George Best hotel investors united with developer’s efforts to finish and open the high-profile site

Investors in a stalled major hotel project in Belfast city centre have united in their support of the developer’s efforts to finish and open the high-profile site.

By Claire Cartmill
Thursday, 8th July 2021, 4:00 pm
Updated Thursday, 8th July 2021, 4:03 pm

Investors in a stalled major hotel project in Belfast city centre have united in their support of the developer’s efforts to finish and open the high-profile site.

Renovation work on the George Best Hotel in the historic Scottish Mutual Building at Donegall Square was delayed following Belfast Heritage’s intervention on approved plans and subsequently ceased in April 2020 when the hotel’s owners, Bedford Hotel Ltd, a subsidiary of Signature Living Hotels Ltd, was placed in administration.

However, following a series of meetings with Signature Living’s owner and co-founder, Lawrence Kenwright, the 50-strong group of investors are unanimously collaborating with him to save and rejuvenate the development and protect their investment. Mr Kenwright has invited the group to become part of the George Best Hotel property company, with the belief that their combined weight will make it easier to gain new funding to complete and open the hotel.

Signature Living’s owner and co-founder, Lawrence Kenwright

The Group, chaired by County Antrim businessman Stephen Kearney, will now oversee refinancing and development work with Lawrence Kenwright acting as their CEO.

Mr Kearney, who invested in the hotel in 2018, said: “It’s been a turbulent journey for us and for Signature Living, but there is hope now that all can be resolved with the George Best Hotel administration. It’s certainly not a time to give up. We have seen how Lawrence Kenwright has been reorganising his company since last April, and how well his hotels have been performing when allowed to trade during the pandemic and since the last English lockdown was lifted.

“We have also been struck by Lawrence’s sincerity, his openness and commitment to us. In this type of situation, I’ve only ever seen people run away. Not Lawrence. He has stood his ground and reached out to the investors. He wants to do the right thing by us. One can’t fail to be impressed by his courage and integrity. We all agree that we are better together as a group to stave off a potential write off.”

The GB Hotel investor group has also been advised by another Northern Irish businessman, Thomas Scullion, himself a Signature Living investor, who chairs UK Accommodation Group (UKAG), which he and fellow investors set up to restructure Signature Living’s operations in September last year.

Signature Living’s owner and co-founder, Lawrence Kenwright outside the George Best Hotel

Stephen Kearney continued: “Having UKAG there has given us further assurance and assistance. We have seen how Thomas and his fellow investor-directors have mobilised the vast majority of unsecured investors in supporting Lawrence Kenwright and have worked diligently on a recovery plan. It’s a professional, serious organisation with a formal plan and crucially Lawrence has handed over control of Signature Living operations.”

In May this year, UKAG with Lawrence Kenwright revealed that they were close to lodging a Company Voluntary Arrangement (CVA) with Signature Living’s administrators and which has the backing of the vast majority of investors and funders.

Thomas Scullion explained: “What UKAG has been working towards over the last year has paved the way for this arrangement with the George Best Hotel investors and we believe it boosts Signature Living’s proposed CVA to exit administration, the presentation of which is now imminent. More than 95% of the unsecured investors have seen how he has acted in the face of the adversity that has faced his business and he has drawn them closer rather than push them away and asked them to fight back with him.

“We are doing so, because, as I’ve said before, it is in the interests of everyone to regain control of the business with an exciting future beckoning. The business is again trading well and through our robust collaboration will continue to do so.

County Antrim businessman Stephen Kearney

“In establishing UKAG we have brought stronger governance and control and removed some of the weight from Lawrence’s shoulders to allow him to do what he does best namely, to build his business, create projects and drive value.”

Since Covid restrictions eased, Signature Living venues have been trading well under current guidelines.

Additionally, despite the impact of the pandemic, Lawrence Kenwright has opened two new hotels, The Dixie Dean in Liverpool, and Rainhill Hall in St Helens, while the Kingsway House residential development in Liverpool city centre has been progressing well. This has been possible through the continued backing of Signature Living’s first charge lender.

Lawrence Kenwright added: “We have faced a unique set of circumstances in trying to finish the George Best hotel and I am extremely grateful for this support. The uncertainty of Brexit in 2019 was unsettling for developers and then the pandemic struck, forcing the closure of our venues for the majority of the last 15 months making it extremely difficult to attract new funding and the GB hotel investors understand that.

Northern Irish businessman, Thomas Scullion

“I am steadfast in my determination to recover the Signature Living business and to ensure that all my room owners’ and unsecured investors’ interests are to the fore, rather than being left at the back of the queue as invariably they are in these situations.

“What we are putting in place together across the group is unique, it hasn’t been done anywhere before to my knowledge. By inviting the George Best hotel investors’ involvement in this way, I am ceding control and giving them final say in decisions made to ensure that they gain best value for themselves.

“This is the first step in this transaction and at this point we have not engaged with the administrators on it, a position we will be dealing with in the coming weeks.”

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