Belfast Telegraph

How Clintons gave Europa a boost after its Troubled past

By David Young

The Europa Hotel is famously known as 'Europe's most bombed Hotel', having been damaged by IRA bombs 33 times between 1970 and 1994.

The hotel opened in 1971 on the site of the former Great Northern Railway station and played host to arguably its most famous guests, US president Bill Clinton and his wife Hillary, in 1995 and 1998.

For their 1995 visit, the US Presidential entourage booked 110 rooms, with the President and his wife staying in room 1011.

The suite used by the Clintons was subsequently rebranded The Clinton Suite, and the celebrity endorsement proved to be a major boost for the Europa, increasing bookings from 50% when Hastings took over in 1993 to 80% in 1996.

Later, Senator George Mitchell, the US diplomat who was a pivotal figure in the Northern Ireland Peace Process, became a regular guest at the Europa.

Singer Lionel Richie, golfer Bob Charles and actress Patricia Hodge, Spice Girl-turned fashion entrepreneur Victoria Beckham and pop stars Sir Bob Geldof, Elvis Costello, Paul Young and many more have all stayed in the luxurious hotel during visits to Northern Ireland.

Former tourism minister, the DUP leader Arlene Foster, said Billy's name is synonymous with the Northern Ireland hotel sector, describing his commitment to the hospitality trade as laying "the groundwork for much of more recent development in Belfast and across Northern Ireland".

"It isn't an overstatement to describe Billy as the father of the modern tourism industry in Northern Ireland," she said last night.

"My thoughts and prayers are with his wife Joy, his children and wider family circle at this difficult time.

"They can be immensely proud of the legacy he leaves and the impact he made on so many people throughout his life."

During its first 20 years of operation the Europa became a rendezvous for the world's media, with news teams covering the Northern Ireland conflict for networks worldwide.

Sir Trevor McDonald was one of the many distinguished journalists who stayed at the hotel during that dark period.

He described the Europa as "inescapably the place to be - you had to be there to discover what was going on in the Province. It was the main meeting place for politicians and their contacts. All major news stories broke from the Europa, and on more than one occasion the hotel itself was the headline story."

Other household media names who were regulars at the iconic city centre hotel included Kate Adie, Martin Bell, Gerald Seymour, Michael Nicholson and John Humphrys of BBC Radio 4 - and the late Sir Terry Wogan.

But it wasn't all hard news and paramilitary communiques for journalists staying at the Europa in those days before Sir Billy's ownership.

Among its early attractions - for male guests at least - were the 'Penthouse Poppets', who sported bunny ears as they mingled with guests in the hotel's Penthouse nightclub, bringing a touch of glamour to the city's drab nightlife during the long years of the Troubles.

In his book A Life In Questions, former Newsnight inquisitor Jeremy Paxman recalled a racy encounter with the Penthouse Poppets in the 1970s, when he was a young reporter setting out on what would be a long and distinguished news career.

"At the top of the hotel was a discotheque decorated with 'Penthouse Poppets', ersatz Playboy girls with bunny ears and east Belfast accents," he wrote.

Billy's Hastings Hotels group also included the Culloden, Ballygally Castle, the Stormont Hotel, the Slieve Donard in Newcastle and the Everglades Hotel in Londonderry, the last of which was targeted by terrorists as recently as 2014, when dissident republican planted a bomb in its reception area.

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