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Legendary hotelier never forgot humble roots

Billy Hastings, doyen of hospitality and tourism industry, dies at age 89

By Ivan Little

Pioneering businessman Sir William Hastings, who was the cornerstone of Northern Ireland's hospitality industry before, during and after the Troubles, has died - just weeks after scrutinising plans for the new £53m Belfast hotel that will be his legacy.

Sir William, who was 89 and whose Hastings Group owns a chain of top hotels right across the province, including the regularly bombed Europa and the Everglades in Londonderry, which was attacked three years ago, passed away yesterday morning.

Known universally as Billy, the energetic entrepreneur, who was once kidnapped by UVF supergrass Jimmy Crockard, had been ill for a time, but he still managed to visit the luxury Merrion Hotel, which he part-owned in Dublin, several weeks ago and also liaised with architects designing his ambitious 300-bedroom Grand Central Hotel in what was the 22-storey Windsor House building in Belfast's Bedford Street.

"Sadly, Billy won't get to see that dream come to fruition next year," said one friend. "But the hotel network he's built over the last 50 years is a fitting testament to the genius of a legend."

A statement from the Hastings family spoke of their great sadness after he "passed away peacefully at home yesterday following a short illness".

It added: "He was surrounded by his wife Joy and children Julie, Howard, Allyson and Aileen.

"We cannot describe the huge void that he has left in our lives, but we take comfort in the fact that he was an inspiration to so many people and has left a lasting legacy, which we will remain dedicated in honouring.

"He took great pride in working together with us in the family business and, until he took ill earlier this year, he still came into his office every day and continued to play a key role as chairman of Hastings Hotels.

"In 2015 Billy was proud to announce the purchase of what is to be the seventh Hastings hotel and he was very much looking forward to seeing the rebirth of the Grand Central Hotel when it opens next year."

A near-permanent fixture on rich lists here, he had a fortune running into mega-millions, but associates said he never lost the common touch, or the grounding he received in his early life that was far removed from wealth and privilege.

Billy Hastings left Royal Belfast Academical Institution at the age of 16 and went into the timber trade as a junior apprentice. His father William snr died in his 30s, after finding a niche in the pub trade in Belfast.

Like father like son, Billy Hastings started working in bars, too. Nothing fancy. Just working-class pubs, where men held sway.

But Billy and his brother Roy began to snap up more bars and saw a gender gap in the market and encouraged women to visit their premises.

The Hastings offices were above the Avenue One bar on the Newtownards Road, where other pubs the company owned included the Great Eastern and the Albert, which were the watering-holes for workers from the shipyard and the ropeworks. At one time there were 12 Hastings pubs in various parts of Belfast.

But success bred ambition in the youthful and inventive Billy Hastings, who was never going to have his thirst for progress satisfied in backstreet boozers.

He saw his future in hotels and, as some of the pubs were sold, he bought the Adair Arms in Ballymena and the Stormont Hotel in east Belfast, which has since been expanded beyond recognition.

He also acquired the reputedly haunted Ballygally Castle on the Antrim Coast Road from carpet magnate Cyril Lord. The jewel in the Hastings crown - the Culloden - was bought for £100,000 in 1967.

The former official Palace of the Bishops of Down is now the five-star destination of choice for sporting and musical superstars from across the world and nearer to home, like Sir Van Morrison, who has offices in the grounds of the hotel, which has almost 100 luxury rooms.

In 1971 the Hastings Group bought six rundown railway hotels from the Ulster Transport Authority for £440,000, but only one is still operational today.

That's the sumptuous Slieve Donard in Newcastle, which was nicknamed 'The Titanic' because there were fears that it could sink the rest of the Hastings Group.

But Billy and his family proved the fears were unfounded and turned the Slieve Donard into the bustling five-star spa resort it is today.

He always labelled himself an optimist, but others questioned his wisdom in 1993 when he bought the "most bombed hotel in the world" - the Europa. He invested £10m in the shattered building and, with the onset of peace, the Europa thrived.

And the perfect endorsement came in 1995 when one of the main players in the peace process, Bill Clinton, stayed for the first of two visits to what is now called the Presidential Suite.

Billy, who suffered a heart attack in 1989, was knighted eight years ago, and the range of charities and organisations he served was immense, including NI Chest Heart and Stroke, the Salvation Army, the Transport Holding Company, the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bass Ireland.

One man who worked with him said he amazed people who knew him, adding: "It was beyond us all how Billy found enough hours in the day to meet all his commitments in his working life, never mind his selfless contribution to charitable organisations."

He was heavily involved with the Rotary Club in east Belfast for 50 years and he worshipped at the Church of Ireland at Drumbeg and, latterly, at Downpatrick Cathedral, not far from his home.

Golf was his other passion and among his clubs were Mahee Island, Malone and Royal County Down.

His family said he also had a great loyalty to Dundela Football Club, who play close to one of his earliest pubs, the Stormont Inn in east Belfast.

Billy Hastings was first and foremost a family man.

He and Joy, his wife of 57 years, often spoke of their pride in their four children, who play senior roles in the hugely successful business their father built.

Billy encouraged them all to take on different responsibilities in pushing the hotels forward.

In recent years Billy backed plans for the Ballygally to market special events to exploit the tourism potential of the cult TV series Game Of Thrones, which attracts thousands of visitors to see the show's filming locations nearby.

A more unlikely Hastings tourist attraction has been Morrison, whose fans from around the world travel to see him stage intimate concerts in the Europa and the Slieve Donard, where they also stay.

Recently Billy's son Howard, who now heads the hotels group, talked about the challenges facing the company his father established.

He said: "We think that being family-owned gives us an edge, because of the authenticity and individuality we bring to each hotel."

Belfast Telegraph

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