Bass wins leisure battle

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The Independent Online
BASS, the pub and hotel group, is understood to have won the battle for First Leisure's family entertainment business with a knockout bid of more than pounds 100m.

Its offer is thought to have comfortably exceeded one from Allied Leisure. However, defeat for Allied is unlikely to affect its hopes of merging with rival European Leisure, a deal likely to get the go-ahead from shareholders on Wednesday.

Bass will acquire First Leisure's 26 tenpin bowling alleys which it plans to merge with its own Hollywood Bowl chain. As part of the package, Bass is also likely to take control of the Snow Dome, a ski-slope complex in Tamworth, and Trecco Bay, a caravan park in South Wales. These interests are likely to be sold on.

"Bass only really wanted the bowling alleys," said one industry source, "but at a price as high as that, First Leisure will be happy to throw in the other leisure businesses."

First Leisure, led by chief executive Michael Grade, is selling off a variety of businesses to concentrate on health and fitness clubs. It has already disposed of its bingo halls and its resorts division, which includes Blackpool Tower. Its nightclubs and bars are also up for sale. A spokesman for First Leisure said: "As soon as there is a deal, we will make an announcement."

Bass's bid comfortably beat a rival offer from Allied Leisure, the bowling- to-Burger King group which teamed up with venture capitalist Duke Street Capital to bid.

However, Allied remains favourite to defeat rival Waterfall in the long, bitter battle to buy European Leisure, the pool hall and nightclub operator.

Allied, whose bid for European runs out on Wednesday, is expected to top the 50 per cent of acceptances necessary to merge the companies and frustrate Waterfall.

Last night Neil Goulden, managing director of Allied, said: "Following meetings with European shareholders we are confident of their support."

Fidelity, the fund manager which owns 10 per cent of European, is tomorrow expected to pledge its support for Allied. Both Schroders and Philips & Drew, which between them hold 23 per cent of European shares, also have large stakes in Allied and are thought to favour a merger of the two.

Waterfall, which believes its own interests in pool halls represents a better fit with European, had secured the support of 12 per cent of European shareholders at the last count. The company has fought a high- profile campaign to frustrate European's plan to merge with Allied. John Garrett, the former leisure supremo at Rank, was drafted in as chairman to strengthen Waterfall's case.

The bid battle is one of a number of deals expected in the leisure sector, an area which in recent years has been spurned by investors.