Talk of Guinness hotel shows pulling power of St. James's Gate
Home of the Black Stuff
The starring role played by Guinness as an Irish tourist attraction is becoming almost as important as the Black Stuff itself.
We may cringe with embarrassment every time a visiting dignitary panders to national stereotypes by posing with a pint, but just under a million-and-a-half people want to do just that every year as they visit our shrine to stout at St James's Gate.
The numbers visiting the Guinness Storehouse grew by 18pc last year and it now steadfastly retains its place as the country's most popular tourist attraction.
Even Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip seemed to be taken in by the Guinness mythology during their historic visit to Ireland in 2011.
As the queen gazed at the beer, declining to take a sip, the prince asked a question that is on the lips of tens of thousands of visitors: "Is it made from Liffey water?''
The guides in the Storehouse like to dispel that myth about the water. In fact, the water comes from springs in the Wicklow Mountains. Another tall tale holds that Arthur Guinness invented his famous porter when he accidentally burnt the barley. As I discovered when I visited the Storehouse, he did not invent the drink at all.
This week, there was speculation that Guinness had become so popular as a tourism magnet that it might even open a hotel.
Paul Carty, the successful managing director of the Storehouse, was the source of this speculation when he told the Daily Telegraph: "I think there'd be a huge interest if we had a Guinness-themed hotel on the site. I don't think its beyond the realms of possibility."
The notion of spending a holiday next to a brewery may be a long time coming, however. Guinness later dampened down the reports of a stout-themed hotel.
"We have no plans to develop a Guinness hotel," a spokeswoman said. The idea may have been dismissed, but the fact that it was even mooted, shows just how far the brewer has come in terms of tourism.
Carty himself is the man given credit for turning the Storehouse into one of the country's biggest tourist attraction.
He returned to Ireland to work on the Storehouse project in 2000 after working as a hotelier in Saudi Arabia.
"I realised this wasn't going to be a visitors' centre, it was going to be a world-class brand centre," the Storehouse boss said this week. "Very similar to a hotel but without the bedrooms.
"The idea was to create a home for Guinness that would welcome potentially up to one million people. We needed somewhere to showcase the archives, and Guinness at that time wanted to reposition the drink - a lot of older drinkers were falling off and we weren't recruiting younger people to the brand.
"The image before was of the old Ireland, of log fires and men with peaked hats. Over the years, we needed to contemporise the brand and present it in a different manner."
A decade ago, Guinness seemed to be going through a black period.
Sales of the stout had been falling dramatically across the country, and at the peak of the Celtic Tiger boom, it was estimated that Guinness sales had fallen by a quarter in a decade.
There were all sorts of reasons given for the decline in the stout. Young people were being lured away by watery lagers, alcopops, a diverse range of bottled beers and cider. Guinness, mostly sold in pubs on draught, was affected by stricter drink-driving laws and the smoking ban.
But more recently, sales have recovered. In the era of craft beers, Guinness may be seen as a distinctive native brew, and sales rose by 5pc in the second half of last year.
Before he opened the Storehouse, Carty toured branded attractions in Europe and America, including World of Coca-Cola in Atlanta and Cadbury World in Birmingham.
Housed in a converted fermentation plant and revamped over the years, the seven-storey building is cleverly designed in the shape of a giant pint of Guinness.
Visitors start at the bottom, seeing the basic ingredients - an actual pit of barley, water, hops and yeast. They then pass through a gallery of adverts -including toucans, ostriches, and men carrying steel girders with the slogan 'Guinness for Strength'' - before ending up in the head of the pint, the Gravity Bar, 50 metres above the Dublin streetscape.
Diageo invested €42m in the attraction, but are not just content to see it as a marketing vehicle for the beer. It also runs as a profitable business with entrance fees of up to €20 per person.
"Now we're a very profitable business, with all profit going back into reinvestment," Carty said. "That's important to me because if you do make a profit, you can reinvest, you can employ more people, and improve the standards. The last five years we have invested €10m back into the experience."
Some might wince when celebrities brandish a pint, but it has played a part in the rapid growth in popularity of the Storehouse. When Queen Elizabeth called around in 2011, and President Obama pulled a pint of the stout in a pub in Moneygall, visits to the attraction surged by 10pc.
Music's highest-earning couple at the time, Taylor Swift and Calvin Harris, sprinkled the tourism venue with more stardust last year when Swift reportedly held an after-concert party there.
The regular visits of celebrities to the attraction does not just happen by accident.
"We do a lot on the marketing front, working with the tourism agencies, like Tourism Ireland. If they're bringing VIPs over, we support them," Carty said this week.
Jack Murray, an authority on branding for MediaHQ.com, tells Review that Guinness has been extremely clever at aligning its brand with Irish national identity. Guinness used the harp logo decades before it became an official symbol of the Irish State.
"An attraction like the Storehouse creates a strong emotional engagement," says Murray. "Say if you are from Wisconsin, and you go to the Storehouse and you get to see the slice of Irish culture, and they deliver that story to you, it has an emotional effect on you. It makes your bond with the brand stronger."
Guinness is not the only company to identify itself with the nation. Coca-Cola went far to establish its reputation as a patriotic brand epitomising the values of the United States during World War II by almost giving it away to soldiers. Management of the soft-drinks company ordered that "every man in uniform gets a bottle of Coca-Cola for five cents, wherever he is and whatever it costs the company".
Guinness has not always been keen to identify itself as the essence of Irishry, however. The firm moved its headquarters to London in 1932, where it has been based ever since (and renamed as Diageo during a corporate restructuring in the 1990s).
According to The Economist, as recently as the 1980s, the company considered disassociating itself from its Irish heritage. Worried about the impact on sales of the IRA's campaign during the Troubles, Guinness came close in 1982 to relaunching the brand as an English beer brewed in west London.
It was only when the Troubles eased in the North that Guinness switched its marketing focus back to Dublin, aiming its product at tourists in Ireland and the vast Irish diaspora.
The Storehouse now has a staggering 62pc market share of all Dublin's leisure tourists. With 1.5 million people coming through the doors, that is a lot of emotional bonding with the booze.
An estimated 20pc of our visitors have never tasted Guinness before they visit the venue.
A quarter come from the UK, another quarter from the US, and just 9pc from Ireland.
With such a large chunk coming from Britain, there is natural concern that the steady growth in numbers at the Storehouse might be affected by Brexit, which is already making visits to Ireland more expensive due to the collapse in the value of sterling. A report by the Dublin City University economist Anthony Foley found that four out of five tourists cite the traditional Irish pub as the biggest attraction when travelling to our shores.
The study, entitled The Contribution of the Drinks Industry to Tourism, shows that 80pc of international visitors to Ireland have said that their desire to experience an Irish pub brought them here, while 83pc revealed that "listening to Irish music in a pub" was their number-one activity to do when holidaying in Ireland.
Some commentators, concerned about prevalent alcoholism, have suggested that it may be time to stop playing up to the hoary national stereotype. Is it time to play a different tune?
However, Carty has argued that the country "absolutely" needs to capitalise on the stereotype of the traditional pub in order to satisfy visitors.
"They want to come, and they want to experience what is uniquely Irish. We engage with people, we have this term called the 'craic'. And it's around conversation, fun, music and all of that. It's quite unique to Ireland, and something we should dial up and not play down."
He has suggested that marketing our pubs is not a negative thing, and is more about promoting a cultural experience.
"Most tourists actually don't drink a lot of alcohol - they want conversations, and they want stories."
Back to Black
The top-five fee-paying tourist attractions in Ireland in 2015 were:
1. Guinness Storehouse (1,498,124 visitors, +18%)
2. Cliffs of Moher (1,251,574, +16%)
3. Dublin Zoo
4. The National Aquatic Centre
5. Book of Kells, Trinity College (767,996, +18%)
Amongst Ireland's free attractions, the National Gallery of Ireland is the chart-topper and numbers grew by 21pc to over 718,000. Other popular free attractions include the National Botanic Gardens, National Museum of Ireland - Archaeology and Farmleigh.