Dr Billy Hastings, founder and owner of Northern Ireland hotel chain Hastings Hotels, was awarded a knighthood in the Queen's latest honours list. He talks to Emily Manson about surviving four decades in the industry
Caterer What did it mean to get a knighthood?
Billy Hastings When these things arrive in your life they're terrific. It's the first time there's been recognition of what tourism has been doing in Northern Ireland as opposed to manufacturing and, in this sense, it's a real step change.
Caterer To what do you attribute your longevity in the business?
BH Catering is a way of life. If you haven't got the right hospitable nature you have to get out because you can't make it up. If you spend your time looking forward to going home it's not for you. There are far too many consultants in the business. Hotel-keeping is 80% common sense and 20% professional skill. Following through on common sense is the best way. It's why I liked Margaret Thatcher relating everything back to her father's shop. Big business is no different, you have to bend with the wind.
Caterer What was it like when you started out?
BH When I started, tourism was never taken seriously, but it's a big money-earner now. The catch-up since the troubles has been dramatic and, in many ways, we benefited from being the last kid on the block.
Caterer How did you survive the troubles?
BH I was very lucky. I was one of the original disco people, which was unpalatable business to some. I was a very crude hotelier but I had customers. A lot of colleagues just didn't survive as they were trained to do certain things certain ways but they just had no customers. At the Culloden Hotel, in Belfast, the then Northern Ireland secretary Willie Whitelaw and his team took over the hotel for seven years.
Caterer How's the recession hitting you?
BH The plunge in banqueting has been serious but we've benefited from the change in pound/euro value. For years we went south [to southern Ireland] to shop but now the tables have turned. We've filled the gap: we're not doing better, just hanging in. I'm not a hard businessman. It's very difficult to try and minimise expenses without sacking people. We're a small company and I can't make a board decision then hide behind it. We're all aware of the situation and staff are ready to go that extra mile.
Caterer Yours is a family-run firm and all your children are involved. How does that work?
BH I've been extraordinarily lucky with my children and admire them immensely. They've all slotted into their own areas. We sometimes show each other the yellow card but never the red. Sometimes they threaten to tell their mother.
Caterer Where do you go from here?
BH I've already devolved a tremendous amount of responsibility. I'm definitely slower now and I'm selective in what I do. I can't do the late nights so much anymore. Although I'm not totally side-lined in the business, the issues in which I have the final say are getting fewer.