Wine tourism: Reboot Required

One topic that never seems to get old in wine writing is the existence of influencers in the wine industry. A recent article suggested that they are a bunch of self-centered and entitled individuals who offer no value to the wine industry. I read the article, because these articles always grab people’s attention, and then resumed finishing this post on…. wine tourism.

Definitely not a hot topic these days, but I thought it quite interesting that while some complain about those annoying influencers that just don’t go away (here’s a hint, they’re not going away), others are nervously wondering what will happen with tourism and their businesses. 

Prior to the pandemic, tourism was the third largest industry in the world. According to UNCTAD, it accounted for close to 10% of the global GDP in 2019, created 100 million direct jobs, and one out ten people were directly employed in the tourism industry, like myself. Many countries relied heavily on tourism, such as Spain and Italy where it accounted for 15% and 13% of the GDP respectively. For some wine-producing countries, it was a vital part of their revenue and wine sales. South Africa, for example, received approximately 10 million visitors a year and boutique wineries sold up to 40% through cellar door visits (read more here). Unfortunately, South Africa is also facing a double whammy with a ban on alcohol sales and disrupted travel due to the pandemic so it seems fair to say that social media influencers are the last worry on many people’s mind, but I digress…

As many wineries have tried to adapt as best they can to our current global situation, shifting from physical to virtual, from indoor to outdoor experiences (weather permitting), from massive groups to personalized and private, there is obviously much uncertainty and a dark cloud hovers over tourism businesses. Layoffs and unemployment continue as the lockdowns continue. While there is a temptation to just restart the tourism engine as soon as all of this is over, this break also offers the opportunity to rethink tourism, in our case, wine tourism.  

Time to think is important, – vital, in fact – and something that was generally lacking in the tourism sector, evident in the damage and destruction that tourism brought to many destinations. The rise of low-cost flights and budget airlines, the proliferation of Airbnb rentals and the fast cash that could be made from those silly tourists was an incentive for just about anyone, which meant that a lot of unsavoury practices flourished. Very few destinations had mapped out sound, sustainable and equitable policies and practices when it came to tourism, and thus the result was overtourism, housing crises, gentrification, heritage and cultural loss or degradation, and environmental damage due to air travel and the massive influx of tourists. Destination marketing companies used the same tactics to lure visitors (ie. Top 10 Places to Visit this Fall, Top 5 Beaches to See in Croatia) and lax governmental policies did very little to protect a destination, its culture and its people, sometimes working against them for the sake of profits and growth. As a result, it was not uncommon to read “Tourists are terrorists” and “Tourists go home” spray painted in the streets of Venice, Barcelona or Amsterdam. 

What does this have to do with wine? 

Quite a bit, actually. Wine tourism was on the rise prior to the pandemic. It was considered the golden goose of the wine trade: selling directly to consumers thereby increasing profit. It also provided additional revenue and was considered a powerful marketing and communication tool, where personal connections and face-to-face interactions with the end consumer had the ability to create brand ambassadors. 

But wine tourism was/is visitor-centric. It is about viewing the experience from the visitor’s point of view, valuing the visitor above all else, doing everything possible to attract visitors for a few brief months. This is evident in the way experiences have been designed: similar tours and tastings, wooing visitors with luxury facilities, building monstrous wineries, hotels, resorts and visitor centers that disrespect the local and traditional architecture of the destination, wiping out all elements of authenticity or heritage. Of course it’s important to cater to visitors – they are an important part of any tourism activity. But we really need to take a step back and re-evaluate where we place the value in tourism.  

Wine tourism, along with gastronomy and cultural tourism, is not just monetary gains and extra profits for individual wineries, but also quite important for rural agricultural areas where most wineries are located. Perhaps one of the greatest threats for rural regions in Europe is depopulation. In Spain, this is colloquially known as la España vacia, empty Spain, where the abandonment of entire towns and villages is a very real and sad thing to witness. In Portugal, this is similar. I’ve seen the small villages in the Douro Valley or Alentejo close to abandonment, where the once-majestic churches and beautiful schist buildings now lay in ruin. In some towns, there still are a handful of old timers that take out their plastic chairs and sit in the town square once the sun goes down. There’s a nostalgic feeling because deep down inside you know that once they are gone so too is the town.

Tourism, well-managed and well-planned, offers younger people in these regions another professional possibility, a way to develop other skills beyond manual labor, work that stimulates the intellect and a way to connect with other people, all kinds of people. Generally speaking, the income they receive goes back into the local economy, and may help curb this depopulation trend as more services, activities and infrastructure develop.

But the problem is that many wineries do not value this work. Tourism workers are often not given comprehensive training, have very little job security, and oftentimes there is no further professional development that they can aspire to as they are not considered professionals. Take this job listing for a wine tourism/marketing intern for a chateau in Bordeaux, that I recently came across. The listing was looking for the following candidate: 

  • Speaks French and English fluently, and two other languages
  • Exceptional communication skills, both verbal and non-verbal
  • Degree in tourism, marketing or similar 
  • Formal wine training or education
  • Background in service/hospitality preferred 
  • Must be able to work weekends and holidays 
  • Ability to be a brand ambassador and convey our message with pride

Nowhere in the listing was there an indication of pay, stipend or any monetary benefit beyond “valuable work experience” with a Grand Cru Classe chateau. 

Sadly, this is not an exception during exceptional times. This is the norm, and it is an unsavoury practice that needs to go when tourism restarts, along with the ridiculously low or  unlivable wages for tourism professionals, because one cannot live off of “valuable work experiences” alone.

Offering “valuable work experience” in exchange for free labor from students is exploitative and unacceptable. However, it is very common. Young tourism professionals who are desperate for work experience with well-known wineries, chateaux or wine associations have many of them saying ‘yes’ when they should be saying ‘no’. As a master’s student, I recall a work placement at a very important wine association, where I was partially paid in supermarket vouchers. I accepted this arrangement because I so wanted to work with this company. Following completion of my master’s degree in wine tourism, I was offered a job as wine tourism director at a very important, medium-sized winery in Portugal. The wines were not cheap and there was talk of building a B&B and small restaurant on site, yet the salary I was offered nearly knocked me off my seat. It was not even minimum wage, but “a government subsidy would cover the rest”, I was told. 

As a professional in the trade, I’m always taken aback at the lack of respect there is for younger professionals that do these new, unconventional jobs in the wine trade, like wine tourism or social media marketing. There is a distorted perception that these are non-professions, despite asking for a university degree and a long list of other requirements as noted above, and as a result, the wages are low or non-existent, relying on students or the winery owner’s cousin or nephew to fill in. 

Guides usually do not get training but are expected to represent the winery with pride and passion. People who do not regularly work in tourism but have led a few visits through the winery, such as the owner or winemaker, know that it is not always a super sweet deal as many perceive it to be. It is exhausting and physically draining to be constantly “on” and to be likeable to visitors. Beyond showing visitors around the winery, a wine tourism professional must provide correct information about the company wines, but they must also have expertise in wine in general which is the reason more and more wineries are looking for individuals with WSET certifications or wine training. Beyond wine, they are brand ambassadors and local/national ambassadors, and as such must have clear communication skills in various languages, they must provide cultural insights and historical knowledge of the area, they must have cross-cultural skills if dealing with foreign visitors, and on top of that they must have sales and persuasion skills to be able to sell wines.

This is not a one dimensional job. In fact, it is not very far off from a “regular” brand ambassador. But a brand ambassador usually gets formal training, has monetary incentives or the possibility of scholarships to develop their professional skills or enhance their wine knowledge. They also have a decent wage. Guides and tourism professionals rarely see any of these benefits. In fact, quite the opposite. They are seasonal, which means they are easily disposable after high season. Wages are generally very low, usually minimum wage, and the possibility of having a contract is difficult. The seasonality of wine tourism makes it difficult to manage with high numbers of tourists in a few months, and then nothing for the rest of the year. This means that tourism professionals are overworked and underpaid, close to burning out for half of the year but then out of a job for the other half of the year. But winery management expects tourism guides and professionals to “convey our message with pride”. 

How can we expect our wine guides or tourism professionals to have a pride or passion for wine if wineries do not invest in them as humans worthy of fair pay? How can we expect the best from our staff if we give them so little to begin with? How do we expect to make positive changes in our communities if the people in our industry cannot make ends meet?  

Stop, Pause and Rethink Wine Tourism

It is really time to rethink and reflect what we want for our community. It is time to expand our view and shift our perspective to begin to place value on the people. If there is no  investment in our relationships with our workers , then there are emotionally uninvested employees, they don’t display any passion or pride. The responses, the scripts, the work they do is automatic. This isn’t a problem of workers, they do their job according to the standards of the company. And if the standards are low, then the output is low and the wine experiences are basic. What do they gain from performing well? Very little. And what will they do once the season is over? They’ll leave the town or region looking for … well, more. For wine regions that already struggle to find workers for the cellar, finding qualified candidates in wine tourism will be even harder. Retention is the new acquisition, in all areas of the business.

Yes, these are exceptional times and yes, tourism looks rocky for the next year, two or three… But we have time to look back at the many problems tourism had, the mismanagement, the ideas we believed, where we placed our value, and start to do some forward thinking and planning. Covid-19 has given us a magnifying glass to see interactions we have with people and how vital they are. How can we move from casual interactions to meaningful relationships? How can we do better for our community? How can we serve our employees better? How can we value each and every customer? 

People make a destination. It is not about the luxury hotels or spas, nor is it about the Michelin-star restaurants available on premise. Tourism is about people, it is about connecting on a personal level, on a human level. It is also about nurturing relationships not for the benefit of your brand, your business or your bottom line but for your community. Covid-19, for all the damage caused, has given us a new lens to see the relationship we have with our community and the people in it. We’re all part of a chain of experience because tourism is people-centered business. We must think beyond the experiences from the clients’/visitors’ perspective. Wineries need to view their tourism staff not as disposable seasonal workers, but as a vital part of the community, one that adds value to the destination, and pay them a fair and liveable salary that will commensurate with the responsibilities, skills and qualifications required. This should be worthy of discussion in wine writing, not how annoying social media influencers are.

***

For more wine tourism talk with me, please listen to The Wine Marketing Show with Lawrence Francis from Interpreting Wine. Follow this link http://interpretingwine.com/wms4

11 Comments Add yours

  1. thank you a very good article should be reprinted and read by many. unfortunately so many now value the cheap experience over the intense and maybe time consuming. When we do out tastings here I say 3 hours and it usually is more. People are surprised by how long it takes but in the end are very happy!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Chris, thanks for commenting. Yes, the cheap and fast experiences leave so much to be desired and I think people will no longer care for that in the future. Connection through genuine interactions is the key, and leaves a greater impression.

      Like

  2. Thanks for speaking more on this topic!
    For me nothing beats the personal experience of tasting with the winemaker. I think it’s incredibly short term to only quantify the success of wine tourism by the number of visitors you can get through the doors for a group experience. Making it more personal will do wonders for the wineries brand, whereas an impersonal experience won’t.
    It will probably be the case that because of COVID these large tours aren’t possible in 2021 so a more intimate style of visit has been forced on wineries. Hopefully the ones who have been doing this for years see the benefit of this change.
    PS. Your readers might be interested to know that Vinka was interviewed (by me) on the topic for an wine tourism podcast special here: http://interpretingwine.com/wms4

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for commenting Lawrence! Yes, totally agree with you. Although it’s tricky to have a visit with a winemaker depending on the amount of visitors a winery gets, but if they have time then it can be a great way to learn and feel totally immersed.
      Yes, Covid is going to change a lot of the tourist experiences… and hopefully for the better as we become more conscious of how we can value each other.
      Great! thanks, I will include it in the post 😉

      Like

  3. Very good this, Vinka, lots of great points and some nice opinions. It’s interesting the “gentrification” effect of over-tourism. Barcelona, Palma and Porto all AirBnBs and no local can afford to live there – some districts must really be feeling it / missing it even at the moment. Whereas I feel that sleepy Tarragona could use a few more tourist dollars and a just a bit more investment in the old town at least, as what could be a real gem lies half falling apart. Your core points about how a well executed wine tourism programme can be very positive for both the winery and the broader area are very valid and of course tourism professionals, as “front of house” need to be properly trained and appropriately rewarded. Having been on a range of cellar tours I think my favourites are small-medium places that are set up for it but don’t do it so often that you feel like you’re on a conveyor belt. Gómez Cruzado in Rioja do a great job for example and we left feeling like royalty. That’s what any guest wants, a magic couple of hours, a reward for having made the trek out to the middle of nowhere, a special tasting perhaps and lots of social media points to prove it. One good visit can turn any visitor into an ambassador for life. Re. the point about retention of staff outsde of peak season, that’s a hard one. Ideally they could stay with the firm and do something else, bottling, vyd work, admin, sales? Yet in Spain at least I feel that people are too often “silo’d” and something’s either part of your job or isn’t. Great article!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Andrew. Right, it is difficult to retain staff as much of the work in wineries is seasonal in general and as you say, sometimes employees are viewed as one thing only, kept in a box, making it hard for qualified professionals to work in other areas of the winery during down times. In terms of tourism, finding ways to combat seasonality is key to a healthy industry. Obviously, this is difficult and requires the work of local stakeholders, governments and the community. But because most of tourism has dried up, it is time to think about how it can be better managed.
      And I agree, Gomez Cruzado has a wonderful, relaxed experience and great wines to match.

      Like

  4. Very important article. It will be interesting to see what changes post-Covid. I expect not much will. I live in a highly tourist area and the rental prices have been exorbitant but now you see advertisement for long-term rentals again. I’m sure they’ll be kicked out once they can fill their homes with tourists again.
    As you state, wine tourism ergo wine professionals, would be an amazing way to revitalize the forgotten villages. Certainly something to consider. If the wineries looked at their tasting room employees as an investment it would likely trickle down to investing in these communities. Perhaps this will start a great reset.
    Again, very well stated.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Anna, thank you for commenting. Yes, unfortunately I too believe that things will just kind of go back to old ways once things start up again… Hopefully not. Thanks again for reading. Will check out your site.

      Like

  5. Nuno R Silva says:

    Very good read Vinka! I felt very embarassed when you mentioned your job offer in Portugal! I’ve been through the same! Thank you for sharing!

    Like

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