Wine tourism won’t recover ‘until at least 2022’

Wine tourism is unlikely to recover until at least 2022, with revenue generated from visitors slashed by more than half and in some cases completely decimated at the majority of wineries over the course of 2020. Despite this UK vineyards are optimistic, with many reporting an unexpected uplift in tourism and an increase in visitors between lockdowns.

Gonzalez Byass’ new Tio Pepe hotel in Jerez

In a survey conducted by winetourism.com of 1,203 wineries across 34 countries, 32% reported financial losses of between 50-80% with regard to tourism revenue, with a further 20% reporting losses of more than 80%. Of those surveyed, 58% said they didn’t expect wine tourism to return to pre-covid levels any earlier than 2022. 

“It is very hard to predict at this stage but we do not believe that we will see any kind of return to normal levels until at least 2022,” says Beatriz Vergara, director of wine tourism and hospitality for Gonzalez Byass, which opened its Hotel Bodega Tío Pepe in Jerez this past summer. “That being said, we should see more interest in travel toward the Spring and Summer of next year if the pandemic eases and vaccination plans are carried out effectively.”

Gonzalez Byass’ new 27-room boutique hotel is based at its 19th century winery in Jerez, and has been billed as the world’s first Sherry hotel. Its opening in the middle of a pandemic couldn’t have come at a more challenging time, but the response has been encouraging, says Vergara.  

“We had been preparing for our opening this year for so long that we just decided to go for it, open our doors and see what happened. The response has been amazing, better than we expected given that our regional and national border have been closed during the majority of our first six months of trading. Local business from within Andalucia and from Spain has been buoyant, relatively speaking. As we are starting from zero we cannot given any comparative figures but believe that giving such an exclusive experience and by being the only hotel housed within a Sherry bodega (in the heart of Jerez) can only be a positive when normal conditions finally resume.”

Sam Linter, MD and head winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate

‘Between the first and second lockdowns we were ridiculously busy’

A bright outlook has also been reported in the UK, where wine tourism has been on a solid upward trajectory. Wine GB predicted in 2019 that by 2040 wine tourism in the UK could generate additional revenue of £658m per annum. Wineries have unsurprisingly experienced a significant downturn in tourism during 2020, which may dampen this prediction. However those vineyards that have reopened between lockdowns have reported “a healthy uptake in numbers”, Wine GB said in its 2020 report, with many looking to consolidate growth of this side of the business into 2021 and beyond.

Sam Linter, MD and head winemaker at Bolney Wine Estate in Sussex, reported a 40% decline in revenue generated from wine tourism, but that demand for vineyard experiences was growing and had prevented further financial loss.

“What we discovered is that when we were open between the first and second lockdowns we were ridiculously busy, which is why I think we were only 40% down – it could have been worse,” she says. “People were desperate to be out in the countryside and in the fresh air. We were inundated and couldn’t take anyone else in. Obviously we had to cut numbers down with social distancing and we were running tours at half capacity, but we were putting more on and bringing in more staff to facilitate that.”

Similarly, Langham Estate in Dorset saw visitor numbers increase following the first lockdown and its direct sales “increase significantly”, says director Justin Langham. 

“It took a few weeks to build up momentum after restrictions were eased in early July, but it carried on right through to late October when we were hit again by Lockdown 2.”

Langham adapted by creating spaces for takeaway picnics across the estate and converted an agricultural open-sided barn to provide seating, and has since added heaters and fabric sides for the colder months.

“So far, we have been full for the days we have opened in December,” says Langham. “Many people are rightly very cautious about social interaction and the space we have feels safe. Whatever rules, restrictions or challenges are presented to us, we have to be inventive to adapt as best we can to ensure the survival and the growth of our business.”

Langham’s socially distanced barn space

‘UK vineyards are much more accessible than they were 10 years ago’

It helps that the vast majority of visitors to UK vineyards are domestic (83% in 2019, as reported by Wine GB) given the continued travel restrictions, and that they are inherently outdoor attractions able to more easily overcome restrictions. But the interest in UK wine tourism and the desire to visit vineyards is “stronger than ever”, believes Linter.

“UK wine tourism has stayed strong between lockdowns and vineyards are much more accessible than they were 10 years ago,” she says. “What’s happened this year is that hospitality has been shut and we haven’t been able to sell into the on-trade, which is where a really big percentage of wine is sold in this country. That has sent vineyards into online and tourism and I think both of those things have started to grow and people are investing in those in different ways which is positive for the future.”

Virtual tastings and vineyard tours have become an unexpected hit at Bolney and many wineries have added virtual experiences to their repertoire to help plug the gaps in lost revenue when forced to close. “A lot of people have said they are going to carry on doing these virtual events because it’s hard to visit family far away,” says Linter. “I know other vineyards have done the same, but it’s surprised us how popular it’s been.”

In any case, Linter is in agreement that things won’t begin to return to normal until 2022, pending any further complications with Brexit.

“If we are just talking about Covid I would be very very confident that [UK wine tourism] will spring back and we’ll be back on the same trajectory. We don’t see things being any different next year and we are planning investment back into the business from January next year on that basis.”

Ultimately, the recovery of wine tourism hinges on an effective vaccination rollout, but building confidence in the short term will be the first step toward normality.

“I am proud of the way our industry has responded to a hugely challenging year and arguably without the level of government support that is needed,” says Mark Harvey, chief commercial officer at Chapel Down in Kent.

“We should continue to display the same behaviours: agility, strength of character and optimism. Regarding English Wine specifically the collaboration shown across the producers is helpful. Sharing successes and failures as we go allows us all to learn fast and ensure we are adapting our offers so that visitors feel confident and compelled to visit our estates as things return to some sort of normality.”

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