He's Belfast's Security Blanket

John Toner runs Belfast's Europa Hotel, which has been the target of so many terrorist attacks that he stopped counting long ago. Who has time? Everyone is too busy getting back to work.

Was it bomb number 25 or 26 that came hidden in the window-company van, alongside fresh panes of glass meant to replace windows blown out by the previous blast? Which morning was it when a hijacked truck carrying 1,000 pounds of explosives pulled up outside and unleashed an explosion that injured 13 people? There are just so many incidents to remember: Bombs delivered by furniture trucks. Dynamite fastened to the rooftop water tank. Firebombs tossed into the ladies' toilets.

No one's sure of the exact tally — the staff stopped counting after 30 — but only the Holiday Inn in Sarajevo can rival the four-star hotel on Belfast's Great Victoria Street for the unenviable title of "world's most bombed hotel." Yet today the Europa, the belle of Belfast City and an enduring symbol of Northern Ireland's resilience regarding terrorism, stands tall and proud, a stronger and more robust business because of — and not in spite of — Northern Ireland's "troubles," says John Toner, Europa's general manager. Under his leadership, occupancy rates are up, staff turnover is down, and such recent arrivals in Belfast as the Hilton and Ramada are making few inroads into the Europa's market share.

On the surface, the Europa is a respectable but unremarkable 240-bed hotel. But during the conflict's darkest days in the 1970s and 1980s, it emerged as a powerful icon, representing war, destruction, survival, and fortitude — a monument to all that was right and wrong in Northern Ireland. Even in the new peace-processed Belfast, it remains a landmark, a place where tourists and natives alike get their bearings.

When Grand Metropolitan Hotels first opened the doors of the Europa in July 1971, Belfast was a small, dreary town sorely in need of some glamour. The futuristic, 12-story Europa was a hotel in wide-screen technicolor. It offered bathrooms en suite (a first for hotels in Northern Ireland) and a top-floor nightclub. Bringing a level of luxury that the city hadn't previously known, it was either a flavor of the future or an evil eyesore, depending on whom you spoke with.

To the Irish Republican Army, it was, quite simply, a target. Attacking the high-profile Europa would attract worldwide attention by striking a blow at British capitalism. The first bomb exploded within a month of the hotel's opening; it destroyed the restaurant and kitchens. Another 20 explosions would follow in the next four years. Security walls were erected around and over the entrance. Guests were frisked; their luggage was searched. The tourist trade evaporated, leaving no one but the hard-core, battle-hardened business customers.

And so came the journalists. Because it remained Belfast's only world-class hotel, the Europa became home to all the hacks covering the conflict. The IRA's easy target became the perfect target. With every attack, the press got its story and the terrorists got publicity. Visiting journalists found that they could sound authoritative and well-informed without leaving their bar stool in the Europa.

Mercifully, remarkably, no one was ever killed by a bomb at the Europa. "Security is in the bones of the people who work here," says Toner, "and we've always had a good record of getting people out fast." The relentless wave of attacks would have destroyed any other business, but the Europa's staff, as well as its clients, seemed to draw courage from each attack — and the hotel stubbornly refused to close. Its first manager, Harpur Brown, issued neckties to commemorate each bomb. Guests offered to stay in sealed-window rooms at "hardboard" rates. "Some of our regular guests would simply ask us to vacuum the floor and pull the curtains," says Toner. And the staff remained resolutely loyal.

"I've seen a few dark days," says Carolyn Stalker, the front-office manager who has worked in various roles at the Europa for 15 years. There were no warnings before the explosion of the hijacked truck, but Stalker recalls that she became suspicious and had the hotel evacuated within 15 minutes of the truck's arrival. Seconds after the hotel was emptied was out, the bomb exploded, ripping a gaping hole in the side of the hotel. "We saved a lot of lives that day, but by lunchtime we were back at work."

The attacks became less frequent during the 1980s. Even Sinn Féin, the IRA's political wing, began using the Europa for meetings and conferences. In the absence of political institutions in Northern Ireland, the Europa often provided the forum for debate and negotiation.

Yet the hotel remained a high-profile terrorist target. Toner's first role as manager was to oversee an $18 million refurbishment after a bomb attack in 1993. He has lost friends and colleagues in attacks on other hotels. Terrorism, he says, is part of the job. But the aftermath brings opportunity. "A friend once told me that in times of crisis, the best thing to do is put another sugar lump in your tea," says Toner. "You have to sweeten each problem you meet."

What you must never do, he adds, is retreat in the face of crisis: "Immediately, managers look for ways to cut costs and reduce head count. But if you have the confidence to be in the business, then have the guts to ride out the storms. I don't look for cost savings. I don't think about the bottom line — it'll look after itself. Instead, I sit down and study where I want to take the business next. A crisis is a time when more than ever you have to be one better than your competition. It's a time to focus on one thing, a new project that will drive you toward that goal."

Under Hastings Hotels, the Europa's new owner, Toner has masterminded a quadrupling of sales, reaching occupancy rates of 90%. His retention rate of 70% is the envy of the industry. When President Clinton visited Belfast to bolster the shaky peace process, it was the Europa he chose as his base. "It was a statement that Belfast was returning to normality," maintains Toner, who subsequently renamed the 10th-floor bridal suite the "Clinton Suite."

Belfast has yet to reach normality, of course. Within a stone's throw of the Europa, gangs still engage in violent clashes and pipe bombs rain down on police vehicles. The Europa will face more stressful times as one of the world's most intractable quarrels rumbles on. But Toner and his team are ready for anything that the future hurls at them.

"I sometimes think how much easier this job would be if we were in a different situation," muses Toner. "But we pick ourselves up each time and say, 'Let's have a good day tomorrow.' "

Contact John Toner by email (gm@eur.hastingshotels.com).

Sidebar: Stress Test

John Toner encountered his first bomb, and his first lesson in managing stress, at the Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle, County Down in 1973. A bomb had been placed on the reception desk on a 15-minute timer.

"We got everyone out, but I couldn't remember seeing one of the maids. From outside, I saw her walking toward the reception desk. I ran in and shouted, 'Susan, get out!' As we ran through the front door, the bomb exploded, throwing us to the ground. We turned to watch as the building crumbled.

"That evening, the hotel's owner, Billy Hastings, came to examine the damage. As we walked through the darkness, water spewing, he turned to me and said, 'Well, John, this gives us an opportunity to change the reception area.' At first, I thought he was on a different planet, but over time I came to respect his enthusiasm for turning adversity into advantage.

"Now in times of stress, I look for an opportunity to do something different, either in my management style or in the development of my staff. Each time we hit a crisis, I ask how my business can benefit from the situation.

"As with every other hotel in the world, the fallout from the tragic events in New York and Washington is costing me business. I can't replace that business, but I can improve the morale of a staff that wonders if they've still got a job. I sat down with my training manager, and we devised a training strategy that will improve the skills of every employee. It's going to cost me 40,000 pounds, but if people come out of it knowing there's a future for them, then it's an investment, not a cost."

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