How will Edinburgh's new Johnnie Walker attraction reshape the city's West End?
Parent company Diageo says the attraction – which spans eight floors and is “crowned by two world-class rooftop bars” – is the centrepiece of its £185 million investment in Scotch whisky tourism in Scotland.
The spirits giant is hoping that the new site will emulate the popularity of the Guinness Storehouse in Dublin, which saw 1.7 million visitors cross the threshold in 2019, and was named Ireland's top visitor attraction that year. It is that big a deal.
As tourism starts to return to the Capital, the west end of Princes Street is likely to appear on the must-see list of many international visitors, especially from the United States and Asia, alongside the Castle and the Royal Mile.
Diageo chief executive Ivan Menezes has said Johnnie Walker Princes Street marks “a landmark investment in Scotch whisky and into Scotland, and it sets a new standard for immersive visitor attractions”.
The Johnnie Walker name certainly boasts huge recognition globally, with the brand ranked in Interbrand’s Best Global Brands 2020 in 98th place – sandwiched in between Burberry and Prada.
The product is available in more than 180 countries, and helped Diageo achieve total net sales of £12.8 billion in its latest annual results.
The new Scottish attraction – on the West End corner of Princes Street in a building previously home to department store House of Fraser – is within reach of not only the wider New Town, but also, say, the former New Look premises on Princes Street, which are being turned into a Bar + Block Steakhouse.
Such a transition from retail to leisure in some ways mirrors the story of Johnnie Walker himself, who in 1820 started his own grocer’s in Kilmarnock – but more than 200 years later gives his name to vast experiential premises, his “natural gift for business” outliving him considerably.
But what does the expected influx of visitors mean for the surrounding area – and does it mark a tipping point in the blend of Edinburgh’s city-centre offering?
Roddy Smith, chief executive and director of Essential Edinburgh, says: “I think the hope of everyone is that [it] will be a catalyst for a bit of change on the western end of Princes Street… it’s the most important thing that's happened to [that area] in a generation.
"It's a hugely important statement, both for the regeneration of the West End, but also the longer-term future of Edinburgh as a tourist and visitor destination.”
Liz McAreavey, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, deems the new site from Diageo a “world-class visitor attraction which will play a big part in revitalising the West End as it goes through this transition from retail to a much more mixed use”.
She also states: "It will help drive footfall, both local and visitors, to the West End and people will stay in the area once they get there to enjoy all that the area has to offer."
The Chamber boss adds that it comes hot on the heels of the opening of the “magnificent” St James Quarter that now “anchors the east end”.
One business with a foot in each of these two camps bookending Princes Street is @pizza, with a forthcoming branch in the St James Quarter, and existing 82-cover restaurant on Charlotte Lane in the West End that sales and marketing manager Alex Reily says is very well-placed to get a slice of the increased number of visitors to the Johnnie Walker site.
They both attract customers that seek out a unique and premium offering, in his view. “Experiential venues are an absolute boon to the surrounding food and beverage businesses,” he says, expecting the Johnnie Walker experience to “become part of the fabric of Edinburgh’s attraction as a destination”.
Also positive on the newly opened site is Stephen Tucker, partner at independent planning and design consultancy Barton Willmore.
His view is that it is a “fantastic” attraction for the West End and Princes Street, adding that from an urban design point of view, the location is “priceless”, with the landmark building’s corner spot providing crucial visibility, for example. “If you were to start from scratch and try and think about bringing an international brand to a key point in the city, it's hard to get a better location for this kind of experience.”
As for its presence on Princes Street, Mr Tucker adds that purists may have been keen for the thoroughfare to remain a retail destination. “But I think if I was to be completely honest, it’s run its course as a shopping destination. And if you look at the future of Edinburgh, I can't help but think that [the attraction] offers a tantalising glimpse of how you start to convert some of the big floorplate units that sit along Princes Street.”
He sees the street as “really an unrealised opportunity”, while major sites there that are moving away from retail and more towards hospitality encompass the £50 million regeneration of the former Debenhams store, with plans including a restaurant and rooftop bar.
There have been some concerns that the influx of visitors could see a rise in “tartan tat” shops, but Mr Smith hopes “that you would see a mixed use, you'd see some more restaurants, you'd see some more entertainment spaces... even some more residential”.
Mr Tucker believes the tartan tat sector is on the edges of the West End already – but he would like to see more investment in the “public realm” surrounding the Johnnie Walker site.
Ms McAreavey also hopes the new attraction will, along with the St James Quarter, “provide a catalyst for further investment in our city centre, driving standards across our retail, hospitality and visitor attractions which ensure we maintain our world class status”.
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