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Diageo hires GM for Johnnie Walker experience

The chief executive of the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland will join Diageo to head its new tourism experience for Johnnie Walker in Edinburgh, as well as the group’s network of distillery visitor centres across Scotland.

Barbara Smith will oversee Diageo’s visitor centres across Scotland

Barbara Smith has more than 30 years of leadership experience running some of the UK’s foremost leisure and tourist attractions, including Edinburgh Castle, Chester Zoo and Edinburgh Zoo.

She will join Diageo as general manager of the Johnnie Walker visitor experience in the new year, and will have a wider responsibility for the group’s tourism business in Scotland.

Last year, UK drinks group Diageo announced its plan to spend £150 million (US$215m) on creating the new Johnnie Walker experience at 146 Princes Street in Edinburgh. The funds have also been earmarked to “transform” the visitor centres at four distilleries – Glenkinchie, Cardhu, Caol Ila and Clynelish, which will be linked to the Edinburgh venue and create a ‘Johnnie Walker tour of Scotland’.

The funds represent the biggest single investment in Scotch whisky’s tourism industry to date, and will be phased between 2018 and 2021.

Cristina Diezhandino, Diageo’s global Scotch whisky director, said of Smith’s appointment: “[Barbara] has an exceptional record of leadership at some of the UK’s most successful attractions and we are thrilled to have someone of such capability, experience and vision joining us.

“We look forward to working with Barbara to deliver our ambition of creating the world’s leading whisky destinations.”

Artist’s impression of the Johnnie Walker visitor experience in Edinburgh

Smith added: “I am incredibly excited to join Diageo and Johnnie Walker at a time when they are making such a major investment in the future of Scotch whisky tourism, both in Edinburgh with the Johnnie Walker Princes Street flagship and in distilleries around Scotland.

“I look forward enormously to playing a leading role in delivering this transformational programme.”

In May this year, Diageo received planning approval to build the flagship Johnnie Walker visitor experience.

The centre will feature a multi-sensory, immersive visitor experience spread across three floors; an events space for music, theatre, arts and community events; a training academy that will be home to Diageo’s Learning for Life programme; rooftop access to views across the city; and retail space at street level, inspired by the Johnnie Walker flagship retail store in Madrid, Spain.

The group received planning approval for its work at Glenkinchie in January, Caol Ila in April, Clynelish in June and Cardhu in August.

Diageo is investing an additional £35m to restore its closed Brora and Port Ellen distilleries, which will also include visitor centres, taking the group’s Scottish total to 14.

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