Tuesday 22 October 2019

Still haven't found what they're looking for: Will U2 visitor centre send fans flocking to the capital?

Bono & Co are getting their own museum in Dublin's Docklands, but will the fans come in the numbers expected, asks John Meagher

Back in 2009, U2 made €272m during the first year of their ‘360’ tour, which went on to become the highest grossing tour of all time with €644m in sales. Photo: Getty Images
Back in 2009, U2 made €272m during the first year of their ‘360’ tour, which went on to become the highest grossing tour of all time with €644m in sales. Photo: Getty Images
U2 on stage in New Jersey
An artist's impression of the U2 visitor centre in Dublin's Docklands
John Meagher

John Meagher

In October 1981, a week before their second album, October, hit the shops, U2 released a rousing new single. 'Gloria' connected with many and its video, filmed to appeal to the fledgling MTV, featured Dublin's Grand Canal Dock, a part of the city the young band had long been drawn to.

Anyone familiar with the so-called Silicon Docks today might struggle to believe they are looking at the same place. The 18th-century dock is still there, of course, but the giant silos behind Boland's Mill, the striking Dublin Gas Retort House, and several other structures associated with the gasworks of the area are gone. In their place now are expensive residential towers, like Alto Vetro, the rising Boland's Quay development and the eye-catching façade of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre.

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The change has been remarkable. And it's set to change further now that planning permission has been granted for a U2 museum at the site of their studio in a low waterfront warehouse on Hanover Quay.

The young quartet filmed playing 'Gloria' from a barge on the water back in 1981 could hardly have imagined how their fortunes - or that of this historic part of Dublin - would change forever.

An artist's impression of the U2 visitor centre in Dublin's Docklands
An artist's impression of the U2 visitor centre in Dublin's Docklands

And they have impressive plans for their museum/-visitor centre. There will be a recreation of one of their first studios, assorted instruments and outfits from their various incarnations and an exhibit called 'Larry's Kitchen' - in deference, presumably, to the fact that the then teenage band used to meet in the home of drummer Larry Mullen.

A café is planned as well, which will bring bring yet another option to a part of the city that has seen a large number of eating establishments open in the past few years.

But with the future of the band by no means certain - Bono suggested they were "going away now" after the final show of their Experience + Innocence tour last year - how successful might a U2 museum be? And can it pull in large numbers to an area of the Docklands that's probably better known for the presence of Facebook, Airbnb and Google than cultural attractions (despite the presence of the Bord Gáis Energy Theatre)?

Draft documents issued by U2 and their partners to Dublin City Council project visitor numbers of 390,000 per annum and say the museum would help encourage far more people to visit the Grand Canal Dock as is currently the case.

The figure is highly ambitious when one considers the sort of numbers that long-established attractions currently command. According to the most recent data, for 2017, the U2 museum backers are expecting to attract more visitors than the Rock of Cashel (376,488), Dublin Castle (371,000) and St Patrick's Cathedral (238,285).

Dublin's best-rated paid attraction on TripAdvisor, Kilmainham Gaol, registered 425,000 visitors in 2017.

Fáilte Ireland is among those backing the venture and Paul Keeley, its director of commercial development, says it can help grow the country's tourist offering.

"In 2018, we welcomed over 9.6 million overseas tourists and 9.8 million domestic trips, generating €7.8bn in revenue, and there is now an impressive 260,000 people estimated to be employed in the sector," he says.

"Fáilte Ireland has identified Dublin's Docklands as a key area for development and, in conjunction with local stakeholders, is currently developing a Visitor Experience Development Plan (VEDP) in order to realise the sustainable economic potential within the area, by progressing a range of key initiatives that will improve the visitor experience.

"We are confident that the development of a U2 visitor and exhibition space in the area will create a new and compelling reason to visit the Docklands, Dublin and indeed Ireland."

Keeley says Fáilte Ireland is confident the U2 museum will have the potential to attract "large" visitor numbers, in line with the 390,000 projected.

"U2 are internationally recognised and a project like this, which presents an exciting new opportunity for Dublin to be associated with the phenomenal success of the band, will be significant in not only attracting visitors to Dublin's Docklands but encouraging them to stay in the area for longer and explore the other attractions on offer, which in turn will economically benefit the local community."

While the sight of U2 fans wandering around Hanover Quay hoping to catch a sight of Bono is a comparatively common one, are there enough lovers of the band around the world to truly make the project a big success?

Many would say they are, judging from the fact that the band have sold up to 170 million albums - it's notoriously difficult to establish total career sales for any act of U2's scale - and the fact that they are among the highest-grossing touring bands in rock history.

The Abba Museum in Stockholm might serve as an indicator as to how a U2 equivalent could do. It opened in 2013 and attracted 350,000 visitors in its first year. And since opening, it has become one of the the top three paid attractions in the Swedish capital. And yet, with 29 million overseas visitors to Sweden in 2016, the Scandinavian country pulls in almost three times the number of tourists that Ireland does. Does that skew the numbers?

It's worth remembering that Dublin already has a rock music museum that features U2. The Irish Rock 'n' Roll Experience Museum in Temple Bar has been open since 2015 and is hoping to attract 40,000 visitors this year, according to marketing manager Laoise Keaveney.

"We've had 20pc growth year-on-year for the past couple of years and last December was the best we've had since opening," she says. "We tend to get an older demographic, but many of them bring their children, and there is quite a bit of repeat visiting, too."

New exhibits, including one running on The Beatles, have helped make the facility one of the more successful smaller museums in the heart of the city. "It offers a really good introduction to Irish rock music, especially on bands like Thin Lizzy and, of course, U2," she says, "and visitors also have access to Apollo Studios here."

The building is very much a living, breathing part of the Dublin music circuit - as well as the museum, it houses the popular Button Factory live venue and Sun Studios, one of the busiest recording facilities in the city.

"We would really welcome a U2 museum," she says, insisting that it and the Irish Rock 'n' Roll Museum Experience would likely complement each other, rather than be in competition. "It would be great for the city and would help bring more people to the Docklands."

But not everyone has welcomed the project. It was rejected at the planning stage last summer due to the proposed height of the building - the plan is now two metres lower - and there have been over 60 objections from local residents who say the centre will affect their light.

For U2, they will hope that unlike a previous Docklands project, this one will see the light of day. A 32-storey skyscraper, the Norman Foster-designed U2 Tower featuring a studio for the band at the top floor, was granted planning permission in 2011 but became a victim of the recession.

The Capital Dock development has subsequently been built on the site and its super-expensive apartments were rented out for the first time last month.

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