for her and she loves sitting at the window and gazing out. She's very well looked after.
Q. She was a stay-at-home mum while you worked full-time. That must have brought challenges.
A. I do appreciate now that mum being at home meant she'd a lot of time for us. I was really into tennis and children need parents prepared to put time into helping them so me becoming good at tennis meant mum taking me to every lesson, every tournament, driving all over the place and sitting for hours watching me playing, losing, crying. I didn't do that for my children because I was working, but that was my choice, I loved my job. Good support was how I managed. I'd also an excellent childminder.
Q. The rich and famous stay at your hotels... any interesting stories?
A. If they want somewhere more private, they go to the Culloden, if they want to be more at the centre of things, they go to the Europa. We do have quite a few in, especially now the movie industry has ramped up here. You get the occasional diva but mostly stars tend to be nice people from what I understand. I'm not on the ground in the hotels so I don't meet them all.
Billy Connolly was great. If there was a wedding on, he'd get in between the bride and groom and pose for photos and of course they loved that.
Q. Tell us something surprising about yourself?
A. Well, actually I've had a few lovely encounters with a star. When I was at university in Georgia I shared a room with a girl who was a drama student and went on to become a well-known costume designer who now works for Jane Seymour, the actress. My friend did all the costumes on Dr Quinn Medicine Woman.
I've visited her a few times in LA and been to Jane Seymour's house, swam in her pool and had dinner with her. Both are coming to Dublin in the next few months and we'll meet up again. Jane is a terrific businesswoman and that's been a nice friendship to have.
Q. Are you religious?
A. I'm a believer but not a regular churchgoer. I don't think you have to be religious to be a good person.
Q. What are your greatest strengths?
A. I'm creative and come up with good ideas. I like to think I'm a good mum and wife to my husband John. I'm determined, if I want something then I would go after it and not give up easily. I will fight to do what I think is right until I'm a complete pain. I also believe there is no such word as "can't" unless it really is impossible. I don't like people who are uncooperative or lazy.
Q. Finally, what are you most proud of?
A. Of the Hastings ducks of course! I'm also proud of the work I've done. Of being a visiting professor at Ulster University and a fellow of the Institute of Marketing. Proud that all my children have done very well - Rachel works for a tech firm and Caitlin is studying geophysics at Edinburgh University - and of what my stepdaughter Evie, who is still at school, is achieving.
I'm also proud we've carried on dad's legacy. I often wonder if he looked down now what he would make of the pandemic, though I really don't think he'd have done anything differently - except he'd have found his way onto the golf course, even if he'd had to climb over the gate!