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How changes in tasting rooms due to the Covid-19 crisis are affecting customer satisfaction and purchasing habits

Survey presented during B.E.V. NY Virtual Conference looks at combining reservations, walk-ins, table service and bar tasting.
by Linda Jones McKee 
March 05, 2021

Under “normal” circumstances, B.E.V. NY is a three-day conference with business sessions on one day, followed by a day for enology presentations and the final day for viticulture programs for New York’s grape and wine industry. As with many aspects of our lives right now, this year’s B.E.V. NY is different. The organizers of the conference – Cornell’s Extension Enology Lab, the Finger Lakes Grape Program, and the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University – planned a virtual program with business, enology and viticulture sessions scheduled on each day, March 3 to 5. They also took advantage of the webinar format to invite speakers from across the country, including nine people in California, two in Germany, and one in England.

On March 3, B.E.V. NY began with two hours of webinars on business topics, including a business and policy update session and two workshops. One of the workshops featured information on how changes in tasting rooms impacted customer satisfaction and purchasing habits, a topic that may be of interest to many wineries across the country who rely on tasting room sales for a major part of their sales.

Trent Davis, an applied economics researcher at Cornell University, and Dr. Miguel Gomez, associate professor at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell, conducted a survey at two wineries in the Finger Lakes region of New York in October 2020 to determine how changes that were made in the tasting room due to the Covid-19 pandemic may have impacted customer satisfaction and purchasing habits. 

Prior to the pandemic, there were no restrictions on numbers of people in a winery. No reservations were required at most wineries, and people typically stood at a tasting bar, often with people they did not know. A tasting often lasted 15 to 30 minutes, and in many places were limited to pre-determined flights of wine. Some wineries did not charge for tastings, others charged $10 to $15. 

During the pandemic, capacity has been limited to 50% or less, reservations are often required, customers are frequently seated at tables with only members of their party, and they may be able to pick exactly which wines they want to taste. The experience potentially is longer, between 45 minutes and an hour, and may be more expensive.

The two researchers selected one winery with a national reputation and one with a “smaller reputation.” During a week and a half in October, they surveyed 233 customers, many of whom were tourists who drove 2.5 (or more) hours from Philadelphia or New York City. Both wineries had outdoor seating and table service, and preferred that customers make reservations in advance. One provided an a la carte menu, the other offered a la carte menu and flights of wine. 

Davis’ and Gomez’s first goal was to look at aspects of the winery’s business model: Did customers who made reservations spend more than customers who did not? Did customers like the changes in the tasting room environment due to Covid-19? How many in-person customers are potential online customers?

Their second goal was to determine customer satisfaction. What were the main drivers of customer satisfaction in the new tasting environment – was it staff interaction, the ability to choose the wines tasted, the presence of Covid-19 precautions, or the ambience of the winery? And in many ways, most importantly, how did these factors impact customers’ purchasing decisions?

In the final results, Davis and Gomez determined the following:

  •       77% of tasting room visitors had made reservations;
  •       59% preferred ordering half or full glasses over pre-determined tasting flights;
  •       91% liked table service for tasting wine instead of standing at a wine bar;
  •       81% came hoping to learn more about wine;
  •       46% of customers were already using some form of online wine purchasing.

The main driver of customer satisfaction was interaction with the winery staff, from being met at the entrance with a smile, seated promptly at a table, and served in a reasonable length of time, to the knowledge the staff had about the wine, the winery, and details about grapes grown and wine production. Customers also appreciated being able to pick wines a la carte, according to their preferences, and often chose to taste more expensive, high quality wines, After enjoying a half or full glass of wine with their companions and interacting with the staff, they then frequently purchased more higher end wines.

The fact that almost half of customers are already purchasing wine online, from a wine retailer, a wine subscription service or directly from a winery, indicated that those visitors were potentially online customers for the winery they are visiting. 

When overall customer satisfaction was rated “exceeded expectations,” total dollars spent rose 29% and the number of bottles purchased rose 32%. If the wine tasting factor rose to “exceeded expectations,” spending went up by 20% and the number of bottles purchased went up 26%. Tourists, older customers, and larger parties all were shown to spend more and buy more bottles of wine as well. 

What this survey indicates is that there are opportunities for wineries to try out some sort of hybrid tasting room model that is a combination of reservations and walk-ins, of table service and bar tasting, of a la carte ordering and wine flights. Wineries have seen that those people who make reservations are making a plan to visit, and the winery should reward them with a better, more informative, authentic experience. It also is an opportunity to talk to those customers about the winery’s wine club or how to buy wine online. The end result may well be that those customers will spend more money and buy higher quality wine.

While there were only two wineries involved in this survey, the results were similar for both wineries, even though one was well-known and the other one less so, and their tasting rooms differed in how they presented their wines. More wineries can be surveyed in the future, but meanwhile wineries can use some of these techniques post-Covid to optimize their customers’ tasting room experience and also positively affect their bottom line.

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