Guinness is one of the most recognisable drinks on the planet, thanks to its distinctive look and years of seriously clever advertising campaigns. So when the new visitor centre, the Guinness Storehouse, opened at St James Gate brewery in Dublin in 2000, it had to embody the same values that made the brand so successful.
Designed by London-based Imagination in conjunction with Dublin architects RKD, a disused grain storage building was turned into a contemporary brandland at a cost of €42m (£32m, $45m). Today, half of all tourists to Ireland visit the attraction.
“You have to give credit to the executives from [parent company] Diageo who had the courage and bravery to spend that amount of money on a visitor centre,” says Paul Carty, managing director at the Guinness Storehouse. “That was an incredible vote of confidence in the Guinness brand and in the value of an experiential attraction.”
Fast forward to 2015, and 1.5 million people visited the Guinness Storehouse, an 18 per cent increase on the previous year’s figure. Of those, 93 per cent were from overseas, with people from the UK and US making up half of all visitors. French and German visitors formed 6 per cent each of the total, while the biggest year-on-year growth markets were the Dutch (up 34 per cent) and the Chinese (up 38 per cent).
In fact, from the very beginning, the attraction has been on an upward trajectory, both popular and profitable. Even during the recession, the Guinness Storehouse experienced growth. The only dip in attendance was in 2010, when air travel was severely disrupted by the erupting Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland.
“Eighty-five per cent of our business comes via Dublin airport. We’re totally dependent on tourists coming to the island in the first place,” Carty says. “It just shows the importance of access. Airlines like Ryanair and Aer Lingus do a great job of delivering volumes of people to the island.”
Carty, who started out in the global hospitality industry, has been at the Guinness Storehouse since it opened. He says the attraction is successful thanks to a business model that’s highly sustainable, funding all its own investments.
“We reinvest every year. We always try to create a new area so we have a new story to tell. This helps us maintain our position as a must-see attraction for tourists and encourages repeat visitors,” Carty says.
A major new investment – a result of customer feedback – is the new third floor, which opened in March 2015 and is dedicated to the world of advertising. Interactive displays bring to life the best TV and print advertising from Guinness, from the iconic John Gilroy Toucan illustrations of the 1930s to the iconic modern campaigns.
Design agency Love created the new 1,500sqm (16,146sq ft) space, introducing high-tech elements including a playable digital version of the brand’s trademark golden harp and an 8-metre (26-foot) high interactive Instagram wall to integrate social media more powerfully into the space.
The Guinness Storehouse generates 350 million media impressions every year for the brand and the 1080p-resolution gesture-controlled Instagram installation has massively boosted the attraction’s social media presence since it opened.
An intimate 75-minute tasting experience at the Connoisseur Bar was another new offering at the attraction last year.
“In the past five years we’ve invested €10 million [£7.6m, $10.8m]. We’re constantly reinventing and upgrading,” Carty says. “We see the return on investment and from a brand perspective we track and survey things, such as whether guests consume more Guinness after their visit, or whether they feel warmer towards the brand.”
One of the most crucial investment decisions was the appointment of BRC Imagination Arts to rethink the way the brand’s story was being told, Carty says. In 2011, BRC completed an upgrade, which included the themeing of each floor to create a coherent and more interactive visitor journey. The results were a 35 per cent jump in attendance and 240 per cent increase in net profit.
Warm Irish welcome
Carty’s background in high-end hotels shines through at the attraction, where a “warm Irish welcome” and top-class customer service are paramount. A great deal is invested in finding the right staff and training them to ensure visitors enjoy a high-quality experience and form a good impression of Guinness.
“It’s similar to running hotels because of shared skill sets: F&B, entertainment, staff training and standards,” he says.
It’s the same welcome extended to Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II when she and husband Prince Philip toured the attraction in 2013, as part of the first royal visit to Ireland since 1911, For Carty, it was a career highlight: “The hairs on my neck stood up. I felt so proud to be involved such a historic event,” he says. “We showed the Queen the art of pouring the perfect Guinness. It was a beautiful occasion.”