Hotelier Lawrence Kenwright, whose much-vaunted George Best hotel in Belfast city centre went into administration in April before even opening its doors, has finally broken his silence.
The outspoken hotel boss has said little since reports in mid-May that half-a-dozen of his hospitality ventures had collapsed into administration. The largest of these, Signature Living Hotels Ltd – the parent company of the group’s extended network of 60 hotels and residential developments – was found to owe £113m to its creditors.
Mr Kenwright owns a number of properties in Belfast, the most high profile of which is the proposed George Best themed hotel. He also owns the site of the former Crumlin Road courthouse in the north of the city, which is now on the market again.
In a detailed statement released today (July 3), Mr Kenright insists that despite the group’s financial difficulties, a number of its most popular venues were preparing to re-open, including the Shankly hotel and the Alma de Cuba bar in Liverpool.
Mr Kenwright confirmed that social distancing measures had been put in place at all properties and insisted that all events booked at Signature Living venues, including weddings, would take place as planned:
‘In relation to the company’s financial position generally, it is worth noting that the value of our overall ‘bricks and mortar’ assets significantly outweighed our liabilities pre-Covid,’ added the embattled hotelier. ‘While the property market may have changed in the last three months, we believe we will trade through the current challenges and in time, the asset values will return to their former levels.’
Mr Kenwright went on to point out that before the coronavirus lock down, Signature Living had been operating five hotels alongside the Alma de Cuba bar and restaurant. Within the next two months, he added, the group would be running eight hotels as well as Alma de Cuba.
The £15m George Best themed hotel in Belfast is the only one of Signature Living’s NI projects which has seen significant progress. Beset with difficulty, however, its proposed opening date was continually revised and Mr Kenwright’s fractious relationship with local planning officials became common knowledge in December 2018 when he penned a scathing open letter to Belfast City Council in which he described the situation as ‘a living nightmare’.
In June last year, some staff employed to work at the George Best hotel were offered redundancy packages and in September, Signature Living announced that it would scale back its NI operations.
When the hotel went into administration in April, joint administrators, Matthew Ingram and Michael Lennon of Duff & Phelps said that they recognised the value of the property as a finished development that would be able to trade:
‘In so far as is possible, advance bookings and reservations remain unaffected,’ they added. ‘We will be exploring all options with the current funders to maximise value and ultimately return to creditors.’