Rippon’s director and export manager, Jo Mills, on why the vineyard has decided to curb the ever-increasing number of visitors coming through its farm gates, and how it is going to do it.
The story of the challenges of tourism with ever-increasing numbers of people travelling the world is not a new one.
It seems daily that there is another piece on yet another place reaching crisis point: Amsterdam and the drunken sea of tourists; Rome banning sitting on the Spanish Steps and, of course, Venice sinking, literally and figuratively, under the swarm of people entering the lagoon each year.
Wanaka is by no means exempt from this as photos of the queues to the top of Mt Roy will attest along with the grumbles of the locals during peak seasons when their favourite parking spots are taken and the queues for the checkout snake up every aisle. All is not lost, though: for every IG hotspot there are hundreds of still undiscovered local favourites; even in the height of the summer season, respite from the crowds can be found less than half an hour away from the town centre in every direction. We’re still doing OK.
But, as a business, we have to consider how best to grow with the ever-increasing number of people coming through the farm gates. For the past 30 years we have had an open gate policy, a free-for-all, quite literally, which has been fantastic as more and more people get to try our wines, hear our story and, we hope, buy a bottle or two to take home with them with which to spread the word. Wanaka today, though, is not Wanaka 30 years ago; it’s not even Wanaka 5 years ago.
When I first started at Rippon in 2006, we were open for just three hours every afternoon during the winter months and six hours during the summer season, closing for the whole of May and June. A busy day in summer would be, perhaps, 50-60 people and we never needed more than one team member working in the Cellar Door at any one time.
Over the last 13 years, we have changed to a fixed six hour day for twelve months of the year and, during summer, we have at least six people on the Cellar Door roster (as opposed to the two when I started) and frequently need four at one time during the busiest fortnight over Christmas and New Year, our people counter often having to fall idle as tasting duties consume every moment of the day yet still registering over 300 people when we look at it come closing.
Even in those months when we would previously have closed – May and June – we can see over 100 people on a Monday in the month when we might have predicted half that. I always chuckle when I see the end of day comments left by the team in there and 80 people is considered “a mellow day”.
Is more better, though? The answer, simply, is no, not for us. The bank account always enjoys the busier days, of course, but breaking it down further, looking not just at staffing costs but also the cost of the wines used and the impact that these huge days has on both our team and the land, we have been losing. Big time.
During the busiest days this summer, I would be in there helping out and there would be three of us conducting tastings simultaneously in the same room and still have people waiting outside, some of whom left, understandably, when they realised there would be a wait or because they simply didn’t want to be another person in a crowded room. It is very hard to engage with the wines and the story in that kind of environment, both as a member of the Rippon team and as a visitor to the farm, and it is not how we want to have to present ourselves to the world.
When a Cellar Door team member joins Rippon they spend days training up, walking around the farm with one of us; working in the vines with the team; reading, listening and asking questions. It’s often a fortnight before they run a Cellar Door tasting alone; they need that time to get a feel for Rippon, to understand the place, its history, before they can start communicating that themselves.
Many of them work in the vines or help in the winery during harvest, they form connections with the land and their colleagues and take a huge amount of pride in conveying all of this to the people whom they meet in the Cellar Door; it becomes a part of their own Rippon story.
Their end of day comments on the cash up sheets often say things like “great day, lovely people”, “excellent conversations”, “fun times!” etc – there’s enjoyment and pride to be read in these words, the sense of a job well done. Yes, of course, there are down days and this is not the perfect job nor one from which you are going to make your millions but, more often than not, our team enjoys their work. The summer pushes them though, you can see it in their faces at the end of the day and at the end of a four or five day stint in the Cellar Door. They reach breaking point, some of them do find it too hard and leave, others become frazzled and need a lot of love and Pinot to keep them sane.
Harvest is a difficult and exhausting time for the vineyard and winery team with tempers flaring from time to time as sleep deprivation and physical exhaustion kick in. This is an inevitable part of our craft as winegrowers and we expect it and know how best to handle it. We can’t avoid it; this is the nature of the harvest beast, but we know how to manage it as best we can.
The summer season in the tasting room is always referred to as a the Cellar Door’s harvest season for this reason but it needn’t and shouldn’t be like that. Yes, it’s impressive to see how many people come through the door on a busy day but we also see the per head spend go down massively while costs soar, not just financially but mentally for the team and physically for the land.
We can’t charge for tastings currently as we don’t provide food, something we are not looking to reintroduce, our focus needing to rest on what we know and do: winegrowing and winemaking. What do we do then? The answer is, bring in a booking system and manage the flow of visitors more effectively.
With no charges, we had to build a booking system from scratch, most hospitality-focussed packages charging a commission on sales and online bookings. While building this ourselves has been costly, time consuming and has pushed back our roll out date many times, the process has given us the time to work out exactly how this will work; how many people we would ideally like to see on the farm over a 6 hour period and how many people (12, if you’re wondering) is the maximum amount we should have in a given hour to ensure that they all have the time and space to get a feel for who we are and what we do.
We had hoped to get this up and running before the 2018-19 summer season – that didn’t happen – and the months that followed reinforced the need to manage numbers and not try to maximise them to ensure the business remains sustainable on all fronts. It’s incredibly exciting to have got to the next stage of our business, to have got to a point where we understand the direction we need to go in in order to keep our staff sane, the land alive and, hopefully, the business thriving and viable. We have been doing this for more than 30 years, this change is not a knee-jerk reaction but part of a long-term business story.
We’re terrified, too. This doesn’t come up in the official story line, of course, but we are. What if we don’t get enough bookings? What if we don’t see an increase in the per head spend? Yes, we’ll be using less wine (a conservative in-house calculation put the value of the wines we use during the busiest periods at about $1,000 a day) but what if sales fall way below where we need them to be? What will the public perception be of this change? How are we going to manage this coming summer when people will still come to the gates, find them closed, and want to come in without the access code? What about the walkers? We’re not going to get it right straight away, we may even be barking up the wrong tree in terms of this particular approach but we know that we are, at the very least, heading in the right direction.
For our team and our land, first and foremost, the flow of visitors needs to be managed. Without them, we have nothing to offer to the people who wish to come to Rippon and as things have been, we have been compromising both. We shouldn’t be putting undue pressure knowingly on the farm and our people day after day when it isn’t sustainable and, quite simply, doesn’t stack up.
We’ll get a lot of flack for this move, I know. Tripadvisor will erupt, the emails of complaint will come but I hope that those disappointed by these changes will still see why we have made this decision. To keep Rippon and Wanaka top-notch destinations, we have a responsibility and obligation to think more about their long term well-being and sustainability, even if it means taking a hit in the short term.
This column first appeared on LinkedIn and has been republished with permission.
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