Friday 20 September 2019

Dublin's tourist Vault out to unlock global success

The creators of the capital's newest attraction say the concept could travel to cities like Paris, writes Fearghal O'Connor

Vaults co-founder Paul Blanchfield is pleased with the Thomas Street location but is hoping council revamp plans go ahead. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan
Vaults co-founder Paul Blanchfield is pleased with the Thomas Street location but is hoping council revamp plans go ahead. Photo: Lorraine O’Sullivan

Fearghal O'Connor

Dublin's newest tourist attraction, The Vaults, could be replicated across a number of international cities if it proves successful when it opens for business next month, according to its backers.

The €5.3m walk-through venue will combine live performances and special effects to tell a series of historical and imagined events to up to 450,000 visitors a year.

The attraction will open later this summer in the newly-renovated old Augustinian St John's National School, just off Dublin's Thomas Street.

The team behind the new attraction has already begun early exploratory discussions in Paris and earmarked other cities as far apart as Washington DC, Brussels and Sydney as potential locations in the future.

"This is a concept that will travel," said Vaults co-founder, broadcaster and entrepreneur Paul Blanchfield. "We'll have proof of concept in Dublin and that will give us the confidence to take it to other cities."

He has joined forces with Gerald Heffernan, a former independent producer who founded Irish production company Frontier Films. The pair have financed the project and developed the concepts for the show themselves.

The scripts for the various scenes - which include Dracula, Vikings, Oliver Cromwell, and a singing lesson with Molly Malone - were written by film director Peter Sheridan and have a strong emphasis on fun.

The hour-long show - which will run up to four times every hour simultaneously- encompasses "a series of scenes from Irish history, with a twist," said Blanchfield. "It's a lot of fun and very immersive. There's a lot of comedy in it. Visitors will find themselves in incredibly detailed sets full of actors, lighting and special effects.

"We have just finished a three-week casting and we are currently sending contracts to 28 actors after having over 550 applications," he said. "It's a fantastic opportunity for actors and I think we will be the biggest employer of actors in Ireland."

Blanchfield said if the Dublin venue proves successful it was more likely that further expansion would be abroad rather than in another Irish city.

"I don't think Cork or Limerick would have the volume for this. It is a very expensive project from the point of view of fixed costs," he said.

"From all the research we have done into this market, we see that what people want from a tourism attraction is storytelling, authenticity, immersion ­- a memorable experience. They want to be entertained. We can achieve that through the format we have used and the Vaults in Dublin could be as easily the Vaults in Boston, Brussels or Paris by adapting the stories to the really rich histories that are in all of those places."

Blanchfield has experience developing tourist complexes in the south of France and said that developing The Vaults concept there would be much more expensive than in Dublin, but that there is a huge opportunity.

"We have had an initial look at Paris. There isn't an attraction like the Vaults in Paris that is in English and when you go to Paris you realise how little there is aimed at English-speaking tourists with no French.

"The scenes we would design would still be very French and incredibly immersive, as will be the case in Dublin, but there would be shows in English as well as in French. You have a phenomenal tourist market in Paris and plenty of room for new things to do."

The Dublin venue is being built to have a capacity to host 450,000 visitors a year but it is projected that the attraction will see 130,000 visitors in year one, rising to just over 300,000 a year by its fifth year of operation.

"We know we won't get a large amount of overseas visitors in the first year because we are not yet in the various distribution channels. So our primary target market in the first year is Irish people."

Finding a suitable location for the Vaults took a two-and-a-half year search, said Blanchfield.

"We are a startup and, regardless of what money you put on the table, landlords are wary of startups. And, worse, we are a startup in tourism. It is very unusual for an attraction like this to be in the private sector. Most tourist attractions are state-run."

Blanchfield said that the pair had targeted Dublin's Thomas Street area as the key location for the attraction because at least one million tourists walk along it each year on their way from the city centre to the nearby Guinness Storehouse.

Nevertheless, Blanchfield was critical at the lack of progress that has been made with a long-promised regeneration plan for the area.

"We spent a long time searching for a site like this. Thomas Street is a fantastic area with amazing potential but it has to be brought back to its former glory and that hasn't happened yet. From the point of view of Dublin City Council I don't understand why that is the case.

"The footpaths need to be double the size and street furniture is needed, for example. I have seen the City Council's plans for what Thomas Street could become and they are fantastic but I don't understand why that has not happened yet and why the potential is not being realised."

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