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Wednesday, 13 October 2021 15:30

Pivotal Times: Challenging season for wine hospitality

Written by  Brenda Webb
Wairau River Wairau River

New Zealand cellar door are continuing to adapt while trying to stay optimistic, say operators in a Covid-disrupted market.

Nicky Hewett, Guest Relations Manager at Cloudy Bay, says her team remains positive, says her team remains positive, but the recent Delta lockdown resulted in a conservative return to business, while bookings and events were cancelled or postponed. "We've reduced our cellar door hours to five days a week while Auckland - our largest source of domestic visitors - is in lockdown," she says. "We are also aware we need to be flexible, particularly around cancellations and refunds, and put more emphasis on growing our direct to customer market channels through out new Wine Club. We cannot be certain when levels are going to change, so it's very hard to plan, but realise this is the new normal and we need to learn to live in a pandemic world."

Cloudy Bay's Central Otago cellar door, The Shed, was severely impacted with cancellations, including large group bookings. The closing of the Austalian bubble and the New Zealand lockdown was a double whammy in the middle of the busy winter ski season. Meg Soper, The Shed's Customer Experience Manager, says when borders closed last year, they shifted focus to connect with the local market. "I remain optimistic, but I am also a realist and last summer was so busy, which gave us the confidence to plan for growth going forward - all that exciting growth which we now have to dial back on," she says. "It's super disappointing."

Before the Delta lockdown, the winter had been tracking really well with local visitors, domestic tourists and Australian travellers. "We worked hard over the summer to connect with and support our local community," says Meg. "We hosted charity events and adapted our menu to be more appealing to locals. And the response was great, with lots of repeat business which was really encouraging."

millton cellar door FBTW

Milton Vineyards

While changing to meet the market was essential, Meg says there was only so much that could be done. "How much re-pivoting can you do? I accept we have to adapt, but when you are dealing with smaller margins and fewer tourists it can be hard - especially for small businesses - I feel particularly sorry for them." In such times it's important for wineries and cellar doors to collaborate and network, says Meg. "We don't see other cellar doors as competitors. We support them, recommend them to visitors and learn about them to enhance the customer experience. It's great to be able to relate to other cellar doors, as there are mutual benefits." General feeling in the region was much flatter than after last year's lockdown, she says. "We are just trying to make the best of a not good situation."

In Gisborne, last winter was one of Milton Vineyard and Winery's busiest ever, says Bobby Clark, Marketing and Sales Manager. "Gisborne has never had a huge international tourist presence, but it's a really popular holiday spot for domestic travellers," he says. "We became the place to come to and we were much busier last winter than normal. In fact, we weren't quite ready for how busy it was." This time around Milton isn't expecting that same domestic influx, particularly as 90 percent of their visitors come from Auckland and Wellington. Bobby thinks people will be more reluctant to travel after this lockdown, whereas last time they couldn't wait to get on the road. "It seemed that every second vehicle on the road was a campervan, but I'm feeling that people are going to be staying put this time. If I put myself in their position, I certainly wouldn't be risking a weekend away." Milton's cellar door would be open as normal and Bobby predicted Labour Weekend would be a key time for visitors and a good indicator of the season ahead. "Cellar door is an important part of our business, but we are certainly not as big as others. We will open as normal and ask people to book in advance, but we're not hopeful of seeing loads of people."

Down in the Waitaki Valley, Jim Jerram from Ostler Wines is grateful for his cellar door, The Vintner's Drop, is in a unique position on one of the country's best known and popular cycle trails, the Alps 2 Ocean, which attracts thousands of cyclists a year. "Lucky for us the Alps 2 Ocean is a wonderful trail that has developed a real name, and we are in a unique position to capitalise on that," he says. "We worked hard to develop ourselves as a place with presence, and a cellar door to stop at, offering wine tastings and food." Reopening after last year's lockdown, The Vintner's Retreat was busy with Kiwis travelling and spending. Jim says he noticed New Zealanders who would normally holiday overseas were embracing the opportunity to explore their own country and, in particularly, travel around the South Island. "We certainly had a really busy season over summer, especially with big groups of Aussies - we will miss the Aussies." This time around Jim is a little more reluctant to predict how things will pan out. The whole feeling I am getting is that things are a little flat - we are all a bit nervous this time around."

Nicky Hewett and joyce Tang FBTW

Nicky Hewett and Joyce Tang

Auckland wine writer and tour guide Phil Parker says the ongoing Auckland lockdowns have been a huge blow to his business. "It could be years before we are anything approaching normal, but I am retirement age so opting to keep the business going as a hobby, even though my business is way down. While locals had been supportive, he predicted they would soon start heading to the beaches and boats and without the Australian travellers to rely on, things could be bleak, especially for cellar doors.

Last winter, Palliser Estate, in the heart of the Wairarapa, had one of its strongest seasons ever. Chief Executive Pip Goodwin was amazed at how tourism bounced back so quickly after lockdown. "We could never have predicted how busy our cellar door would be," she says. The Wairarapa benefitted from its proximity to Wellington, with regular weekend visitors as well as picking up on a huge number of domestic tourists, visiting the region or passing through and choosing to stop and visit wineries. "Domestic visitors can take wine with them so the spend was up," says Pip. "We put on lots of events, had a restaurant and did seated tastings, and people seem to really enjoy the premium one-on-one experience." This time around Pip is not predicting things to bounce back quite as quickly. "We are cautiously hopeful and I think come summer people are going to be ready to travel and have a nice experience," she says. "But I don't think it will be like last year - it's a very unknown market and I think people are going to be a lot more careful this time around."

the shed FBTW

The Shed

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