July/August 2020 – Facing the Music

With a mission to inform, empower, celebrate and advocate for British Columbia's current and aspiring business leaders, BCBusiness go behind the headlines and bring readers face to face with the key issues and people driving business in B.C.

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his glass. "We need tourism to make this a viable valley." From a perch in the glass-fronted tast- ing room of Holler's Naramata winery and restaurant, with a golden-hour view of vines and valley stretching out beneath us, the tourist appeal is obvious. But accom- modations in many pockets of wine coun- try remain limited to a small guest houses and B&Bs. "The demographic of our cus- tomer is changing, and we're not changing fast enough," says Holler, a medical doc- tor who grew up on a local orchard and co-founded Vancouver vaccine company ID Biomedical Corp., now a Quebec-based subsidiary of GlaxoSmithKline. Holler's luxe 20-room boutique hotel proposal is creeping through Agricul- tural Land Reserve and other approvals. Summerhill founder Stephen Cipes has announced plans for a Napa-style Culi- nary College for Humanity at his Kelowna property, where wine-country workshops, courses and retreats could take root. New owners, including celebrity chef Ned Bell and former A&W Food Services of Canada CEO Paul Hollands, recently took over the Naramata Heritage Inn & Spa, a charming but faded 12-room property with potential to elevate the hospitality scene. For entrepreneurs with vision, new developments like these could help turn the long, hot wine-touring season into year-round tourism. Hugh McClelland of the Naramata Bench Winery Association ( NBWA) says, "One of the things we have to do is convince wineries that unless you're open in winter, we'll never have a winter business." NBWA marketing director Tina Baird's prediction: "Four-season tourism will be part of the whole region going on to the next chapter." Squint and you can almost see people flocking here all year. Once-tiny Kelowna International Airport has become the 10th-busiest in Canada by passenger traf- fic, with a $240-million investment in everything from parking and runways to a sophisticated instrument landing system expected by 2029. The airport "serves as a bridge between the North and South Okanagan for business in gen- eral, including wine business—many of our clients and partners describe it as the perfect midpoint at which to meet," says Bobby Bissessar, marketing manager for Argus Properties. The Kelowna company acquired the venerable Eldorado Resort and opened new Hampton Inn & Suites and Four Points by Sheraton properties across from the airport, where the nearby UBC Okanagan campus helps drive year-round business. Both new hotels have accessible rooms, a feature that helps attract diverse travel- lers. Thompson Okanagan Tourism has engaged a universal access tourism spe- cialist, former Paralympian Sonja Gaudet, with a goal of making the region a world- renowned accessible destination. John Perrott sees another opportunity to grow year-round wine tourism: through Indigenous experiences. The economic development and tourism manager for West Kelowna, which incorporated as its own municipality in 2007, takes pride in its reputation as a business-friendly, red- tape-cutting place to operate. It borders the self-governing, business-savvy West- bank First Nation, so it makes sense that tasting at Indigenous World winery and distillery or its Red Fox bistro, plus dis- covering First Nations history and culture at the Sncewips Heritage Museum, give tourists reasons to linger, in addition to anchors like Mission Hill and a trail of 13 other wineries and a cidery. Osoyoos's APRIL 2020 JULY/AUGUST 2020 BCBUSINESS 51 Corked COVID-19 MAY HAVE DRIVEN PEOPLE TO DRINK, BUT IT ALSO CREATED A HOST OF PROBLEMS FOR B.C. WINERIES HEADING INTO WHAT IS USUALLY PEAK SEASON P erhaps not surprisingly, many British Columbi- ans sought solace from the pandemic in a bot- tle. Wholesale alcohol sales during March and April shot up around 20 per- cent over the same period for the past two years, according to the BC Liquor Distribution Branch. So for winemakers, COVID-19 should go down like a nice Pinot, right? If only it were so simple. First, there was the issue of farm labour. Most vineyards use temporary foreign workers to tend their crops. Unlike most brewers and distillers, they typically grow their own inputs, and the growing season was upon them. At first, TFWs were shut out of Canada altogether. Then they were allowed in (if they could find transport), only to spend two weeks in quar- antine. Eventually the federal government offered assistance to help feed and shelter them while sequestered. Then there were the lock- down measures. Restaurants closed. So did tasting rooms. "Right away we've lost half of our sales channels," recalls Miles Prodan, president and CEO of the BC Wine Institute. Those outlets are set to reopen– gradually–over the summer. Still, consider the impact of the decline in travel, especially the international kind. B.C.'s wine output may be a drop in the barrel in global terms, but thanks to its natu- ral beauty, the province is a rising destination on the wine tourism map. "The winery is where we make the most margin," Prodan says. "That's why tourism is so important to us." So whatever the weather and the quality of the vintage, 2020 will be remembered as a remarkably tough year in the western Canadian wine patch. On a brighter note, Ontario began allowing direct-to- consumer wine shipments from other provinces on July 1, open- ing a big potential market. For the small operators without LDB contracts and export sales, which account for four out of five B.C. winer- ies, there are two strategies to survive, Prodan says: boost your direct sales online and, when it comes time to reopen tasting rooms, "really engage your customers." Tour groups won't be coming by the bus- load for the foreseeable future, so wineries should consider a reservation system, take the time to tell their story, let visi- tors share it with friends and family, and keep the relation- ship going digitally as well as in person. –Michael McCullough

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