Lessons from a South African winemaker: ‘Businesses across industries have never experienced this scale of impact’

No-one could have predicted the catastrophic consequences that Covid-19 would have across the world with its impact having been felt across nearly all industries.

South Africa’s wine sector acutely felt the impact with Wines of South Africa (Wosa) reporting that the sector is running at a R7.5 billion loss, with over 21,000 jobs lost so far because of the pandemic.

South Africa’s wine industry is a key economic driver of the country’s GDP. In fact, it’s growing contribution annually amounts to R36 billion, and employs about 300,000 people both directly and indirectly according to South African Wine Industry Information Systems (SAWIS).

For their own survival, and to spark economic recovery, wine producers had to rethink, reimagine and adapt new ways of doing business to circumvent challenges presented by the pandemic.

What’s more is, changing consumer behaviour has given rise to lasting trends. And some of these trends are turning into new societal norms – new norms that all businesses will need to factor into their business recovery planning and approach.

“We are social beings by nature and there is nothing more social than enjoying a glass of wine together with friends and family. There is little doubt that physical and social distancing regulations have affected the way in which we interact and engage with our loyal customers impacted by a worldwide pandemic,” said La Motte chief executive officer, Hein Koegelenberg.

He said from a wine product and tourism experience perspective, La Motte had to learn to engage without that physical interaction marking wine tourism experiences under normal circumstances as it was no longer possible to host guests to the estate in the traditional way.

“During a year in which we reflected quite a bit as the pandemic also coincided with the fifty year anniversary of our current business and ownership of La Motte, we took note of an increased consumer acceptance and appetite for a digital connection to wine products and experiences they love.

“This digital connection has successfully spilled over into the online retail space as orders picked up significantly,” said Koegelenberg.

Werner Briedenhann, facilities manager at La Motte & Leopard’s Leap Wine Estates, said that inviting guests to the farm in Franschhoek forms part of the group’s revenue base, and is also a big part of its marketing source. That was largely taken away during the Covid-19 pandemic, and resulting lockdown period.

He said that fortunately for  the group, it already had an online experience, which has since ramped up. Online sales increased in the thousands of percent, which, he said, brought about challenges in itself. Briedenhann said that while online sales have since tapered off as more traditional avenues have opened up, post lockdown, ‘reluctant’ online consumers have become more trusting of the online channel.

He said that while online won’t usurp traditional sales, “we will leverage this harder”. Face-to-face will always be crucial, Briedenhann said.

“Digital technology is one way in which organisations are able to adapt and thrive, to respond to and recover from challenges and to reimagine ways of working. Focusing on building digital resilience will help businesses stay relevant, regain competitiveness and drive economic recovery in the wake of the pandemic,” said Amr Kamel, enterprise director at Microsoft South Africa.

“We have explored virtual versions of our wine tourism experiences and realised that it is the interaction and personalisation of a visit to La Motte that makes all the difference,” said Koegelenberg.

“It is important to us that our virtual experiences such as the wine tastings, art museum experiences, and historic and sculpture walks in the estate’s beautiful gardens mirror our approach to personalisation and stay interactive. During a time when our supporters can’t come to us, we now take the experience to them, virtually.”

“Businesses across industries, not just in the wine industry, have never experienced this scale of impact, meaning industries have no choice but to adapt and transform their businesses to ensure business continuity and success. We are encouraged to see many South African organisations ready to reimagine how they do business in a more digital transformed and resilient way,” said Kamel.

South African wine producers will no doubt continue to find creative ways to use digital technologies to become more resilient, reduce costs, and increase efficiency and productivity.

“2020 presented an opportunity for us to revisit marketing approaches, channels and customer experiences,” said Koegelenberg. “By virtue of virtual technology, we are still able to connect to loyal supporters while it also affords us the opportunity to reach new customers in fresh new ways.”

Read: 10 winning South African Chenin Blanc wines for your next dinner party

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Lessons from a South African winemaker: ‘Businesses across industries have never experienced this scale of impact’