It’s been an eventful year . . but I like a challenge

Andy Neal of  Essential Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean

Andy Neal of Essential Edinburgh. Picture: Greg Macvean

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ESSENTIAL Edinburgh boss Andy Neal gives an insight into baptism of fire and future plans.

For all the gloss, glass and glamorous names which line George Street, you might imagine the man in charge of managing the city centre would be ensconced in rather plush surroundings.

Andy Neal, though, can be found behind a tatty red door at the west end of the street, and up three flights of rather steep stairs.

Even the Essential Edinburgh sticker at the buzzer is faded and rather dog-eared. But then the 500-odd members of the Business Improvement District (BID) which employ him might have something to say if their levy was being spent on top-class office space, rather than helping them survive the current economic recession.

Mr Neal has been in the job for just over a year, and it’s been a roller coaster 12 months. He took over as the recession was biting hard, the tram works were about to come back to Princes Street and there was major debate about whether they would ever run past Haymarket. There was no Festival venue in the city centre to boost summer trade as the Assembly Rooms was still shut. To top it all off, just as he got his feet under the table, the Occupy movement pitched up – literally – in St Andrew Square.

“It’s definitely been an eventful year,” he smiles. “I came in at a time when Essential Edinburgh needed someone to take it through the next couple of years, and to the next ballot. That’s the big test, but I like a challenge with a clear goal at the end of it.

“Certainly levy payers and stakeholders are saying that Essential Edinburgh is good for Edinburgh and needs to be run well, and there are services which are now taken as normal in the city centre which will disappear if we don’t get a yes vote next year.”

We’ll get to those services, but let’s start with the basics. Essential Edinburgh is the company which attempts to keep the city centre busy, clean, safe and attractive from St Andrew Square to Charlotte Square and all the streets in between. It was launched four years ago and is funded by hotels, restaurants, offices, retailers – a total of 583 businesses in the area it covers – and its main aim is to help them with their bottom lines.

To do this, it puts on events to attract people into town, which has been vital when it’s been at its least appealing given the ongoing tram works. It is behind the Santa train in Princes Street at Christmas, the Spa in the City annual event, it manages the fantastic new public resource St Andrew Square and the Castle Terrace farmers’ market. It also runs a shopping app which lets consumers know of the latest and best offers on in shops, restaurants and bars.

It has a Check Out security system to clamp down on shoplifting which saves members hundreds of thousands of pounds, pays for some CCTV cameras and its street clean team – or the “sick fairies” as Mr Neal colourfully describes them – are responsible for cleaning up the detritus of weekend over-indulgence in shop basements and doorways.

On top of all that, it has helped retailers with their waste management and recycling, so much so that bills have been drastically reduced.

All of the above then are reasons why Mr Neal – and others – believe Essential Edinburgh is, well, essential.

“Of course, it’s up to businesses where they want to spend their money, but when we can show them we’ve helped save them way more than the cost of the levy then I would hope they can see it makes business sense to keep Essential Edinburgh going for a second term,” says Mr Neal. “But in the current financial climate I can understand why they might not want to do that. I just hope we can convince them otherwise and there will be a yes vote next year.”

He adds: “For instance, if we’re not here, who will manage St Andrew Square? I doubt the gates would shut, but who knows? And what about the removal of chewing gum from the pavements. We do that. And we clean up the sick or rubbish that lands in basements or shop doorways as the council doesn’t. We leave a card now letting people know we did it.”

He points to Check Out which he says 150 businesses are signed up to and which has reduced retail crime massively by the sharing of information on shoplifting gangs so stores know when they are in the area and what they look like. Then there’s the waste management collective that 130 businesses are involved with – reducing the number of bin lorries on the streets and saving some businesses £450 a year, others such as 
medium-sized hotels as much as £1200.

It’s all happened on Mr Neal’s watch, but back in August last year the first complaints landed on his desk – footfall numbers were down because there was no Festival venue and everyone was heading to the Old Town instead.

“There wasn’t much I could do about that at the time,” he says. “But we listened and this year we had the Spiegel Terrace outside the newly 
reopened Assembly Rooms and we saw the Festival return to the city centre and it had a big impact. Footfall on George Street alone went up massively.

“At the same time, though, there was also the discussion about where the tram would stop. Two weeks in the job and I had to take a deputation to the City Chambers saying it had to go to St Andrew Square and that we needed additional funding for attracting people into the city centre. Thankfully, they reversed the Haymarket terminus decision and gave an additional £290,000, which we saved to use to boost Christmas with activities in Princes Street.”

Of course, Princes Street always grabs the headlines, be it through the effect of the trams or the constant search for a way to rejuvenate the grand old lady of retail. You might imagine that businesses on other streets would get a little fed up with never being in the limelight. Juggling all the interests must be a major headache.

“It’s impossible to keep everyone happy so we have to find a balance with the majority,” says Mr Neal. “But that’s the challenge. It’s like having the buses along George Street. Some retailers thought it was tremendous for business, other types of business didn’t. We have to find consensus.”

A consensus of a kind has been reached in one area – that Rose Street needs redeveloped. Essential Edinburgh now has a plan out for consultation which it hopes will turn around the fortunes of the 
thoroughfare.

“We might have started with road and pavement surface renewal, but you know what people really wanted was to stop all the traffic going in and out what is supposed to be a pedestrian area, so we need to sort out traffic management and make the entrances to Rose Street more interesting and attractive.”

Traffic is the perennial issue, particularly parking. Again, there are many voices in the BID on this. “One store might want to make George Street pedestrianised but another might want its clients to be able to park outside – it just depends on who their customers are,” he says. “We are still looking at underground parking on George Street as the way forward. We had thought about it at Charlotte Square but the owners there are not interested. But if we’ve put a man on the Moon, I think parking underground should not be beyond us.”

New signage is also on the agenda for the next five years to allow people to get around the city centre better and, of course, a major promotion – spending £2m over two years – when the tram works finally stop.

“Then it’s all about getting people to come back to town,” he says. “I have no doubt that they will. The retail offer in the city centre is always criticised but I think it’s tremendous, as long as people know what’s there. That’s what Essential Edinburgh is about.”

• For more information on the Essential Edinburgh app, visit essentialprivilege.co.uk

Essential standings

SALES in city centre shops were still down in August according to figures from Essential Edinburgh, despite the Festival fillip which increased footfall, particularly along George Street, where the Spiegel Terrace was situated.

In fact, footfall was up by 18.8 per cent overall in the city centre compared with July – shooting up by 44 per cent in George Street.

Princes Street at Marks & Spencer was apparently the busiest spot in the city centre in August – with 1,102,242 people passing the footfall counter installed there. Sales revenue, though, was still down three per cent.

Unsurprisingly, hotel room occupany increased from 84.1 per cent in July to 89.9 per cent – but it was still down by 3.7 per cent compared with August last year.

However, Marketing Edinburgh Convention Bureau’s figures show growth: 83 conferences due to be held in Edinburgh between now and 2018 will attract 22,800 people to the city with an economic benefit of £32.5m.

The Iceman has cometh

FIVE years ago Andy Neal might well have been found running naked through the snow from sauna to frozen lake. But then that’s what you do for kicks when you live in Finland.

Now the 53-year-old is more likely to be battling his waistline than extreme temperatures. He’s currently on a no-carbs diet, and for a man who spends his life surrounded by the designer labels of menswear on George Street, he laughingly admits that he shops in M&S, as the retailer “makes clothes the shape I am”.

Living in Murrayfield with his wife – their three children are all grown up – he says he made the decision to return to the UK after years with brewers S&N in Helsinki because of family. “My wife’s father was terminally ill with cancer so we came back,” he says. “But I was also 50 that year and the last of our kids had gone off to university, so I was at a crossroads. I wondered what I wanted to do with the rest of my working life.”

Rather than try to find another corporate job (before S&N he’d worked for United Distillers, where he successfully got Bell’s whisky advertised on TV for the first time) he looked to the charity sector. “I went to work for MacMillan Cancer Support as head of community fundraising for Scotland and Northern Ireland. After six months we were running nine per cent ahead of the previous year. I ended up getting the UK job and the two years I was there we raised over £50m. But it also meant three nights a week in London, which I didn’t want to do.

“I started looking around for a not-for-profit opportunity in Scotland, somewhere I could make a difference and use my experience. I had never heard of Business Improvement Districts until the headhunter approached me saying that Essential Edinburgh was looking for a chief executive.

“I like to think that even though 20 years of my 30-year career has been spent in marketing whisky and beer, coming into a job like this, city centre management, it all helps me give me a different perspective on things.”