While virtual wine fair becomes the norm in the age of Covid, Minyong Yoo, founder of Wine BM limited, a wine event and marketing company operating in Asia, analyses from his experiences the pros and cons of online wine fairs.

At the end of 2019, everyone in the wine industry expected a wonderful year of 2020. Yet, 2020 is nothing but a nightmare so far. It has been almost one year since the novel coronavirus was discovered and yet the pandemic has not been over.

In China, wine sourcing was severely disrupted. When the official postponement from China (Chengdu) Food and Drinks Fair or commonly known as Tangjiuhui in Chinese (the biggest wine fair in China) was announced due to Covid-19 pandemic this spring, most of people in the wine industry did not grapple with the extenf of critical impacts it had on the industry. As the situation worsens, a second postponement was announced later, followed by an inevitable cancellation of the physical fair altogether. 

The Chengdu wine fair usually attracts over 150,000 visitors every year and generates around RMB 20 billion (US$3.17 billion) in sales. It is considered arguably the most important wine and spirits fair inside mainland China for its sheer visitor number and scale.

All the while, Covid-19 cases in Europe and America soared rapidly. Certain European countries closed their borders, limited domestic/international movement, and everyone panicked in the wine trade. Wine producers bore the brunt of the pandemic. It was nearly impossible to make any sales anywhere in the world, especially to their main market inside Europe, USA, Asia-Pacific. Logistic issues following international travel disruptions compounded the problems for wineries. . 

As a result, direct meetings between wine producers, wine buyers or their intermediary agents were upended with the pandemic. Traditionally, bulk of annual wine sales and plannings were done at physical wine fairs. Cancellation of international wine fairs thus directly threatens to upend yearlong plannings and sales. 

Some of wine fair/event organizers including us have been trying to launch a new online model. We came up with several ideas, the conclusion was that two models could be suitable in the market, either with or without wine tastings. 

Model 1: Virtual B2B meeting

It is not hard to find some B2B on-site meeting events in the world before Covid-19 forced everyone to shift online. But we focused on matching and arranging business meetings online between international wine producers and Asian wine buyers. We had concerns before launching it as the meeting happens without wine tasting. However it turned out that wine tasting is just one part of wine selection’s process and is not indispensable. 

If a buyer is interested after a producer’s short presentation on the screen, the buyer would ask for samples from the producer for further exchange. We had positive feedback afterward, and some of the participating producers got orders from the event, and buyers enjoyed the format too. 

After participating in such virtual meetings, a buyer said notes from wine critics, price, winery history are important, as much as wine quality. 15-20 minutes of their virtual meeting did mean something even without a virtual tasting session. The fact that the producers could meet buyers from different parts of Asian countries is another advantage. There’s only one hour of time difference between China and South Korea for example. 

Another big benefit of online events is its cost effectiveness and efficiency. Compared to the on-site events, the cost is much lower. There’s no need to spend flight expenses as well as accommodation. Participation fee is lower than on-site events. Additionally, organizing it does not require much time and organizers could organize it frequently.

Model 2: Virtual B2B meeting with wine tasting

We have considered this model from the beginning. Yet many people think that wine tasting takes a huge part of wine selection. We haven’t rolled out online wine fair with virtual wine tastings yet. The main reason we have not launched it is that we discovered a few weakness of this model. 

We can only organize it in one place. If there is a restriction of organizing an event, the event risks to be cancelled. Cost could be high as there are fees for venue, sample handling, wine services to name a few. And most importantly, buyers already get used to having meetings online in the comfort of their office or home with much flexibility. Regardless, it is still a good concept that most people are familiar with that we plan to organize soon. We can not ignore the importance of wine tasting for sure. 

Education and seminars moved online too due to the pandemic. This is nothing that can’t be done online. What makes us scared is not just the pandemic, but the habit we have developed to live with the pandemic. My question is whether people in the wine industry will be interested in participating on-site wine fairs/events as much as in the past after the Covid-19 pandemic? I do not think so personally. 

We are now analyzing opinion and feedback. No one can predict future situations correctly, we already had unexpected surprises this year. Reacting quickly according to changing situations is the only way to survive in the industry.

It is simply a tough moment to organize on-site events and I look forward to meeting my friends and colleagues in person and celebrating in joy with wines in hand. Till then, I prefer to get my feet on the ground and adapt as we go than simply crossing my fingers and wishing for the best.

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