Belfast Telegraph

The glass is half full for hospitality chain

By David Elliott and Margaret Canning

One of Northern Ireland's most successful pub and hotel firms, the Carmichael Group, has acquired three new licensed premises in a vote of confidence for our economy

The changing nature of the Northern Ireland pub industry shows no sign of settling down with news that more pubs are to change hands.

The latest deal sees two well-known County Down pubs being bought back by the group which sold them only a few years ago

The Carmichael Group has taken ownership of The Stables in Groomsport, The Esplanade in Ballyholme and The Bryansburn in Bangor in a deal worth nearly £3m and backed by Ulster Bank.

It's not the first time the company has owned two of the pubs, having sold both The Bryansburn and The Stables as part of a six-pub deal to MAR Properties in 2006, one which was reported to be worth more than £12.5m.

MAR Properties sold 15 pubs throughout County Down, including the Groomsport Inn, Lisbarnett House and The Portaferry Hotel, to Merchant Hotel owner Beannchor Group, headed by Bill Wolsey, in 2011.

A subsidiary of Beannchor, North Down Leisure Ltd, has now sold three of the pubs to the Carmichael Group.

The new additions will join the Carmichael's current portfolio which consists of the Rosspark Hotel in Kells and Morrison's Bar in Belfast.

The group will take over the day-to-day operation of The Bryansburn, while The Stables and The Esplanade will continue to be run by existing tenants.

"With the bank's backing and expertise, we are confident we can add further value to these landmark businesses," Ian Carmichael said.

He said the group is about to launch a refurbishment programme at The Bryansburn and is 'hopeful' of completing another purchase this year. He's also looking at the possibility of further acquisitions.

A brave move perhaps in the current environment where pubs have been hit hard by tough economic conditions which have left consumers with diminishing disposable income.

A report released yesterday by corporate advisory company Zolfo Cooper found that the average spend in pubs in Northern Ireland has fallen to £990 a year per person in 2011/2012 from £1,294 last year.

Still, that's more than the £819 spent on average across the UK and nearly double the spend in the least pub going region of the East Midlands.

It found the average spend per visit across the UK was down by £1.55 but visits per person climbed 2.2% to 4.6 per person per month, a rise Zolfo Cooper said is a sign of "austerity fatigue".

And despite the drop in the level of money spent on drinkings, eating out is becoming more popular with an average of £686 spent by each person in Northern Ireland on food, an increase of nearly 7% year-on-year.

Meanwhile, a survey released in the autumn by industry body Pubs of Ulster revealed that 120 pubs in Northern Ireland are set to close as a result of the economic downturn, stiff competition from supermarkets and the growing trend of drinking at home.

The survey found over two thirds of pubs have seen trade fall in the last year while a third have had to lay off staff.

In addition, 62% have reduced staff hours.

But the firm which advised on the Carmichael deal said it is a sign of confidence in the pub sector in Northern Ireland.

"The Carmichael Group is a long established brand name in the Northern Ireland pub and hotel sector," Wayne Horwood from Horwood & Holmes Corporate Finance said.

"Having exited the majority of their outlets in 2006, it is a tremendous boost to see the Carmichael's reinvesting in the sector in 2012 with the support of Ulster Bank.

"It is a testimony to their confidence in the locations and prospects for the sector in the future. Fundamentally it is evidence that transactions in the right structure for the right team are still capable of achieving bank funding support. Hopefully 2012 will see more positive news in the Northern Ireland leisure sector."

And Ulster Bank agreed there's a positive future for some sites.

"The pub trade is going through well-documented challenges, but we have confidence in the long-term viability of good sites under experienced, able operators," Ulster Bank corporate banking manager Gordon Davidson said.

"The Carmichaels have an excellent track-record in the sector, having successfully built and run some of Northern Ireland's leading pubs, including Morrison's, over many years, and we are pleased to support this important deal."

"We own a number of licensed premises across Northern Ireland and will continue to be active in the sector in the future but we've sold these assets because they aren't part of our long-term strategy," explained James Sinton, finance director at Beannchor Group, on the disposal of the pubs.

UK spend per person per year

Source: Zolfo Cooper

Pubs and bars

North West £999

Northern Ireland £990

London £966

Scotland £964

Yorks and Humber £871

West Midlands £856

Wales £833

UK national average £819

East England £751

North East £711

South West £702

South East £694

East Midlands £490

Restaurants

London £889

Northern Ireland £686

South East £509

Scotland £499

North East £496

UK national average £496

North West £481

Yorks and Humber £452

East England £450

Wales £417

West Midlands £390

South West £354

East Midlands £332

Trading conditions have been tough, but pubs now have opportunity to bounce back

It has been well documented that the last 12 months have been some of the most challenging that the local licensed trade has ever experienced.

Difficult trading conditions brought about by the downturn in the economy, combined with increased overheads are just some factors leaving many struggling to open day to day.

The year ahead, whilst undoubtedly challenging, could however see the tide begin to turn for the pub industry.

This year and 2013 could be landmark years for Northern Ireland tourism with events set to bring large numbers of visitors descending upon our towns and cities.

The pub industry is a vital part of the local tourism offering and these events present the industry with a range of opportunities and a chance to show visitors why the Lonely Planet ranked the pub as the greatest experience a visitor can have in Ireland, north or south.

The pub trade has remained resilient and its strength has been the ability to adapt to the ever changing environment.

Recently, pubs have diversified their customer offering, such as adding food and coffee, and this trend is set to continue.

Last week's decision to extend the Small Business Rate Relief Scheme will come as a welcome relief to some in the industry, providing much needed support to businesses across Northern Ireland.

Pubs Of Ulster will continue with its campaign for a reduction in vat to 5% for the hospitality sector.

But Westminster and Stormont must also look at ways of providing greater business support for an industry so vital to our economy.

Colin Neill, chief executive, Pubs of Ulster

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