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Bite at Almond

by Shawn Cumberbatch

The race to sell and re-open Barbados’ largest hotel before the end of the four month winter tourist season, which starts in three weeks, has twisted and turned.

After Minister of Tourism Richard Sealy raised hopes yesterday that Almond Beach Village could be back in business by April, Barbados TODAY learnt that on September 27 Cabinet agreed “in principle” that the Barbados Tourism Investment Inc’s CEO should write Almond’s Trinidad owner Neal & Massy and indicate Barbados’ interest in purchasing the property.

But today Neal & Massy Group CEO, Gervase Warner, revealed that after three parties — Jamaica’s Sandals Resorts headed by Gordon Butch Stewart, a group led by local businessman Bjorn Bjerkhamn and Paul Doyle’s Crane Resorts had all submitted bids to buy the St. Peter Hotel, the original trio had been reduced to one “preferred buyer” and the necessary “paper work” to completed the transaction was underway.

While the Trinidad business executive declined to name the company of choice, sources said the Crane was the front-runner.

The twists didn’t end there, however, as Warner also confirmed that his company had been “approached by some people”, whom he did not name, in an attempt to get the Village opened in the immediate future, but he called such a possibility “a long shot”.

These developments all emerged today as tourism officials grew more anxious that with the island’s economic performance heading into 2013 dependent on a strong winter tourism outcome, not having the Village with its near 400 rooms back on the market could be disastrous.

News of Government’s expressed desire two months ago to invest in a property it originally owned before selling to Barbados Shipping & Trading in the 1990s emerged today. When contacted for a response, BTII CEO Stuart Layne said: “I am going to have to say no comment, I am not in a position to comment at this time.”

And while sources said the National Insurance Scheme was viewed as one finance option for such a deal, Chairman Dr. Justin Robinson told Barbados TODAY: “I am not aware of a formal proposal to NIS.”

Speaking during a telephone interview from Trinidad, Warner said he was “neither going to confirm nor deny the information”, but said negotiations were now focussed on the preferred buyer.

“It’s narrowed to a preferred buyer and we are working on the paper work with that preferred buyer. It’s not a sealed deal, but if the deal goes through, indeed the maker would make a solid investment and there would be an excellent improvement in the property,” he said.

“We are making some very good progress. We are moving more slowly than we would have anticipated and than we would have liked, but we continue to secure the property to secure the hotel. We are trying to keep it in decent condition.

Warner was unsure, though, that the approach made by the other “people” would otherwise result in a speedily re-opened Village.

“There have been some people who are expressing an interest in if the hotel could be opened this season, but those are very, very preliminary discussions,” he said.

“I think it’s a long shot to be honest but it is possible. Actions would have to take place very, very quickly.”

Finally selling its northern property would complete Neal & Massy’s reduced involvement in the tourism business.

The company has already sold the former Almond Beach Club, now called The Club Barbados Resort & Spa, to tourism group Elite.

Today, Warner said the third property, Almond Casuarina Beach Resort, which had also previously sought a buyer, was benefitting from a fresh injection of funds from its Trinidad parent.

“We are putting in a new pool, and we are going to make some other improvements to that hotel as it gets ready for a good winter season. We expected it to be a very good hotel for guests for the winter season,” he noted.

“We have made an investment in management and the chefs and in improving the value proposition in terms of food and beverage offering. We are enthusiastic.”

Almond Beach Village closed its doors to guests at the end of April this year, sending 500 workers on the breadline. Since then that large group has received millions of dollars in severance and other remuneration.

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