Northern powerhouse: mad for Manchester

George Sell By George Sell
Uploaded 04 August 2016

Manchester is the vibrant hotspot for UK boutique hotel development, with a wave of excitement projects in the pipeline, reports George Sell.

Manchester is a city on the up. Soon to get its own elected mayor, the hub of the UK government's Northern Powerhouse project - an initiative to shift the economic balance of the north/south divide - is proving an attractive bet for international investment and development.

The BBC has moved many of its staff from London to Salford Quays, and the city is a hive of development activity.

The Beijing Engineering Construction Group is investing £800 million in Manchester's Airport City, which will include a hub for other Chinese firms to set up. President Xi Jinping visited the site, where the street names will be in Mandarin as well as English, on a state visit in 2015.

"For Chinese people to see their head of state in Manchester, it helped bring confidence to the market," said Vincent Cheng, a Chinese-British property consultant. "In Chinese culture we look for that confidence, and you cannot have a better boost than that."

As well as commercial projects, Manchester is fast rectifying a longstanding undersupply of good independent hotels. Two of the pioneers have been Bespoke Hotels' Hotel Gotham and the Eclectic Hotels Group, which operates Great John Street and the King Street Townhouse.

Hotel Gotham, which is housed in a Grade II listed former bank building designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, has won a host of awards since opening in April 2015, including a Two AA Rosette award for its restaurant, "The Coolest Boutique Hotel Award" at the Cool Venue Awards, as well as Outstanding New Hotel at the Independent Hotel Show Awards. It was also featured in Conde Nast Traveler's 2016 Hot List, as well as being the only hotel in the UK to feature in Escapism magazine's Hip Hotel roster.

Manchester's city centre has a wealth of imposing Victorian buildings such as Hotel Gotham's King Street premises, which lend themselves brilliantly to hotel conversions, and several of the city's landmarks are to become hotels.

Former Manchester United stars Ryan Giggs and Gary Neville are converting Manchester's Grade II-listed Stock Exchange on Norfolk Street in to a 35-room hotel with a basement gym and spa, roof-top private members' terrace and ground floor restaurant and bar.

The pair bought the property in 2013 for £1.5 million. Their plan is backed by the local council, who said: "We believe this overall proposal brings a historical piece of Manchester back into existence to be experienced and enjoyed inclusively by the public." English Heritage has also declared its support for the conversion of the 1906 building.

And the council are also considering plans for a £250 million renovation of the Victorian Town Hall, which could see it become home to a boutique hotel, civic museum, shops and restaurants.

The Grade I listed building was built in 1877, and needs work to upgrade its wiring, heating, wheelchair access, toilets, lifts and fire escape routes, which will allow council chiefs to open more of it up to the public.

Deputy council leader Bernard Priest said: "The Town Hall is an icon of Manchester but it will be 140 years old next year and, while structurally sound, is starting to show its age. We're reaching a point where significant elements are reaching the end of their natural lifespan and need attention soon to prevent decay and ensure modern safety and access standards. Detailed and specialist survey work has been carried out to assess the full condition of the Town Hall and the scope of works necessary to safeguard it for current and future generations and ensure it can play a role at the heart of the city's life. These surveys and the assessment of options are ongoing."

There are several major mixed-use projects either underway or in the pipeline for Manchester, the most significant of which are being developed by Michael Ingall's Allied London.

The St John's development, a £1.3 billion redevelopment of the former Granada TV studios and surrounding area, will feature at least two independent hotels. The phased project will eventually include include 3,000 homes, 600,000 square feet of commercial space and cultural venues.

Nadler Hotels will operate a 110-room hotel which will form part of the 55-storey St John's Place Tower.

Nadler Hotels CEO Robert Nadler says of the city: "Outside London, in England, Manchester is the number one city. It's a phenomenal city, which has changed dramatically. In much the same way that London has become the premier world city over the last 20 years, Manchester has become very cosmopolitan. It's dynamic and a great environment for young people, it has incredible universities - all the elements that the northern powerhouse concept is based around. If you're looking to expand, Manchester has to be near the top of any list. What makes Manchester an exciting opportunity for us is that most of the hotels being built tend to be big brands, who are in danger of building too many hotels, too close to each other. That leaves opportunities for smaller independents. Gotham is fabulous, I love what they've done there, as well as the King Street Town House, these are wonderful hotels, which is reflected in the room rates they are getting. They're getting London rates in Manchester, because what they have produced is London quality. They've shown that if you produce the right levels of sophistication and service, there are people willing to pay for it."

Nadler also says that the opportunity to work with Ingall was a big draw: "We are very much about community, about being an integrated part of an area - and Mike is a visionary, he doesn't just develop buildings, he plans and develops communities. He's a place-maker. It's very exciting to work with somebody who has that kind of broad perspective. He looks for the right people to create the right atmosphere, with a outlook that takes in the whole estate, and what makes it special, not just one building. The opportunity to work with someone like that doesn't come along every day, so we're very excited."

And there are plenty of other top operators who clearly feel the same way. Soho House Group is in talks with Allied London to open a hotel in St John's, in the space currently occupied by Granada TV's Studio 4 - where The Beatles made their first live TV performance on October 17, 1962.

Elsewhere in the city, The Zetter Group will open its first hotel outside of London, as the anchor tenant of Allied London's London Road development. Set in yet another outstanding Victorian building - a former fire station.

Michael Benyan, The Zetter Group's director, said: "We are delighted to have finally found the perfect opportunity to open a Zetter property in Manchester. London Road is an iconic building and a real gift for us as hoteliers. We want to preserve the existing beauty and magic of the building and use it to help create a unique experience for our guests. Allied London should also be applauded for their vision and ambition for the regeneration of the area - it's an exciting project to be a part of."

The northern powerhouse concept was greeted with cynicism by many when the then chancellor George Osborne announced his plans, and there are some doubts as to to the extent that the concept will be seen through, post Brexit referendum, but Manchester is forging ahead regardless. Always an individualistic city which has ploughed its own furrow, it is very much on course to become the hospitality capital of the north.

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