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Scotch Whisky Experience expands its global audience

WITH Scotch whisky maintaining its trajectory for world domination, it is no surprise to hear a tourism attraction dedicated to Scotland's national drink is thriving in Edinburgh.

RAISE A GLASS: With Whisky Month coming up, Julie Trevisan-Hunter is expecting to continue the positive growth that has seen Brazil and China enter the top five markets. Picture: Robert Pogson
RAISE A GLASS: With Whisky Month coming up, Julie Trevisan-Hunter is expecting to continue the positive growth that has seen Brazil and China enter the top five markets. Picture: Robert Pogson

The Scotch Whisky Experience, in the midst of celebrating its 25th anniversary, welcomes visitors from an increasingly broad geographical base, its growth reflecting the soaring performance of whisky in established and emerging markets around the globe.

The attraction on Castlehill, near the top of the Royal Mile, now cites China and Brazil as two its top five markets for visitors, though it reports that enthusiasts are steadily coming from former Soviet republics such as Kazakhstan, as well as Africa and elsewhere in South America.

Julie Trevisan-Hunter, its deputy director and marketing manager, said almost every week a foreign film crew or journalist arrives to file a dispatch from the home of the "water of life".

This is partly because the Experience now houses the world's biggest collection of Scotch whisky, but also because it is arguably a more accessible venue than distilleries, where health and safety factors often come into play.

Yet although emerging markets are increasingly key to the Experience, the English market continues to be its biggest, accounting for between 16% and 18% of its visitors.

Ms Trevisan-Hunter said: "This will be our biggest year ever.

"Everyone looks back at '95, '96 as the year of Braveheart and Rob Roy and talks about [the period] up to '98 as being the boom years of Scottish tourism. But we have seen growth in the last four years, which maybe sits against a lot of other things in terms of spend within the UK and other sectors.

"We have seen really significant growth in visitor numbers and income and profitability in the last four years, far more than in the past."

The export performance of Scotch whisky has undoubtedly helped drive visitors to the attraction, which reported pre-tax profits of £504,357 in its most recent accounts, but it is only part of the story.

The Experience, which enjoys a five-star rating from VisitScotland, raised £3 million to fund a major refurbishment in 2009, an investment that saw it revamp its whisky tours.

Ms Trevisan-Hunter said it made such an impact the business has since been able to invest in other aspects of the attraction. The shop was then refurbished, during the financial year to November 30, 2012, to incorporate some of the tour's interactive features, while its tasting bar and restaurant were renovated last year.

Although the Experience was set up with industry funding and continues to be owned by 22 shareholders across the sector, it functions as an independent, standalone commercial entity.

Ms Trevisan-Hunter said: "That [initial investment] was the thing that had the biggest impact in terms of visitor numbers and profitability.

"We have had quite a number of different events because it is our 25th anniversary and everybody who comes in says it is unrecognisable as an experience and a business from what it was - even six or seven years ago and certainly from way back 25 years ago."

Other touches, such as teaching its courses in Mandarin, have further boosted the centre's global appeal.

Ms Trevisan-Hunter said the Experience has benefited as Scotland has come on to the radar of tourists from emerging markets, people who now have the resources to travel and are developing an appreciation of Scotch as a luxury product.

She explained: "Scotland has a lot of kudos and desirability to visit. We do very well in these emerging markets. China and Brazil, for example, are in our top five international markets, whereas five years ago they wouldn't have featured anywhere."

The rise in overseas visitors has fed through to the numbers attending the centre's one-day course, which presents the opportunity to gain a certificate of expertise in Scotch whisky.

While staff from licensed premises around Scotland dominated course places in the early days, Ms Trevisan-Hunter noted it was now attracting delegates from Canada and the Nordic countries.

Many make the Experience their first port of call when they visit Scotland, equipping themselves with some whisky know-how before going on to visit distilleries around the country.

They are also buying whisky from the centre's revamped shop, which Ms Trevisan-Hunter notes is selling increasing amounts of luxury products.

She said sales have risen by 25% each year since the shop's refurbishment took place, with aged and luxury whiskies selling increasingly well.

Ms Trevisan-Hunter said: "It's up in a lot of higher-end products, which is interesting. More so than we have ever seen before.

"The whole point with the shop was to make it more experiential, with things people can engage in, find out more about the distilleries and look at flavour profiles so it has a feel of the experience within the shop. We have put as much as we can in there to bring everything to life, predominantly for the visitors that might not do for the attraction."

Meanwhile, as Scotland prepares itself for the events of this year, when it will finally host the Commonwealth Games, Ryder Cup and the tourism industry's year of Homecoming, it might be assumed that it will bring further visitors to the Scotch Whisky Experience.

But while Ms Trevisan-Hunter expects to see some uplift in visitors during Whisky Month in May, an event that will bring the curtain down on the attraction's 25th birthday celebrations, she suspects the full benefits will be realised in the long run. She noted: "A lot of things happen as part of Homecoming that happen in a guise or at a level on an annual basis anyway.

"It is just a really good way of profiling the product and getting a bit of buzz and excitement about it.

"We'd anticipate seeing more people, especially around May, but to be honest one of our issues during the summer months is that we are close to capacity now anyway"

As for her own position, Ms Trevisan-Hunter said she has lost none of her love for the role and an industry that has seen her spend the last 17 years with the Scotch Whisky Experience.

She noted: "Folk that get into whisky don't then get out of it and go and do something different.

"They stay in whisky and they love it. Similarly, people in the tourism industry maybe move up through the ranks, but they stay doing that.

"There's a real sense of community, camaraderie and sharing good practice and just helping one other out in both industries. There is just a really nice feeling about it."

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