Brian Donaldson: Virgin hotel will attract global tourists to Edinburgh

India Buildings is being converted into a Virgin hotel. Picture: Jane Barlow
India Buildings is being converted into a Virgin hotel. Picture: Jane Barlow
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As an Edinburgh-headquartered, global construction and property consultancy, being awarded such an internationally-significant project in Edinburgh is as important for Thomas & Adamson as it could be for the city’s continued growth as a tourism powerhouse.

This will be the first Virgin Hotel outside of the US, and as such has attracted serious international interest. The fact leading companies like Virgin and Flemyn LLP have deemed Edinburgh not only worthy, but the first destination for its global investment for a project of this kind, speaks volumes about the Capital’s current weight in the global tourism space and positive economic outlook.

Edinburgh’s ability to cater to the delivery of a new class in hotel expectations, despite the heritage-related planning restrictions, makes it quite a unique destination of choice. It is not yet saturated like London, for example – there is still a lot of opportunity here.

Edinburgh has increasingly become a year-round tourist destination. From a personal point of view I’m excited for what the finished article will bring to the city. Currently the listed India Buildings is empty. Victoria Street is one of the most famous streets in Edinburgh and the fact the building has not been in use does not help the area and this will breathe vitality into the historic part of the city. The Virgin Hotel will truly boost the vibrancy of the whole area. The Cowgate, on the south side, is currently a gap site and this project is going to bring that part of the Cowgate right back up in terms of footfall and image.

From a technical planning perspective, this has been challenging, rigorous and incredibly exciting project. Because India Buildings is listed, we’ve had to meet The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization’s (Unesco) impositions, which exist to protect listed buildings and preserve the area’s heritage. Therefore, the project has been through a very long planning process to get the go-ahead. Everything from density and choice of materials to proposals for the listed buildings has been scrutinised, and rightly so.

I was born in Edinburgh, Stockbridge specifically, and it definitely wasn’t such a cosmopolitan area then as it is now, I assure you (or so I am told by my mum and dad). Being an Edinburgh boy it’s truly remarkable to be a part of the physical evolution of the city. The India Buildings used to be where you registered births, so back in 1994 I registered my first son’s birth there. There is definitely some nostalgia attached to the building for me, mixed with a sense of pride in bringing that building to the forefront of the city in such a dynamic way.

Working in the inner city, as one of the busiest parts of Edinburgh, we’ve had to and will continue to work collaboratively with adjacent owners and City of Edinburgh Council through the developer and contractors, especially during festival periods. Throughout the project duration we will be exercising sensitivity and collaborative approaches to ensure nuisances don’t happen.

The buoyant demand for high-end accommodation in Scotland’s capital city is attracting investment and interest from high-end stakeholders, like those on this project. I’ve witnessed in the last three to five years the quality of offers around retail and F&B really diversifying, with the top end raising its game considerably.

Currently we are working on a series of Edinburgh redevelopment projects, such as Quartermile, St Andrew’s Square and Edinburgh St James, so it’s absolutely fair to say that Edinburgh is serious about upgrading and challenging other major European cities for its share of the tourism industry. All of these redevelopment projects have upgrade elements, especially within hospitality and residential sectors. The India Buildings project for me epitomises where Edinburgh has been headed for the past five years and in 2020 we will be proud to show the world exactly what we’ve achieved.

Brian Donaldson is the Partner in charge of Scotland at Thomas & Adamson