Hotels group De Vere - being stalked by a number of interested parties - remains tight-lipped on the identity of a new mystery bidder and yesterday dismissed suggestions the long-running takeover saga had distracted management from the business.
De Vere, which continues to manage The Belfry after its sale last year, has been involved in on-off bid talks since 2004 when Guinness Peat approached the board with a 415-pence-a-share offer.
Since then, there have several other approaches from a number of private equity groups and US firm Blackstone is recently thought to have tabled an offer worth around 800 pence a share.
However, rival private equity house Permira is also thought to have been involved in discussions, while Whit-bread and Spanish hotels chain NH Hoteles have also been mentioned as possible suitors.
Last week, Delancey, the private property group run by Jamie Ritblat, was rumoured to have entered the bidding. Delancey, through a joint venture called Hillwood Resorts & Hotels, recently bought The De Vere Grand hotel in Jersey for #15.5 million.
However, De Vere remained tight-lipped on the situation. "I can't comment on any aspect of the negotiations," said group chief executive Carl Leaver.
He refuted suggestions that the board has been distracted throughout the protracted bid process and pointed to the company's strong set of underlying results for the 26 weeks to March 2006.
"We're working hard to keep all the balls in the air and I think the results show we are still delivering good levels of profitability and returns," he said.
Underlying results for the period - which exclude last year's sale of The Belfry and which are now reported under the new IFRS accountancy standard - showed a 0.5 per cent decline in group operating profits to #19.5 million.
Underlying group revenues grew by 5.7 per cent to #146.5 million with like-for-like sales up by 3.1 per cent.
"Had it not been for higher external costs, such as gas, electricity and business rates, then profits would have shown a 10.8 per cent increase," said Mr Leaver. "But the underlying performance has been strongly led by good improvements at De Vere Hotels and Village Hotels," he added.
Like-for-like sales at the two divisions increased by 3.7 per cent and 3.4 per cent respectively.
The group is also lifting the interim dividend by seven per cent to 4.9 pence a share.
Analysts said that while the company was still locked in bid talks it was probably right to hold on to the shares, given the likelihood of an offer of 850 pence or higher.
On current trading, Mr Leaver warned that the ongoing cost increases would continue to put margins under pressure, but said a renewed efficiency drive would helped mitigate the impact.
"The second half performance will be enhanced by the new Village openings," he added.
He pointed to a 5.9 per cent increase in underlying sales for the current 33-week period - slightly ahead of the 5.7 per cent rise recorded in the first 26 weeks - with De Vere Hotels and Village Hotels & Leisure showing like-for-like sales increases of 3.6 per cent and 3.8 per cent respectively.