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50 years of the Europa – the Belfast hotel that refused to go out with a bang

It has survived bombs, financial woes and seen its fair share of the rich and famous come through its doors — and now Belfast’s iconic Europa Hotel is celebrating its 50th birthday.

pened in 1971 by Grand Metropolitan Hotels at the beginning of the Troubles, the hotel was built on the site of the former Great Northern railway station

As the violence in the city spiralled, the Europa was repeatedly targeted and eventually earned the unfortunate moniker of ‘the world’s most bombed hotel’.

It was attacked 33 times between 1970 and the early 90s and went into receivership at a time when Belfast couldn’t hope to attract tourists.

Investors were thin on the ground as the likelihood of keeping the Europa’s doors open looked in doubt. However, one man was left holding his cheque book when the smoke cleared: Sir William Hastings.

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Damage caused by an explosion outside the hotel in 1991. Credit: Belfast Telegraph

Sir William purchased the hotel in 1993 and invested £8m in upgrading it before reopening the Europa in 1994.

The hotelier’s daughter, Julie Hastings, who is now the marketing director of Hastings Hotels, says her father had a vision for the hotel right from the beginning of his tenure as its own

“Before my father bought the hotel, it was managed by a man called Harper Brown, a very jovial, charismatic character who was determined to always keep the hotel open, and it did stay open through everything,” she says.

“The Press came from far and wide, but there were very few actual guests. Harper Brown would have put on entertainment to keep the Press happy. When the hotel later went into administration, the tourist board and the government at the time wanted an international brand to take it over — there weren’t any Hiltons or Radissons in Belfast at the time.

“When it was bombed in 1993, any hoteliers from outside of Northern Ireland that may have been interested just left the scene and the only one who was left with his cheque in his hand was my father, Bill Hastings.”

“My father had some smaller hotels at the time, but he knew that if he owned the Europa, he would be the most prominent hotelier in Northern Ireland. When the final bomb came, he got it for a heavily-discounted price at the time.”

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Former US President, Bill Clinton with concierge Martin Mulholland. Clinton stayed in the Europa Hotel in 1995, booking 110 rooms for his entourage. He returned to stay in 1998, when this photo was taken. Source: Europa Hotel

Following the hotel’s initial makeover, the Europa reopened in 1994 and soon welcomed many prestigious figures through its doors. In 1995, President Bill Clinton became the first US serving President to visit Northern Ireland and stayed at the Europa — booking out 110 rooms for his entourage in the process.

Other famous guests have included Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, Bob Dylan, Lionel Ritchie, Victoria Beckham and Elvis Costello.

Julie Hastings actually worked in the hotel for several years before her father purchased it. When it was first opened, the building was 51 metres in height and had 184 rooms. Over the next three decades, Hastings Hotels invested more than £40m in continuous renovations, and the hotel now has 272 luxury rooms and is currently in the process of further renovations.

“It was difficult not to look at my father at the time he bought it and think, ‘are you crazy?’ but he took a risk, a calculated risk. He wanted to put it back in its place as a very fine hotel for the city,” says Julie.

“He was very proud of Belfast, the city where he was brought up. People would often say to him, ‘would you not retire? would you not give up?’, but he would always say: ‘Why? This is my city and I’m going to do my bit.”

“At the time he bought the hotel, he had the option of making it into an office block, which he could then rent out and at least the bank would get a return. But he said no, he was a hotelier.

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At the height of the Troubles, a version of the famous bunny girls, the Penthouse Poppets mingled with guests in the Penthouse nightclub, situated on the 12th floor of the Europa Hotel.

“He could have made the Europa the way it was previously, a three-star hotel, but instead he decided to invest and make it a fine four-star hotel, and it’s been an icon of the city ever since.

“The Europa really has gone from strength to strength and we’ve put an awful lot of effort into it.

“We also have great staff retention, many of them have been there for a long time. Martin Mulholland, the head concierge, has been there pretty much from the beginning and knows everything about the hotel.”

Martin says the Europa’s guests love its story, the characters that have stayed there, and those who work there.

“The story of Belfast in the last 50 years can’t be told without mentioning the Europa — from being the first international hotel in the city to the last word in luxury,” he says.

“It has never rested on its laurels, constantly extending, refurbishing and updating to maintain its reputation as the place to stay when visiting Belfast. It has been my absolute joy and pleasure to be on the ‘front line’ welcoming our guests from around the world for the last 35 years.”

To celebrate its 50th birthday, the central finials down the front of the hotel’s exterior will be turned gold and the famous sign that can be seen across the city will be replicated inside the hotel for guests to snap social media photos.

There will also be menus and cocktails from the 1970s and the well-known Hastings Hotels ducks will be turned golden.

On the future of the Europa, Julie says they are working on a new installation in the hotel to tell its story so far, and she believes the next 50 years hold a great deal of promise for the Belfast landmark.

“People are still coming and we’re continuing to invest in it to keep things modern and fresh. We’re currently upgrading rooms on six of the floors. The upgrades will see the Europa’s 90 front-facing superior rooms, 85 classic bedrooms and six suites all redesigned,” Julie says.

“Belfast wouldn’t be the same without the Europa and we won’t be stopping any time soon.”

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