By Elizabeth Smith
At the annual U.S. Wine & Beverage Expo in Washington, D.C., the conference theme, “In Pursuit of Excellence”, found its way into all of the sessions, including “Staff Training: Your Best Investment”, moderated by George Christie, President and CEO of Wine Industry Network, and led by panelists, Tammy Boatright, Founder and President of VingDirect, and Jeff Plack, Director of Business Development at Biltmore Wines in Asheville, North Carolina.
The 2017 VinQuest Tasting Room Survey revealed that wineries that employed staff training saw 37% faster tasting room sales growth, 7% better tasting room conversion, and 83% quicker wine club sales growth. Wineries whose staff received at least 30 hours of annual training demonstrated 80% faster DTC sales growth, 78% better tasting room sales growth, and 39% quicker wine club sales growth. Mystery tasting results showed that only 40% of guests heard about the wine club and only 15% of guests were asked to join the e-mail list. Staff turnover, weak management, no customer feedback, lack of training, and transitioning to another point-of-sale system attributed to below average performance.
According to Boatright, the primary reason customers purchase wine and join clubs is not price point, wine quality, or a winery’s view, but rather the hospitality experience they receive. Successful wineries employ a staff led by an engaged and focused management team who gives clear goals and expectations. Ongoing training and skill development are essential.
The privately owned, 8000-acre Biltmore estate, founded in 1895 by George Vanderbilt – including the French-style chateau, nine food and beverage outlets, six retail shops, two hotels, and the winery – sees 1.45 million visitors per year. Plack, who has seen the winery’s DTC grow to 57% of total sales, reminded attendees that “people buy from people.” Tasting room associates are brand ambassadors that must be mentored and trained. Those that are passionate about the role will convert experiences into sales and memberships.
To delve deeper into the conversation, Boatright and Plack responded to a few follow-up questions.
What does excellence in hospitality mean to you?
TB: It means listening to the guest and trying to deliver on that. It also means paying attention to every detail of the experience to ensure the guest is comfortable.
JP: It means that we provide our guests with an experience so impactful that on each occasion that they open a bottle of Biltmore wine, it takes them back in time to their visit to our property. We also turn our mistakes into a wonderful, memorable experience.
How do you measure success when it comes to winery hospitality? What kind of data and evidence do you gather? How do you use that information?
TB: The best way to measure success is to gather guest feedback. Wineries can do this through mystery tastings, customer surveys, and social media reviews, then use that information to define what success looks like, create goals, and communicate with the team how they are doing.
JP: One way is we use a company that specializes in mystery shopping for the hospitality industry. The feedback and scores we receive help us know that we are providing or exceeding the level of service that our guests expect.
What are some of the training options available for small, medium, and large wineries?
TB: There are so many training options today to ensure a good fit. At VingDirect, we offer virtual and in-person training, plus monthly webinars for continuing education.
JP: Our training programs are created internally, from 30 years of fine tuning how we do business and training against that. Our human resources team created the Biltmore Center for Professional Development where individuals and organizations outside of Biltmore can learn from us and how we have mastered certain areas like hospitality. We also rely on industry experts like Tammy Boatright to help us see what is missing and fill in the gaps.
What other activities do successful wineries employ for staff development and team camaraderie?
TB: The most successful wineries see their team as an extension of the family. They host dinners, send their teams to taste at wineries, and of course, hold regular staff meetings.
JP: A big thing is feeling empowered by our ownership to ensure the guest experience meets their expectations. Empowerment gives us confidence. If a tasting room employee feels they have a chance to upsell a guest to a reserve wine, although that’s part of a premium tasting experience, they have the freedom to give that guest a taste without sidetracking to a supervisor for approval. It makes the guests feel special and makes the team feel like they are valued. We also have teambuilding events where we do fun activities together, such as dining together as a show of appreciation.
What kinds of people are best suited for front-of-the-house, hospitality staff? Do you believe everyone can be trained for such a role?
TB: I think the best hospitality associates have a natural affinity for taking care of others. This cannot be trained. Wine knowledge can be trained, and processes can be taught, but a service heart is a necessary characteristic.
Ultimately, the goal is to sell wine, but by delivering excellent hospitality and an amazing tasting visit, the wine often will sell itself as a “by-product” of the experience. Do you agree?
TB: I agree that only when the guest receives excellent service and experience will they be receptive to purchasing wine or joining the wine club. I do not agree that this happens without an associate guiding the guest to products or services they might enjoy.
JP: Excellent service and hospitality to our guests also means introducing them to products they might not have tried before through suggestive selling techniques. If they like the Riesling, perhaps they might also like to try the Gewurztraminer. We step them outside of their normal wine “comfort zone” and introduce them to something new while selling more wine at the same time. Recognize their preferences and take them on a journey. It is like music in that way. A new artist might open me to a whole new genre of music.
How does hospitality translate into wine club enrollments and growth?
TB: Most often guests join the club because of the connection with the associate and the excellent service they received.
JP: Hospitality is rolling out that red carpet guest experience and making them want a deeper connection to our brand. Wine club is that deeper connection. Members receive access to things that other guests do not, such as exclusive wines, access to special events, and a designated seating area at the winery. Our wine club area has cushy chairs. Guests have asked how they can sit there when they visit. The winery staff shares the wine club opportunity with them, and some join to sit in the cushy chairs! However, it goes beyond that, by extending that hospitality outside of the winery and into their homes, being a part of their lives by staying connected. We talk about increasing the lifetime value of our guests, but it goes both ways. It is the value they provide to us and we provide to them by treating them like a Vanderbilt at every touchpoint.