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Online Reservation Systems Roll Out New Features to Help Wineries Navigate the COVID Era

With appointments required, tasting room capacities reduced and new safety protocols in place, reservation systems are more important than ever.
by Jess Lander
August 20, 2020

 

THOUGH MANY WINERIES HAVE been given the go-ahead to reopen to visitors after months of shutdown due to COVID-19, they are now operating in a complicated new world of ever-changing guidelines meant to ensure guest and employee safety. One of the biggest changes: most are now open by appointment only.

This sudden shift has made the use of a reliable and complex reservation system more vital than ever. “Any reservation system in the COVID era is going to be really important,” said Anthony Harvell, director of sales and operations at William Chris Vineyards in Hye, Texas. “Every state has its own regulations, so we need the tools to properly manage the number of people coming through.”

The top reservation platforms—from third-party providers, like Tock and CellarPass, to options under existing point-of-sale and e-commerce platforms, like Commerce7—have been working tirelessly to meet wineries’ newfound needs. When the virus first struck, they jumped to add pick-up and delivery options and then the ability to reserve spots in virtual tastings. “COVID-19 prompted a ton of changes. Initially, everyone wanted to know how to do better at e-commerce, but now our number-one support questions are about reservations,” said Andrew Kamphuis, president of Commerce7. “We have a ton of customers that never did reservations before and are suddenly interested.”

The primary focus of reservation systems today is to help tasting rooms operate as efficiently as possible under strict safety protocols. New features help wineries navigate reduced capacities, social distancing, guest account- ability and liability concerns.

Two Types of Reservation Systems

Before diving into the latest feature roll-outs, it’s important to understand that reservation systems fall into two main categories. They are either offered as part of an e-commerce and POS software, like Commerce7 and Vines OS, or they are a third-party platform, like Tock, CellarPass and OpenTable. The third-party platforms generally offer more robust features, like SMS text confirmation, upselling, dynamic pricing and waitlists. They operate distinctly as reservation systems and thus are constantly adapting to the needs of the industry and rolling out new add-ons, but they are also more difficult to integrate with a winery’s CRM and POS systems (each platform has varying integration capabilities).

While software programs like Commerce7 and Vines OS may be more basic, they offer a seamless, all-in-one package, and users don’t have to pay an additional fee to use the reservation system. “You’re already paying for it, your staff is familiar with it, and you’re avoiding having to buy another piece of software that you have to train staff on,” said Susanne Bullock, marketing manager of August Hill Winery in Utica, Illinois. August Hill uses Vines OS, which launched its new POS platform during the pandemic.

“There are so many changes right now, and new software is kind of the last thing that you need.”

Harvell recently switched William Chris Vineyards from Tock to Commerce7; and while he admits to missing some of Tock’s functionality— the supplements feature, for example, brought in $15,000 to $20,000 of additional revenue a month—integration was ultimately his priority. “The most important thing is the seamless integration with our POS and member database,” he said. “When using separate systems, we’d have to re-upload our member database every week.”

Moreover, reservations made through systems like Commerce7 and Vines OS take place natively on the winery website, whereas third-party platforms take visitors away from the winery site to their respective websites. These providers operate like marketplaces: travelers can explore an array of winery experiences in each region, which is a great tool to attract new visitors. Yet the downside of this presentation is that it can also cause a winery to lose out on a booking if consumers see something else they like better. “It was also important for us to keep them on our website,” Harvell added. “When you go outside, you’re opening them up to a whole new world of things.”

Limited Reservations

Per local mandates, wineries are now operating at reduced capacities—in some cases, they can only operate outdoors—and are required to limit the number of reservations they can take. To resolve this issue, OpenTable rolled out the ability to set a maximum number of people, not just parties. “If you can only have 25 or 50 percent of your normal capacity, they have basically provided a feature where you can set how many guests you can have in the winery at one time. It will actually limit how many people can reserve, regardless of how many tables you have,” said John Locher, general manager and executive chef of Mayo Family Winery in Glen Ellen, Calif.

In response to many of its clients who are suddenly requiring reservations, even for a standard bar tasting, Commerce7 added communal reservations to its platform: bookings for bars or long tables can be maxed out at a certain number of people. It’s a feature that William Chris Vineyards has been using a lot since reopening, as 50 percent of their tastings are bar-based. Vines OS also launched the ability to limit reservations by the number of tables available and even categorize tables, like vineyard view or vineyard terrace.

For Creeks Edge Winery in Lovettsville, Virginia, which has switched to reservation-only for the first time ever, this has been a game changer. General manager Alex Jeffries said that pre-COVID, a lot of their reservations were walk-ins, by phone or via a form on their website, and he had to manage everything by hand in a calendar. “We know we can hold 65 people, but we only have a certain number of tables,” he said. “Whether it’s a party of two, four or six people, we now know how many tables we have available.”

Many third-party platforms also have a waitlist feature to help clients avoid going over capacity and overcrowding in a waiting area. Like CellarPass, Tock offers a few variations of waitlists but, most recently, they added one for walk-ins, which receive a text notifying them if there’s a table ready within 30 to 45 minutes.

Read the rest of this article in the August 2020 Wine Business Monthly 

by Jess Lander  

Jess Lander is a freelance wine, beer, food and travel writer based in Napa Valley. Her work has also appeared in publications, including Wine Enthusiast, Decanter, VinePair, SevenFiftyDaily, Afar and the San Francisco Chronicle. Follow her on Instagram at @willwrite4wine.


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