Leisure real estate market makes waves

Copyright: David Lawson – appeared Property Week Feb 1998

Home page

Big investors are like oil tankers; slow to start and even harder to steer. But once they get going, boy do they make waves. It took a decade for retail warehousing to feel the full force of this buffeting. Leisure property is feeling the wash after only a couple of years.

  'But how do they steer the right course?' asked the bemused research director of one property consultancy. 'Where are the borders between prime and secondary? What are the correct yields. There is no performance measure because the Investment Property Databank has no leisure category.'

  He has a point. The market is so new that prices can appear guesswork to outsiders. When multiplexes fetch sub-7% yields, as in a recent Chesterfield deal by Canada Life, there is every right to be looking around for icebergs in the fog.

  There is a method in this madness, however. 'You can extrapolate from retail warehousing,' says Will Scoular of Richard Ellis. He looks at internal rates of return over five to ten years, setting targets of 12-14% for non-geared schemes and 20% when geared. Complications arise, however,  over schemes like cineplexes, where stepped increases of 3% a year were built in because this is such a new market. Premiums are also hidden in some deals.

 This is where fireworks will fly when reviews come around. 'You can't compare with a property down the road because two cinemas will be under different terms and  fitted out differently,' says Helen Turner of Knight Frank.

  Opinion is already divided on whether current initial yields give an accurate picture of the market. James Welch at Jones Lang Wootton points out that such schemes are immediately reversionary, as rent levels will have risen by the time they open. Equivalent yields - generally 7% or more - are more accurate, he says.

 Cue for an explosion from Turner, who warns that much can happen in that time. 'What if the Chesterfield scheme is hit by the new Sheffield development? Who can say how much rents will change?'

  Leisure is rife with this kind of problem. There is no universal product which accepts simple rules. Golf and hotels, for instance, are totally different to multiplexes. 'Golf courses  are businesses. We value against profit and set benchmarks by comparing the accounts against comparable facilities,' says Jeremy Rollason  of FPD Savills.

  Broadening that skill to plan from general trends is fraught with danger. More than 500 courses were built after predictions of a surge in golfing in the Nineties. The best have flourished, with yields hardening from 15-20% to 10-20%, but others are now being sold on cheaply because demand has not matched expectations - or they are simply bad locations.

  Cinemas are easier to analyse in conventional property terms because they are let on standard leases to generally strong covenants. But they are also in danger of succumbing to trend planning.  The current rush for sites is a  response to  the idea that the UK is underprovided compared with a country like the US. But latest figures  show growth over there has peaked.

  We probably have some way to go, but margins may not be as promising as the surge of planned development implies. Screens increased by almost 70% from 1980-96 in the US while attendance rose by only 30%.

 Yields are no problem to   John Henley, managing director of leisure developer THI, who insists that 'boxes' on leisure and retail  warehousing parks are similar enough for  standards to overlap.  There have also been enough open market deals to set standards, he adds, And   those frightened enough to need  an industry benchmark will probably have to wait only another 12 months before the IPD separates out the sector.

  He is more concerned with false comparisons between stand-alone cinemas and the kind of parks THI is building. The prime location, public transport links and broad base of a scheme like his developments at Cheshire Oaks and Sheffield makes this a different animal. 'These will blow away stand-alones and poor quality locations - which is why they deserve prime yields,' he says.

  Two wispy clouds remain stubbornly fixed overhead, however. What will happen to values if the tide of potential development rises and how will these big schemes survive if forced back into town centres by a government newly converted to protecting the green belts?

  Welch says 15 leisure park deals   worth 350m were done last year alone, and JLW Finance estimates another 70m of institutional money is waiting to be spent on leisure. Turner fears that sentiment  is rising on expectations of more business along the lines of  the 16.75 pounds/sq ft paid by UCI for a scheme on Trafford Park. 'But these prices will never be met outside certain city centres,' she says.

   Like the tide of business parks promised earlier  this decade, most leisure schemes will not see the light of day. 'The first past the post in each area will see off any chance of later ones,' says John Harrison, who runs the Marylebone Warwick Balfour leisure funds.  That is why he is betting that yields still have some way to go before the market tops.

  In-town development also holds few fears. 'These sites would have better yields because they offer a wider range of alternative uses if leisure does not work,' says Welch. In fact, the crucial importance of public transport to future developments gives in-town development a premium, adds Henley, who is already working on schemes in Luton and Bexleyheath.

  Big-name investors appear to think there are profits to be made.  Norwich Union bought the Festival Leisure Park in Basildon earlier this year on a seemingly soft 7.5% yield, although this was set last year. MEPC is among property companies playing the field. It's latest acquisition involved THI's Luton centre, bought for 17m pounds on an 8% yield.

 Few are confident enough to  dive in head first, however. 'There is very little good stuff around so the funds need hand-holding,' says Turner.

 Chris Taylor, investment director at Prudential, is a recent convert  to leisure but is not ready top start throwing money into ready-made investments.  The Pru is driven by research, and the market is still too young to provide performance data. 'It also looks a bit expensive,' he says.

 Not, however,  when you are building in your own back yard. The fund  happens to have a major stake in Bluewater Park, Dartford, so it made sense to spend  around 12m pounds on the Southern Village shopping centre, where Hoyt will set up its first multi-screen cinema in the UK.

  Cine-UK and Bass are the anchors in Swindon and Warner at Cribs Causeway, Bristol. Both these are in bigger, long-term developments, so the land comes in at historic cost and no margin goes out at a stiff yield to a developer. With another 23 shopping centres in the portfolio, it may be some time before Taylor need to go looking for ready-made schemes.