Eddie Friel profile
At 66, Friel, whose lasting legacy to his adopted city was the “Glasgow, Scotland with Style” campaign, has a new job as a visiting professor at the University of Niagara in New York state. And he is increasingly in demand as a speaker on his philosophy of tourism driving the economy and how creating a brand for a city-region is a vital step towards recovery.
Recently he was a headline speaker at a sell-out conference in Niagara, telling the Americans (and Canadians) how the area would do well to take a few lessons from Glasgow .
”Don’t talk to me about retiral” says the ebullient Friel who with his wife has bought a new home in Lewiston in upper New York state. “Glasgow has a great story to tell and I love telling it.” Friel believes there is a lesson in the Glasgow turnaround for everyone.
Friel, who was made a freeman of the city in 2004, said: “What Glasgow did in the years from 1980 on was absolutely amazing. It was phenomenal that the city was able to turn itself round in such a short space of time, bearing in mind the dramatic rundown in industry.
“It was an achievement of the Glaswegians themselves. That’s what they are like. When everyone else was talking, Glasgow went ahead and did it.”
Introducing Friel, the local paper in Niagara had painted a grim picture of Glasgow’s plight, pre-Eddie, “It was a Scottish city with a glorious past that had no future… its fortunes sank after the Second World War when it lost its competitive edge in shipbuilding. Its 36 shipyards would ultimately dwindle to just a few.
“By the early 1980s, Glasgow was rife with urban decay and needed to reinvent itself.”
Friel says: “All true. Glasgow’s plight was very like the one that Buffalo, second city of New York state, and known as the City of Light, now finds itself in. Once an industrial powerhouse, driven by the hydropower from the falls, Buffalo’s industry has dwindled away. It has yet to rebrand itself as Glasgow did.”
Friel is already serving as an adviser to the new mayor of the New York city of Niagara Falls and has been asked for advice in Buffalo, too.
He also been asked to advise on the Canadian side of the border. Following the Niagara conference, the city of Toronto wants him to address a development conference there.
A native of Londonderry, in Northern Ireland, Friel arrived in Glasgow in 1983 as director of marketing and public relations at Scottish Opera. Soon after, he became Glasgow’s tourism boss, a role he was later to take on a second time.
He left in 2004 as VisitScotland moved to a centrally-based organisation, which Friel disagreed with. Ironically what he advocated at the time – a group of city-region tourist organisations – is once again official policy.
Key to the city’s resurgence, after the collapse of heavy industry, he says, was a report by the McKinsey team of management consultants which charted a course out of the dumps for the city.
“In Glasgow, we had to move to a completely new mindset,” he said. “We had to define what we had that somebody else might want to buy.
“The actual solution was setting up partnerships between the public and the private sector. There was a complete change in the local administration and the attitudes of people.”
Enormous capital investment made Glasgow more livable and attractive to tourism.
It was touted as a destination for shopping, sport and for culture. Nowhere was that approach more successful than Iceland.
“Icelandair was already flying in to Glasgow Airport, we had spare capacity in our hotels. We sold Glasgow there as a place with an evening economy, a sporting destination with two big football teams, and arts and culture. We basically went into Iceland and sold Glasgow as Las Vegas.
“They bought it. We ended up with more visitors coming from Iceland, staying longer and spending more than any other supplying marketplace of tourism to Scotland. It was a phenomenal success.”
One coup followed another. The 1988 Garden Festival was a huge draw and then came, in 1990, the accolade, Cultural Capital of Europe.
It was important that Glasgow’s latest branding identified it clearly as Glasgow, Scotland, not Glasgow, Kentucky, says Friel.
“That’s why I came up with “Glasgow, Scotland with Style” and that has been phenomenally successful. It tied in of course with the fame of architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.”
Friel believes the same kind of economic rethinking that turned Glasgow around could apply to Niagara, as the area struggles with a failing manufacturing sector.
He pointed out to the Americans that, in 1983 only 1,200 people worked in tourism-related jobs in Glasgow. Today the figure is 68,000.
“In Glasgow today, you now have self-sustaining growth. The place is absolutely on a roll. With the brand now secured, and with the economic development agency and the city council supporting it for the next 10 years, Glasgow is a dynamic, modern, European city.”
Friel, who has a son in Glasgow and two others in Toronto, not far from Niagara, is visiting professor-in-residence at the Hospitality and Research Centre at Niagara University. He also runs his own consultancy EFA Tourism and City Marketing.
“Many people are convinced about the value of using tourism as the driver of the economy to create jobs. Young people who don’t have the skills for higher-end jobs, can find point-of-entry jobs in tourism.
“Where you start has nothing whatsoever to do with where you finish. The scale of the opportunity in tourism is amazing. After all, I started off as a bartender in the Bogside, for God’s sake.”
After his conference speech at Niagara, dozens of people came up to speak to him. “They told me they had heard about the Glasgow revival but didn’t realise the scale of it,” said Friel.
“They said they would have to go there to see for themselves. It seems I am still in the tourism business!”