At one point, the sky was the limit for Liverpool developer Signature Living.
Lawrence Kenwright's firm was one of the most rapidly expanding businesses in the country – and its unique style was attracting visitors from across the world.
Like many in the hospitality sector, the coronavirus pandemic lockdown has hit Signature hard and administrators have now been called in at a number of the group's companies.
But Signature's problems didn't start when coronavirus landed on these shores.
Here, the ECHO takes an in depth look at the remarkable rise of one of Liverpool's most notable brands – and where things have started to go wrong.
Getting the party started
Signature Living started when Lawrence Kenwright decided bought his first building in Victoria Street in Liverpool city centre.
The entrepreneur decided to get into the hotel and apartment game after deciding that there wasn't enough range in the city.
After four and half years of planning and designing, Signature opened their first venture, the serviced apartments in Victoria Street in August of 2008.
Proving to be a success, this development would push the new company on to create a number of other party-orientated city centre venues.
In 2011 they opened more party apartments in the iconic Mathew Street, with more to follow in Bold Street and Stanley Street.
But the thriving firm would soon move on to create some of Liverpool's most well known hotels.
Mr Kenwright was developing a passion for bringing historic buildings back to life and in 2014 they opened the 30 James Street Hotel in Albion House, a Grade II* listed building that once served as the headquarters of White Star Line, the shipping company behind the Titanic.
Perhaps the venture Signature is most well-known for is the Shankly Hotel, back in Victoria Street where it all started.
The hotel, dedicated to the Liverpool FC legend, opened its doors in 2015 – a typically extravagantly designed space, with some of the features that Signature was becoming known for in the city and beyond, like party apartments and hot tubs.
The Shankly would go on to be faced by another football-themed Signature hotel, with the Dixie Dean hotel opening opposite in 2019 and completing what the Kenwrights would call the city's 'football quarter.'
With its Liverpool ventures booming, the Kenwrights decided to expand their empire into other major UK cities, opening sites in Cardiff and Manchester and planning sites in Belfast.
There were even plans put forward for a huge party boat in Ibiza, but this never materialised.
Signature Living and its owners have never shied away from the limelight – or from a good council row.
Lawrence Kenwright has come to blows with Liverpool Council on a number of occasions – with some pretty high profile spats.
Perhaps the most explosive came regarding a new homeless shelter that the entrepreneur had launched in the city centre, Kingsway House.
The company said it was forced to open up its building in Hatton Garden in 2018 because rough sleepers had been bedding down there.
While many applauded the move, the city council was concerned about safety and alleged drug use.
This exploded into a huge row when city centre councillor Nick Small expressed his concerns, suggesting that drug use in the building was rife.
Mr Kenwright responded by accusing Cllr Small of 'throwing grenades over our garden wall.'
The hotel boss would later admit things were chaotic at Kingsway House as he opened a more expansive and organised homeless facility in Cotton Street in Autumn 2018.
This wasn't the first time the businessman had come into conflict with city councillors.
In July 2017 he launched an explosive Facebook tirade against three unnamed councillors he referred to as 'the three amigos', who he claimed were personally trying to stop the firm's ultimately unsuccessful bid to transform the historic Croxteth Hall.
The bad blood between Signature Living and the city council would continue, with Mr Kenwright at one stage stating his intention to stand against Cllr Small for his city centre seat at the local elections.
He also flirted with the idea of running to be Mayor of Liverpool at one stage.
The model, the investors and the mounting problems
Despite the group reporting millions of pounds in profit for the 2017 and 2018 financial years, 2019 was dominated by concerns from investors and increasing negative headlines for Signature Living.
This was in large part due to investors becoming frustrated at delays and missed deadlines on high profile schemes across the city, as well as claiming to receive little back on their investments.
60 Old Hall Street, for example, was taken on by Signature Living in January 2016, with the firm hoping to complete by the end of that year. The building is still unfinished to this day after completion dates were pushed further and further back.
In May last year, investors in the business told the ECHO their “horror stories” of trying to get money back from the company.
Many said they were promised returns on investments in Signature but those had been delayed, alleging that getting hold of the company was “impossible”.
Delays were also seen at other Signature hotel developments like the George Best Hotel project in Belfast city centre, and at Cardiff’s Coal Exchange.
At the time, Mr Kenwright vowed investors would all get their cash back, adding that he was buying out all of the investors in 30 James Street after having done the same for those invested in the Signature Hotel on Stanley Street.
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He said only a small number of his 1,000 investors had ever had problems and insisted the company was communicating with them.
Also in May, Signature announced the sale of its two flagship hotels – the Shankly and 30 James Street for a combined figure of £51m, saying the sales would allow the company to “fuel major expansion plans” around the UK.
Mr Kenwright said back in 2014, he had used the fractional sales model for 30 James Street, selling off hotel rooms in advance to investors.
That was because when he started work, he said he found no other way to fund the conversion of historic buildings into hotels.
When putting the hotels up for sale, he said growth in the sector meant it was “red hot”, so he expected financial institutions would be interested in buying them.
Since then, the city has seen the high-profile failure of some building projects from other developers – schemes which were funded by a similar fractional sales model.
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Mr Kenwright said last year that those failures had made Liverpool a “deathbed” for fractional sales developments, which had encouraged him to move away from that funding model.
In the autumn, investors’ complaints really began to stack up, and the ECHO began to receive more and more messages from investors worried they would never see returns on huge sums of money paid into Signature schemes.
Concerns at this point reached national headlines as investors revealed the eye-watering figures they feared losing, and the grave impact it would have on their lives. It was reported that international investors had even flown back to the UK in a desperate bid to reclaim their cash.
One man who had invested £300,000 told the ECHO he would be “finished” if it was not returned – and that he had not even told his wife about the situation. Another woman said she had invested £77,000 – but had not received a penny back.
At the time, Mr Kenwright voiced regret about the “inconvenience” experienced by investors through the delays and concerns.
He said the company was “reshaping” – a process that would see investors get their money back.
“Any bit of spare money that the company has goes on the building sites”, he told us.
A full statement from the company added: "We also recognise that we could have communicated the situation more clearly to investors and we are putting steps in place to do so from now on. We would also like to emphasise that at no point has their investment been at risk.
“Signature Living is communicating with all investors to update them, and our senior team is happy to talk to anyone who has further questions.”
December saw the firm abandon plans to launch a “floating beach club” cruise ship complete with 632 bedrooms and named the Funchal, which had been bought for £3.9m. The ship currently remains laid up in Lisbon.
Things actually appeared to take a turn for the better in January, when boosts to hotel projects in Cardiff and Belfast saw Mr Kenwright vow once more to pay back frustrated investors.
Coronavirus and administration
Now appearing to struggle to pay returns on investment and finish various developments, the last thing a company like Signature Living needed was a nationwide shutdown that would hit the building industry hard and the hospitality industry harder.
When the British economy began to feel the early ripples of the coronavirus crisis back in March, Signature bosses contacted workers to say they would need to discuss potential job losses, pay reductions and site closures. A consultation with staff was launched even before the Prime Minister had requested the closure of pubs, restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues.
A week later, on March 25 and in line with Government guidance, all arrivals were postponed until further notice.
The firm said it had foreseen “uncertain trading levels now and for the foreseeable months”, but even with that warning, it’s unclear whether staff would have expected just how quickly things would begin to unravel from that point.
Less than two weeks later, the beginning of April was when announcements began to come thick and fast about Signature Living companies falling into difficulties.
It began with possibly the firm’s most famous hotel, the Shankly, going into administration on April 9.
Administrators from financial firm Duff & Phelps were appointed to Signature Shankly Ltd – the firm holding the leasehold interest of the Victoria Street building, which like the rest of the group, had closed its doors to the public.
Administrators said they expected the hotel to be open again for business when lockdown restrictions were lifted, but that the move came after the Covid-19 pandemic had hit the whole industry “incredibly hard”.
A day after that announcement, administrators spoke out once more to say they would investigate how investor money was spent – in a bid to “understand how funds flow around the group”.
The unusual statement added: “We are aware that a number of the bedroom investors have become concerned in recent months that monies due to them have not been paid despite assurances from the company.”
Duff & Phelps said there would be no “fire sale” of “quality venue” the Shankly.
The next few days saw further announcements as Duff & Phelps was also appointed administrators of Signature Living Hotel Ltd – a firm holding various freehold and leasehold interests in the wider group, and the “luxury” George Best Hotel in Belfast – the second and third of the month.
The firm said bookings at the Northern Irish hotel, which is yet to open, remain unaffected.
Woes for Signature Living were compounded when the next two companies to fall into administration were those behind the unfinished 60 Old Hall Street and Victoria Mill in Manchester – taking the April total to five.
This time it was Steve Williams and Philip Armstrong of FRP called in to run the administration, who said they hoped to finish the projects as swiftly as possible.
On Wednesday, the firm’s Signature Fit Club, which was based inside the 60 Old Hall Street development, announced it was to shut for good.
As firm after firm has fallen into administration this month, the ECHO has continued to receive complaints from investors digesting the very latest and becoming increasingly alarmed they may never see returns.
Administrators say they hope all of the hotels and developments affected by administration to be back up and running as soon as possible.
But with these five announcements in quick succession, it’s clear the impact of Covid-19, combined with struggles to finish major projects across the UK, has created something of a perfect storm for Mr Kenwright’s firm.
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He will now be hoping swift funding solutions can be sought for those projects that have succumbed to administration, with as little damage as possible inflicted on the rest of the business.
That’s as well as finding the cash to pay investors back in full.
An ending in sight to the Government restrictions that have battered hospitality firms across the UK, not to mention Liverpool’s entire tourism sector, would help these prospects.
But with the chances of the lockdown being extended looking high, and industry leaders rating the chance of the industry bouncing back completely as “limited”, it’s becoming more and more difficult to see the light at the end of the tunnel for Mr Kenwright’s firm.