By Dawn Dolan
Stepping up to fill a much-needed niche in the beverage industry, the 2017 US Wine & Beverage Expo (USBevX), held in Washington, D.C. offered something unique; the first-ever Winery Association Leadership Conference (WALC). Built for association directors (at state, regional, and AVA levels), their board members, and key staff, this fledgling conference achieved high marks from all parties, attendees to panelists.
No other national conference in existence is geared for association directors and principals, and this inaugural conference gained immediate relevance by tackling ground-level issues that associations face, whether young or established. Chris Goblet, Executive Director of the New Mexico Wine Growers Association said, “From a content perspective, this was good groundwork, and was laying the baseline for us.”
Beth Costa, Executive Director for Wine Road in Northern Sonoma County, CA, an association of 200 wineries, noted that, “Wine regions are in different stages of development around the country.” This innovative conference, she felt, “would benefit any level of association”.
Goblet saw that many attended the grants workshop, as that is something all boards and directors are focused on. “We need to figure out how the associations can be sustainable,” he said with motivation. “We need to explore non-traditional revenue sources.” Costa agreed that this was a hot topic. “Much of the conversation was around funding. We have all had a variety of problems around the funding issue.”
Annette Boyd, Director: Virginia Wine Board Marketing Office and owner of Ringwood Boyd Marketing, was a panelist on the funding session. “The USDA has millions of dollars of grant money.” In the panel, she modelled from her state’s perspective, “We have a program for the Virginia wineries. We are marketing our matching grant program. I was discussing how to expand the footprint.”
Also on Boyd’s agenda was how to cooperate with other alcoholic beverage industries in your area. “Let’s say you’re in an area with three to five wineries, and some cider producers. Write a marketing plan to fund a special collaborative week. This can also help your smaller groups.” She also provided information to those getting ready to think about grant writing, “Remember your audience. What are they looking to do with their objectives?”
Kevin Atticks, Executive Director of the Maryland Wineries Association, agreed with the collaboration aspects. “We need these collaborations. Beverage markets are beginning to converge, so it’s incredibly important to know that your consumer is also consuming beer and spirits and cider. Wine is different, and wineries have just begun to think differently. Their clients are interested in craft beer and spirits, so the ability to collaborate can bring more people to all of us.” Goblet also noted, “The craft beer industry has been creative about getting funding.” He felt that the conference gave some of these other beverage industries a great opportunity to open the language of communication with their winery counterparts.
Jim Trezise, former New York Wine & Grape Foundation president, and now president of Wine America, was in concurrence, “Cooperation pays! It seems counterintuitive that competitors should collaborate, but many real-life examples, like with wine trails, show that it’s good for everyone.”
Costa reiterated the cooperation theme across the personal level, as directors. “It’s good to know you are not out there on your own trying to figure this out. I liked that we were able to hear from other beverage industry people as well, and learn from them. For example, Ryan Krill from Cape May Brewing had great things to share with us.”
Donniella Winchell, Executive Director of the Ohio Wine Producers Association, shared that the branding session was, “…incredibly powerful. Monika Elling who focuses on how to identify and brand your region, was phenomenal.” Winchell suggested a list of future topics which would take this year’s sessions to new depths as WALC matures: fundraising, grant writing, working with ancillary businesses, and how to build a better relationship with restaurants were some first subjects offered up. More topics were added as attendees shared a common vision of future years of this conference. “Working with your visitor’s bureau and local hotels.” “How can we get money from these sources to help support us?” “Fundraising beyond grants with wine trails, festivals, consumer groups.” Boyd added marketing topics to that list: marketing with oriented content, social media, and public relations in terms of building a wine region, with mechanisms for harnessing it for the benefit of all the participants in an association.
Feedback was given to the moderators, panelists, and bantered about after the last chair was stacked for the night. Boyd remarked, “I was so impressed with the turn out and the great networking opportunities. I left wanting more!” She was pleased that the conference organizers were, ”listening to their audience, responding to their needs, and talking about things that people want to hear. It is important to learn how to market an industry, use social media, and look for grants for your region. All those are relevant to us.”
Atticks was pleased, noting, “Having a dedicated track for association leadership was a huge step forward for the industry. It needs to continue, be expanded. It helps enrich all of us. I got a lot out of the networking, with different association sharing their challenges. For me, the topics were great. Very engaging and interactive.”
Max McFarland, Chairman of the Nebraska Grape and Winery Board noted, “This was the first time I’d been to a conference created specifically for the state wine leadership folks and associations. It was absolutely tremendous for the first time it’s happened. The topics that were selected were appropriate and timely.” He continued, “It’s going to get better and better as the words gets out, when more states will be represented, with more state leaders. With this conference, boards have the potential to grow their leaders. So send the president and president elect of the boards as well!”
Trezise concurs, “This conference is young but off to a good start, and has great potential to grow next year and beyond. I heard a lot of rave reviews from other people who attended, and I agree with their raves.”
George Christie, President of Wine Industry Network, conference producer, said “We had a feeling when we conceived the idea of WALC that “magic” would happen when you put different association leaders in the same room to talk about common challenges and solutions…and that’s exactly what happened. This year was great, but next is going to be even better!”
Goblet summed up the conference, looking at it from a regional Board’s perspective, “This [type of conference] hasn’t been done before, and why not invest in it? In three or four years this will be one of the most important conferences for board members to send their directors. It is important to provide them with this training and support. As their directors improve, their states will shine.” He concluded, “I’m going to this conference. We need more leadership development and lifelong learning as directors.”