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Guinness Storehouse visitors pints

The evolving visitor experience at the Guinness Storehouse

How Dublin’s top tourist attraction thought outside the box in response to the global pandemic

Catherine Toolan

The Guinness Storehouse, Ireland’s most popular tourist attraction, opened its doors again last month. Catherine Toolan, who took over from Paul Carty as managing director in March 2020, spoke to blooloop about her role, the pandemic which hit just as she assumed her new responsibilities, and the innovations at the Storehouse, including a focus on art and inspiration.

“I joined the Guinness Storehouse literally as we closed our doors in March in 2020 when the pandemic had just started,” she says:

“Prior to that, I spent my entire career working in hospitality and events. I was lucky enough to work on the Beijing Olympics and the London Olympics. I spent almost 10 years living in Beijing. Subsequently, I moved to London to work on the London Olympics.

“And then I also spent some time in Belfast in Northern Ireland before joining Guinness Storehouse. I was responsible for establishing the business tourism strategy and running the convention centre in Belfast, as well as the iconic Ulster Hall music venue. I’m originally from Sligo in the west of Ireland. It was fantastic to move from Sligo, traverse the worlds and get back to Dublin.”

An evolving attraction

Blooloop talked with Paul Carty in 2017. “So much has evolved and changed since then at the Guinness Storehouse,” Toolan says.

Change has been a characteristic of the Storehouse’s 21 years of existence:

“We’re so lucky to have the legacy of Arthur Guinness over 262 years of Guinness to help shape our experiences. The last time you wrote, Paul talked about the Gravity Bar.”

Gravity Bar Guinness Storehouse

“We had just completed the extension in the Gravity Bar and had welcomed the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to visit it when the pandemic hit. That was a 20 million Euro investment to double the size of the bar, because at that stage we had hit just under 1.7 million visitors. So capacity was a real challenge. We also had worked since that time on evolving the technology, bringing some of the digital solutions into play.”

The Storehouse at that point was predominantly focused on international visitors.

“93% of that 1.7 million were international, and the rest were domestic. Each year that number grew; there was constant investment in the business. COVID changed things dramatically. When COVID hit in 2020 our doors were closed, and we had to rethink our entire strategy. Because we hadn’t really focused on the domestic market.

“The pandemic meant that with travel restrictions overnight, we weren’t welcoming any of our international guests. That was a very significant change.”

The Guinness Storehouse and COVID-19

Guinness Storehouse gates

Prior to that lockdown, the Storehouse team had been preparing for the advent of the second Gravity Bar and getting ready for St. Patrick’s day, one of the biggest festivals in its calendar.

“We had to rethink everything from the point of view of how to attract a different audience,” says Toolan. “We presented new reasons for consideration from a domestic visitor. In terms of the campaigns, we offered a gesture of thanks to our frontline workers for their tireless work during the pandemic. We had free entry for frontline workers, and to have one on the house on Guinness last year when we reopened.”

“We also looked at Guinness’s role in culture. It has had a key role over many years. We placed the Storehouse at the heart of the Irish culture conversation by hosting an art exhibition called Creatives Against COVID.

“We broadened our occasions by showing up in a really big way at Christmas. Christmas is traditionally not a time for international visitors. This year, it was a huge opportunity to create something a little bit different, and give Irish people a bright beacon of light. So at Christmas this year, we held a Christmas market packed with local artisans. And we created our very own snowy Guinness gates.”

The iconic gates

The Guinness gates are an iconic image, particularly associated with Christmas.

“That was really exciting,” she adds. “We also partnered with Tourism Ireland and we hosted the phenomenal Other Voices: Home. This was a live stream concert from the Gravity Bar which gave a huge selection of Irish artists the chance to perform for a global audience at a time when venues around the world were closed, so artists had no space to perform.”

We hosted the phenomenal Other Voices: Home…a live stream concert from the Gravity Bar which gave a huge selection of Irish artists the chance to perform for a global audience

Other Voices: Home at the Guinness Storehouse showcased impactful live performances, connecting people both at home and abroad. During the evening, Other Voices accepted donations supporting the music community in Ireland through the Irish Music Industry Covid Emergency Relief Fund.

“As we began to look at opening up after Christmas, we launched our Virtual Connoisseur experiences, sharing the magic of the Guinness Storehouse worldwide.”

Creatives against COVID at the Guinness Storehouse

Pint at the Guinness Storehouse

As a result:

“Last year, despite being open only 87 days, we welcomed 78,000 domestic visitors. This was an increase of 28% on the amount of domestic visitors we would have welcomed in the past. We also welcomed about 8,000 frontline workers with our free entry strategy, and sold over 2000 Creatives Against COVID tickets.”

The Creatives Against COVID exhibition won the Irish Design Institute’s Grand Prix 2020 Award:

“It focused again on something that was very different from the Guinness Storehouse. The Other Voices livestream concert reached over a hundred million people right across the world; key markets from Ireland to the US to the UK, Germany, Canada, really keeping the Guinness Storehouse alive when the doors were closed.

“And then finally, there were our virtual experiences. I’m sure many experiences and attractions will see the hybrid event as part of their future. We hosted over 8,000 people in 24 countries, bringing the Storehouse experience to life again, and building that anticipation of what it’s like to return and experience the Guinness Storehouse in person.”

A big change

It was a huge pivot to achieve, just as Toolan stepped into her new role.

“I was so excited to join this business; it is such an iconic business in Ireland,” she says. “If you’re working in hospitality and events and tourism, you’re aware that the Guinness Storehouse has always been the leader.”

Guinness Storehouse Dublin

“Joining such a hugely successful business was so exciting – the pinnacle of my career. And then I started literally as the doors closed. I had to rethink the entire thing, working from home for the first couple of months. Coming into the Guinness Storehouse was a very different experience, too, during this period, without the buzz of people. All seven floors of this beautiful, immersive experience were so quiet.

“It’s so good to see people back in now since we’ve been able to reopen.”

Targetting the domestic market at the Guinness Storehouse

Targeting the domestic market will remain a priority for the immediate future:

“Distilling the learnings of the pandemic into what it means for the future and beyond, and growing on that desire for authentic experiences that allow visitors to feel like a true local means, I think, that we won’t ever be as binary again.”

Drinkers at the Guinness Storehouse

“The focus will be much more on authentic experiences, and those authentic experiences are relevant to either a domestic or an international market. We might tweak some elements of that, for example, by building on our culture programme and having visitors that are comfortable coming back to the Storehouse, because there is something different.

“It’s not just whether we want to attract an international market. It is moving away from that binary, and having a brand experience that’s relevant for everybody, and where there is something to do for everybody, whether it is your first time to visit the Guinness Storehouse, or whether you’re coming back to see something  new or different from a culture perspective.”

Building in repeatability

Building in repeatability is in itself a pivot since the Storehouse was originally a tick-box tourist experience.

Toolan says:

“It is a different ball game. International visitors, of course, remain incredibly important for the Guinness Storehouse and for Ireland and Dublin specifically; tourism is a huge part of our indigenous product, and over 270,000 people are employed in tourism across the country.

“We can’t wait to welcome people back. It has been so good over the last two weeks to hear some international visitors; we have had quite a few Italians and Americans. That is a really important part of the recovery of tourism, and what Ireland sells is a brilliant tourism product known for hospitality.”

the Liberties Dublin

“But repeatability is embraced in our new vision and mission. This is to become a culturally vibrant hub. One that showcases the magnetic and inclusive soul of Guinness and its role in modern Irish sociability. This mission allows us to appeal to both local and international visitors.

“More than anything else, the trends that we see coming through in the pandemic are that need to really value the time that we spend, and the need to have experiences that are authentic and that mean something. With the whole challenge of sustainability and tourism, of course, it is about making sure that we have a portfolio of clients and visitors that we appeal to, both local and international.”

The visitor experience at the Guinness Storehouse

Describing the visitor experience, she adds:

“We bring the heritage of Guinness to life. But we also bring to life some of the amazing advances and adaptions. As you come into the experience, you start with some of the core ingredients of Guinness: barley, water and hops. We tell a little bit of that story. Then you move on to the Cooperage, which tells the original story of coopering, and that the huge task of making wonderful barrels to send Guinness down through the canals of Dublin and right around the world.”

adverts through the ages

Interesting pieces of Guinness-related trivia are included:

“The first time that Guinness and food were mentioned, for example, was in 1837 when Guinness and oysters were mentioned. Guinness and Oysters is actually the name of one of our restaurants on the fifth floor.”

The next space is dedicated to Guinness advertising, something for which Guinness has become famous over the years.

“Some of our TV adverts have been absolutely iconic,” Toolan says. “You get a chance from a visitor perspective to experience those ads. Then you move on to the immersive experience, which is about pouring your own pint.”

New innovations

Pouring pints at the Guinness Storehouse

The legendary six-step ritual involves holding the glass at a 45-degree angle, and takes precisely 119.5 seconds:

“The 0.5 of a second is critically important,” she says. “We have added some of the old pouring mechanisms into the experience to bring a richness. It’s an immersive experience, which, again, appeals to all audiences. This shows the technology evolution from the 1960s right through to the latest innovation, which is the MicroDraught unit.”

Guinness MicroDraught is the result of a two-year development process. The Guinness used is brewed in the same way as traditional Guinness. However, instead of kegging it in larger kegs, Guinness Draught beer is delivered in cans. These are then slotted into the Guinness MicroDraught unit.

The dispense technology, the biggest innovation for the brand since the development of the ‘widget’ in 1988, is a solution to pour Guinness in spaces such as restaurants, where previously it would be impossible to serve on tap due to the lack of a keg system, beer lines and cooling system.

Alcohol-free options

Additionally:

“We have just launched the alcohol-free Guinness 0.0. So we bring that to life with a taste test to see if people can tell the difference between Guinness 0.0 and a pint of regular Guinness. We also show the technology and innovation that is bringing Guinness to a lot more bars across the world, because you don’t need the huge amount of equipment between the kegs and chilling system and the pipes and pouring systems.

“Then, of course, we have the iconic – and hugely Instagrammable – STOUTie, where you can put an image on a pint of Guinness.”

You can have anything from your own face to a couple, to a logo on a pint of Guinness. It’s extremely popular

The STOUTie uses technology to add natural malt extract to the top of each Guinness pint to create the chosen design.

 “You can have anything from your own face to a couple, to a logo on a pint of Guinness. It’s extremely popular. So that gives you an idea of some of the changes in the experience. We also have great food options which pair Guinness and some of our other drinks on the fifth floor. We have everything from our casual Arthur’s Bar to our more formal 1837.

“And then, of course, you finish at the top of the Guinness Storehouse with a Guinness or indeed a Guinness Clear, which is a pint of water.”

Experiential retail at the Guinness Storehouse

It is, she adds, now a seated experience:

“That’s new, too: in the past, it was a standing experience. You get to have your Guinness your way. Or one of the variants, the experimental brews that we make at the Open Gate Brewery.”

The Guinness Open Gate Brewery, located in the heart of The Liberties, is the home of experimentation at Guinness. Here, brewers, according to the website, are ‘given the creative license to dream in beer.’

guinness storehouse

“You can enjoy your drink while overlooking the most stunning views of Dublin,” she says. “There are now two 360 degree bars overlooking the city.”

The retail store has also benefited from investment:

“We invested almost  3 million into our retail store to bring more experiential retail to life. For example, you can pre-order engraved glasses. We have had some beautiful messages commemorating moments of magic, where people have not had been able to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries. You can also engrave your own glass on the retail floor.”

New collaborations

The iconic Guinness gates themselves showcase another innovation.

Under Toolan’s leadership, the Storehouse has collaborated with renowned Dublin artist Aches. He transformed the gates with an artwork where pixelated lettering is picked out in pink, yellow, blue and white.

Our gates are loved and recognised universally. It was a real opportunity, even responsibility, to use the landmark to send a message of strength and hope to everyone, and Aches has curated such a joyful message.

“Our gates are loved and recognised universally. It was a real opportunity, even responsibility, to use the landmark to send a message of strength and hope to everyone, and Aches has curated such a joyful message,” Toolan says:

“It’s inspired by the old Irish proverb, which says there’s no strength without unity, ‘ní neart go cur le chéile’. So, the words on the gates read ‘Together’ and ‘Stronger’. It has really captured the spirit of the city as it reawakens.”

Canvas D8

The redesigned gates are one of three projects’ Aches has collaborated with Guinness on over the last 18 months.

In March 2020, just before the pandemic hit, he reimagined four of the works of John Gilroy FRSA for the renovated Gravity Bar. Gilroy was the creator of famous Guinness campaigns in the 1930s.

Guinness Storehouse gates

Most recently, he has worked with the Storehouse on Canvas D8, the brand-new cultural experience at the Guinness Storehouse. This offers a platform for culture to thrive in the heart of Dublin’s Liberties district.

She says:

“As part of our reopening, the centrepiece of our culture experience is a kinetic light show installation created using over 13,000 glowing spheres, inspired by Aches’ style. This goes right up through the seven stories of the Storehouse, mirroring the surge and settle of a pint of Guinness. It really brings the building to life as it lights it up.”

The Brewery Yard at the Guinness Storehouse

The Brewery Yard is a vibrant and relaxed outdoor space. It has been opened for the first time as a response to the COVID crisis and in recognition of the importance of outdoor spaces.

“It’s the first time people have had the opportunity to be actually behind the Guinness gates,” Toolan says. “Getting together outdoors is such an important part of all our socialising in the future.”

Outdoors at the Guinness Storehouse

At the Guinness Storehouse, the focus is on culture, coming together and storytelling.

Positive drinking

Additionally, Toolan says:

“One of our Diageo Society 2030 goals includes positive drinking. I mentioned Guinness Clear as well as Guinness 0.0. If you think about how you fill a glass of tap water, it has almost the same surge and settle as Guinness.

“Getting that message about drinking responsibly and positive drinking across is so important. Stressing that it’s OK to have a Guinness your way, a glass of Guinness, or, indeed, a soft drink.  The reason Diageo has launched Guinness 0.0 is because there is such a focus on positive drinking and the need to be able to socialise without alcohol.”

Dublin artist Aches

According to taste tests, she contends, Guinness 0.0 cannot be distinguished from its alcoholic counterpart:

“From my perspective, it is incredible, and you would not know. We have done some taste tests with some huge Guinness connoisseurs. And they have not been able to tell the difference between Guinness and Guinness 0.0 either. One of the most important parts of the innovation around that was to make sure that it  was as close as possible; that it was everything that you get in a Guinness, including that surge and settle, without the alcohol.”

Trends in the sector

The Guinness Storehouse is Ireland’s most popular paid attraction. Identifying trends in the sector, Toolan says

“It’s so early to tell what future trends will be in terms of visitor recovery. But what we do know from our research is that people want to travel, and to have new experiences. It has been a year of looking at priorities across the world. For instance, the importance of family, and the importance of connection and getting together.

“We do, therefore, expect tourism will recover. But there are a couple of key things that we’re all going to have to take responsibility for with the recovery of tourism.”

Together Stronger Guinness

“Most importantly, there is sustainability, in terms of visitor numbers, and making sure that we are really engaged in our communities. The Guinness Storehouse is part of the Liberties, one of the oldest communities in Dublin city. We recognise how important the Guinness Storehouse is for the Liberties. We brought 1.7 million visitors to visit the Storehouse, and that had a positive impact on all the businesses around the Liberties.

“Now, as tourism recovers, it’s also so crucially important to look at global warming and carbon footprint. It’s a balance between experiences that are authentic, and immersive virtual experiences, which are a growing trend we’re seeing. There is an increasing realisation that virtual experiences, as well as physical ones, can be immersive. And we see a future for both.”

Physical vs. virtual experiences

guiness storehouse logo

“There’s nothing, of course, to beat that physical experience. However, it is still possible to connect virtually and to manage travel and that sustainability piece a little bit more. I think it’s going to be interesting to see how that trend evolves over the next couple of years; that desire to travel and experience things around the world but to do so in a sustainable way.

“The other thing is that need to use technology to enable brilliant experiences, looking at how, not only in the visitor experience sector, but across the retail world, we can engage and immerse customers more with really important messages that brands can deliver – on their role in sustainability, diversity, inclusion, positive drinking, and so on.”

Toolan concludes:

“One key point to make is that being able to continue to attract the best talent we can in hospitality and events and experiential industry is going to be so important.”

Over the pandemic, people have been forced to leave the tourism field to pursue new careers:

“It is so important to attract the best people and to highlight the opportunities. Throughout my career, I’ve had amazing experiences. I’ve been very lucky to be able to travel and to end up in places like China and South America. It’s an amazing career. Showcasing it and attracting people back to work in the industry is so important. Because we’re only as good as our people.”

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Lalla Merlin

Lead Features Writer Lalla studied English at St. Hugh’s College, Oxford University. A writer and film-maker, she lives in rural Devon with husband, children, and an assortment of badly-behaved animals, including an enormous but friendly wolf.

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