Susan Morrison began her career as a tour guide at The Scotch Whisky Experience in Edinburgh and has worked her way up through the ranks to become director of this £8m-a-year tourist attraction, as Suzy Powell reports.
Blending the traditional with the futuristic is something that The Scotch Whisky Experience is skilled at. Susan Morrison, director and general manager, describes it as “contemporary with a twist of tradition, or traditional with a twist of contemporary”.
Either way, the Edinburgh visitor attraction is celebrating its 30th year in good spirits. On the Monday morning that I am given a guided tour, there is a meeting taking place with a futurist.
For a tourist attraction about Scotland’s most celebrated product, relying on the past can only go so far – the team here has one eye firmly on the future. And it needs to; just as whisky producers plan many years in advance – it takes a minimum of three years to make whisky and often far longer to produce a decent malt – The Scotch Whisky Experience wants to move with the times, preferably keeping one step ahead.
One way it has been able to do this since opening in 1988 is by continuing to develop the former Castlehill Primary School site. With the recent acquisition of the old janitor’s house – “the final piece of the jigsaw” as Morrison describes it – plans are well underway to transform the three-storey tenement into a VIP suite, with much needed extra office space and additional room for meetings, tasting and the whisky school.
With neighbouring popular attractions including Edinburgh Castle and Camera Obscura, The Scotch Whisky Experience is in a prime position to attract passing trade. Daily visitor numbers on peak days from Easter to October are an impressive 800-1,000 with 22% from the United States, 21% from the UK, 8% from France and 7% from China.
The domestic market was overtaken by the US last year. To reflect the diverse nationalities, the tours are available in 18 languages, six with subtitles.
More than £50,000 was recently invested into audio guides, which feature interpreters conducting tours in both British sign language and American sign language, making it the first tourist attraction in the capital to offer both. It was seen as an important addition to enhance accessibility.
Apart from the whisky school – aimed at the trade, but which has proved just as popular with enthusiasts – the other aspect of the business where pressure is felt is the three tours. Lack of room for queuing at peak times and maintaining the quality of tours so that people do not feel rushed are issues that Morrison and the 80-strong team are well aware of; discounting tickets and offering cheaper tickets for off-peak visits is not a route they are keen to travel, but greater use of IT could offer solutions.
Harnessing technology and investing in the future have been key over the past 30 years to the experience’s growth and its ability to remain relevant. Turnover in 2017 was just under £8m, compared with £2.9m in 2007.
In that year, an eight-minute barrel ride was introduced to widen the attraction’s appeal: there is commentary by a hologram in the shape of Douglas McIntyre – he’s fictitious although instantly recognisable as a jovial whisky-loving Scot – and a “spot the cat” game created for younger children. A 180-degree film exploring the five whisky-making regions of Scotland – Lowland, Highland, Speyside, Islay and Campbeltown – was commissioned in 2016, going live at the end of that year.
“It wouldn’t have been possible for us before drones were available because the cost of hiring a helicopter for filming was too much and with the weather, you are not always guaranteed to film,” explains Morrison. “When we first showed the film to our staff, one of our tour guides burst into tears. I thought she didn’t like it, but she loved it.”
It is a breathtaking journey through hills and glens and over rivers and lochs, which takes visitors far from the cobbles and tenements of Edinburgh’s High Street and gives them a taste of the land that has shaped one of our most famous exports. The idea for an immersive film experience came about after customer feedback that there was a desire to see more of Scotland during the tour.
“It is designed to whet people’s appetite to travel further and possibly visit a working distillery,” says Morrison. A scratch-and-sniff card is handed to visitors which, when activated, releases the key aromas of whiskies of each region, ranging from dense and smoky, to romantic Highland scents of heather.
The film theatre leads onto a recreated blenders’ sampling room from the late 1800s. Here visitors perch on a bar stool while the guide takes them through the blending process, explaining the differences between malt, grain and blended whiskies and letting visitors choose from a variety of whisky from each region to find their favourites. To bring it to life, the technology used here is based on a Victorian visual effect called “Pepper’s Ghost” to create illusionary mini firework displays, among other eye-catching visuals.
“We have to be careful as we don’t have the budget of Disney,” smiles Morrison. “It’s about finding effects that don’t date too quickly.”
Morrison started as a weekend guide at what at the time was called the Scotch Whisky Heritage Centre when she was studying German and Russian at the University of Edinburgh. Initially it was her interest in languages, rather than a love of whisky, which attracted her to the role.
After graduating, Morrison became a whisky buyer and then moved through a variety of roles over the following eight years, including visitor experience manager and retail and tastings manager, before becoming general manager in 2000. She is one of only five female “Masters of the Quaich” – Julie Trevisan Hunter, her head of marketing, is another – an industry-awarded accolade given in recognition of promoting the industry to the public and she is also vice-chair of the Association of Scottish Visitor Attractions and chair of the Distillery Visitor Centre Managers’ Forum.
Nearing the end of the tour – there are three tours in total – is the world’s largest collection of Scotch whisky, purchased by Diageo in 2006 from Claive Vidiz of Sao Paolo, who had collected an impressive array of bottles of all shapes and sizes, from a full chess board with each piece a bottle, to birds, busts and golf balls.
“Claive was not snobbish about whisky so there are supermarket blends amongst the 3,384 bottles,” Morrison points out. When he wanted to return his entire collection to Scotland, industry giant Diageo purchased the collection on the proviso that The Scotch Whisky Experience build the stunning vault to house the bottles, which are displayed in alphabetical order at the correct temperature.
The vault is well used as a venue and has been hired by “rich Russians” and others for birthday and wedding celebrations, as well as by the shareholders to entertain guests. There are two other spaces that are hired for private functions, which recently underwent a £500,000 refurbishment.
The industry has supported the experience from the outset. Started by a group of 19 producers, there are currently 26 distillers representing 90% of the industry. After an initial £2m investment, the experience had to be self-funded and has made a profit since 1991.
This is partly down to ongoing growth of the business including the restaurant and whisky bar, opened in 1998. Amber restaurant and whisky bar now sells 450 single malts, blends and liqueurs.
“When we opened the experience, we were turning people away for a coffee,” says Morrison. “When we started with the restaurant, it was a challenge.
“At first, we sub-contracted the catering but that didn’t work, so we started running it ourselves in 2001. After 2005, it began to make a profit.
“We have a great in-house team, led by executive-chef-and-father David and head-of-department-daughter Wendy Neave. I love the restaurant – it’s got a reputation as a hidden gem and over the years has gained an international reputation with great Tripadviser comments.
“If we haven’t convinced visitors about liking whisky on the tour, the way to do it is with food; 79% of our visitors say they do not like whisky but we aim to change people’s perceptions. If you can get people to sit for 20 minutes and try it, we can usually convince them there is something they will like.”
For those who want to take home a souvenir or two there is an impressive shop, stocked with more than 470 derivations of whisky. Customers, it would appear, can’t get enough.
“We had one Chinese visitor who bought a £27,000 bottle, and another who wanted to buy several bottles, worth £40,000,” says Morrison. “We were concerned about duty free limits so pointed this out to him, but he had his own private jet so that wasn’t an issue.
“As part of the 30th celebrations this year, we will be bottling 550 bottles of 30 year old for sale so we expect there to be a high demand for those”, she adds. With the popularity of whisky shows no signs of slowing, it looks like tourists will continue to flock to The Scotch Whisky Experience for many years to come.