Online wine tastings as company events

Casual social interactions with coworkers are important to a company's synergy and team building. The pandemic has changed these routines. Online wine tastings became popular as an alternative to in-person gatherings.

Dr. Sophie Ghvanidze and the International Wine Business students at Hochschule Geisenheim University conducted a study to find out how companies and their employees experienced online wine tastings as team building events and whether online tastings are likely to stick around after the pandemic ends.

Online tastings are considered a good alternative for mid-pandemic social gatherings / Credit: AdobeStock - Andrey Popov
Online tastings are considered a good alternative for mid-pandemic social gatherings / Credit: AdobeStock - Andrey Popov

As the global pandemic began fracturing routines and shaking several economies, business practices and social behaviors have abruptly been reconsidered and reexamined. Several corporate businesses have shuttered their offices and moved to 'work from home' office settings wherever possible, rethinking how they conduct business and communicate with their business partners and coworkers alike.

Usual business practices such as conferences, travel, and in-person meetings have been re-imagined in a virtual space, potentially placing priority on business discussions and allowing regular office social gatherings to fall by the wayside. However, equally important to a company's synergy and team building are the casual social interactions with coworkers, which effectively strengthen morale and add to an enterprise's collective success. 

Simultaneously, traditional on-trade channels have all closed their doors, and regular company social gatherings have come to an abrupt halt, leaving local wineries, restaurants, and wine merchants in the lurch as corporate events were a large portion of their annual sales before the pandemic. Both sides have begun looking for new ways to interact as companies explore how to engage with employees safely, and vintners and wine merchants look for ways to sell their wines and move products out the door.

Increased digitalization has provided society with new ways of effectively opening communication and connecting in a diverse environment. Online wine tasting events have become an instant success for both corporate clients looking to restore regular company socializing and vintners looking to keep their sales figures adequate throughout the current crisis. 

As part of an exploratory study by the International Wine Business students at Hochschule Geisenheim University, Germany, interviews were conducted to analyze the business customer demand for online wine tastings during the pandemic. Through the framework of qualitative interviews, this research aimed to learn how desirable this new approach to wine tasting had been in a work setting and if there would be any post-pandemic demand once restrictions had lifted and workers returned to typical office environments.

General Information about the Sample 

Throughout Germany, fifteen corporate businesses of varying sizes and various industries ranging from nine to 300,000 employees in automotive, hospitality, and big tech firms were contacted. Three of the larger companies interviewed had multiple office locations throughout Germany and internationally, whereas the smaller companies had shifted almost entirely to a work from home policy long term with no brick-and-mortar office locations. Alcohol policies were also discussed with each company, and all reported having no restrictions on alcohol consumption during specialty office activities.

The number of regularly scheduled social gatherings varied with each company. Some reported having held no recent office events due to the pandemic, whereas others reported weekly informal online gatherings with their employees. Many had continued to create company events since the start of COVID-19, but most held gatherings to a lesser degree than during pre-pandemic restrictions. The interest in finding new ways to connect with coworkers was notable amongst all respondents.

Over half of the interviewees had previously experienced an online wine tasting, either individually, with their company, or within their department. If an individual employee had previously had a positive experience with online wine tastings, they were more likely to recommend the activity to other members in their office and suggest they sign up for a company tasting experience. Most interviewees were considered 'decision makers' within their companies and could plan and schedule events for the staff without further permission from a supervisor or other superior.

Regarding their willingness to pay, interest expanded beyond online wine tastings and overall budgets for all types of company events. Larger enterprises tended to have a budget for events per head, some chose a fixed amount, and others chose a variable amount based on the number of people included in the activity. The amount for these variable budgets was generally limited to 30 or 35 Euros per person. Smaller companies seemed to have much looser purchasing protocols and had the flexibility to make purchases 'deemed necessary.' One respondent mentioned 50 to 60 Euros as an acceptable amount per person for an online tasting activity. Interestingly, event budgets were often divided between employee activities and activities with their external business clients.

Motivation to Book Online Wine Tastings

When understanding the motives behind booking this type of event in both small- and large-scale companies, the hope was to discover under which circumstances and for which occasions booking an online wine tasting would be considered by decision makers. Regarding whom interviewees would book an online wine tasting for at their workplace, answers included mostly employees, separate departments, colleagues with whom they have worked together on a project from various offices, and customers.

The most frequently mentioned occasions for booking an online wine tasting included holiday parties, social gatherings centered around a company milestone, and team building among company branches located in different regions. Several respondents were open to online wine tastings' viability as a new way to engage employees, specifically to finish off an important meeting or workshop. Increasing team connectivity, making the work environment more attractive, and emphasizing the corporate culture were all motivations for scheduling an online gathering.

There was importance placed on team building among members of international branch offices by several respondents as well. Online wine tastings were viewed as a fun way to interact through simplified logistics, allowing more international team members to participate in company events in a cost- and time-efficient manner. A list of alternative social events respondents had previously participated in with their company included joint office yoga sessions, cooking classes, and company participation in a marathon. 

Expectations for Online Wine Tastings

When asked about their online tastings expectations, respondents overwhelmingly desired interactive and engaging experiences; decision makers were keen to have all participants involved and enjoy the event. Essential attributes for a proficient moderator included being engaging, entertaining, knowledgeable, providing guidance, making the entire event an interactive experience, and most importantly, answering open questions about the winery and wines. Several respondents expected emphasis on the tasting organization so that the wines arrived to all participants on time and proposed that moderators have a clearly defined topic for the tasting, so a theme was detectable.

Others desired moderators that would use easy wine language without too much technical terminology yet still demonstrate their involvement with the wines. Guidelines for food pairings and storage information for the wines were suggested. Many interviewees expected moderators to navigate the experience but not take center stage fully, making the event fun and memorable by properly delivering the winery's message. Many preferred a more intimate gathering of 20-30 participants maximum where participants were encouraged to share experiences and stay engaged by using their video cameras. Live tours through the winery cellar and vineyards were suggested to help bring the tasting to life.

Other ideas and inspirations interviewees thought would make the event memorable and add to the tasting experience included smaller format bottles, snacks, an aroma wheel for self-help tasting at home, a corkscrew with the winery logo, brochures on the winery and the region, and possibly recipe ideas. Organized quizzes were also thought to be a good idea for group involvement.

Prospects

Respondents evaluated the potential of continued online wine tastings after COVID-19 both positively and negatively. Most companies did not see the benefit of choosing an online activity over an in-person activity once the pandemic was over. However, some companies with a significant multinational presence agreed that online wine tastings were an excellent alternative for engaging international branches in the future. This gathering style was regarded as a more cost- and time-efficient alternative to planning a physical event enabling more people to participate and interact. However, many responded their preference was still to resume personal interactions once the pandemic had run its course.

When discussing potential competitors to the online wine tasting sector, it was mentioned that there were plenty of other online options available in the market. Interest expanded to chocolate tastings, spirit tastings, virtual walking tours, and online cooking classes as options for online company activities. However, even with an extensive offering of online experiences available, all respondents agreed the true competitor for online wine tastings would be the original in-person activity once the pandemic subsided.

Conclusion

To summarize, the number of company gatherings in the German corporate sector varied considerably during the pandemic from no scheduled events to weekly scheduled events. Respondents were interested in learning new ways to interact with their coworkers during this time, and more than half of respondents had previously participated in an online wine tasting on their own or with the company before the scheduled interviews.

Motivations such as celebrating milestones, holiday parties, and team building were the most reported reasons for booking such an event with coworkers. Expectations for such events varied from good tasting organization, food pairing suggestions, and virtual tours throughout the winery and vineyard. However, all respondents expected engaging dialogue and an entertaining moderator.

International companies considered online wine tastings an excellent option for future social gatherings even after COVID-19 more than smaller, local companies. There was a clear preference for in-person gatherings, but several respondents found online wine tastings to be an excellent alternative for all-inclusive company events in the future.

In conclusion, online wine tastings will most likely remain a niche product for large, sprawling companies or those that do not have fixed office locations in the years to come. Wineries and wine businesses that decide to create a strategic business model around online wine tastings may have a captive audience and may indeed be some of the few businesses prepared for the next global crisis. 

Dr. Sophie Ghvanidze, Beth Kaczmarek
Hochschule Geisenheim University

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