What keeps the wine tourists coming?

It’s generally more profitable to keep existing customers than acquire new ones. Robin M. Back PhD looks at how one wine tourism investment that inspires return visits.

Hotel Marqués de Riscal, Elciego
Hotel Marqués de Riscal, Elciego

Marqués de Riscal’s City of Wine includes, in addition to an historic winery, a striking postmodernist hotel. Designed by renowned architect Frank Gehry, the hotel’s landmark design features flowing ribbons of titanium, representing the wine and colours associated with the Riscal brand. The city, which was completed in 2006, also has two restaurants, a wine bar, a coffee shop, a wine spa, a boutique, and event and meeting spaces. 

So what happens when an historic Spanish winery spends €70m ($78m) on an iconic hotel and a bevy of other tourist offerings? The City of Wine was a major investment which distinguished Marqués de Riscal from its competitors in the Rioja region. And that investment seems to have paid off, with a staggering 68% increase in visitor numbers reported during its first year of opening. But does this kind of investment convince wine tourists to keep coming back?  

The offering

The days when wine tourists were content to visit a winery just to taste, and hopefully purchase wines, are gone. Research has shown that today’s wine tourists demand, and indeed expect more, including dining, shopping and recreational opportunities. Recent definitions of wine tourism have broadened to include just about any activities that take place in a wine-producing region. The UNWTO’s 2016 “Georgia Declaration on Wine Tourism” defines it simply as “a crucial component of gastronomy tourism… in which tourists can experience the culture and lifestyle of destinations while fostering sustainable tourism development”. 

To glean more about these visitors, Meininger enlisted help of Ramón Román, Marqués de Riscal’s marketing and public relations manager, who sent a link to an online questionnaire to former winery and hotel visitors and posted it on the winery’s social media pages. Incentives including prizes of weekend stays and wine were offered to anyone who completed the survey. What were their motivations for visiting, desiring to return and actually returning? How did the ground-breaking architecture affect brand perceptions? What were the most enjoyable aspects of the experience? Do visitors reach a satiation point after multiple visits? 

While previous research has often been used to gauge potential visitors’ behavioural intentions, research has also shown that intentions do not always match actual behaviour. Thus, we wanted to use actual visitors and actual behaviour to gain a better understanding of this type of enhanced wine tourism experience. 

The ancient town of Elciego, home to Marqués de Riscal, was established in 1583 and its lovely old buildings and spires punctuate the Rioja Alavesa region’s bucolic landscape. How would a postmodernist landmark be perceived, especially since Gehry’s architecture is known to not only disrupt the local landscape but is, at times, a source of controversy? One of our objectives was, therefore, to understand how the juxtaposition between historic and postmodernist architecture affects visitors’ emotions and behavioural intentions. We also wanted to understand how such ground-breaking architecture may affect perceptions of one of the region’s oldest and most traditional brands. Do visitors identify with the hotel’s architecture and, if so, how does it affect their emotions and behavioural responses? 

Generally speaking, ‘incongruence’ is a negative, and our findings from more than 1,600 former visitors to Marqués de Riscal show that visitors did indeed perceive the hotel’s architecture to be incongruous with its surroundings. Surprisingly, however, guests were found to identify with these striking contrasts and this incongruence was overwhelmingly seen to positively affect visitors’ attitudes: they saw the Marqués de Riscal brand as modern and cutting edge, despite the winery dating back to 1858. They spread positive word-of-mouth and said they wanted to visit again. 

We were also interested in discovering what motivated them to visit the winery, their most enjoyable experiences there, and what made them want to and, indeed, actually return. The top four reasons for visiting the property were given as “the reputation/reviews of the winery” (18.2%); “had already tried and liked their wines” (16.2%); “the location of Marqués de Riscal” (15.7%); and “the reputation/reviews of their wines” (13.3%). The top most enjoyable aspect of the visit was “the winery tour/wine tasting experience” (35.3%), followed by “the hotel design/architecture” (27.6%). Analysis showed that the factors which significantly influenced both the number of previous visits and participants’ revisit intentions were the reputation, reviews and perceived quality of the winery and its wines. 

While the architecture of the hotel was not a significant reason for either revisit intentions or multiple visits, media coverage and advertising of the property, which in some cases shows the hotel, was a significant reason for revisit intentions and for overall satisfaction with the winery experience. These findings perhaps indicate that while the architecture may inspire visitors to think about returning, it’s not a strong enough motivation by itself. We also found that the more times people had visited the winery, the more they desired to return.

But while Marqués de Riscal has benefited from increased revenues since the City of Wine opened, it’s unclear whether its product and service innovations will continue to attract repeat visitors in the long run. Will visitors’ revisit intentions decrease after an optimal number of visits? In other words, do they reach a satiation point? Results indicated that overall, revisit intentions tend to increase as the number of visits increases but, after an average of 4.6 visits, revisit intentions start to decrease significantly. Furthermore, revisit intentions for this winery start decreasing after 5.5 visits for highly satisfied visitors, but at a more rapid pace and after just 3.9 visits for those less satisfied. Interestingly, the attributes that contributed the most to high levels of satisfaction were the winery tour/wine tasting experience, and the overall ambiance of the winery.

Finally, we analysed surveys of 150 guests who had stayed at the Hotel Marqués de Riscal for at least one night. Findings showed that both the hotel’s physical environment and its communicative environment (ie ambience and service) had a positive effect on emotions, which in turn significantly affected satisfaction. The effect of the physical environment was also found to be greater than the intangibles, especially for those visitors less familiar with Gehry’s architecture and the winery’s brand. 
Such familiarity, however, was found to have no effect on the relationship between the service and ambience of the hotel and guests’ positive emotions, showing the importance of ensuring high levels of service and pleasing non-tangibles such as atmosphere and ambience. As customers are shown to have lower emotional responses to the physical environment once it became more familiar, the intangible aspects of the business become increasingly important for repeat guests. 

It’s about the winery

So what are the main takeaways of this study for winery tourism destinations? First, that the core product – the wine tasting and winery tour experience – should not be neglected. Although a winery with stunning architecture and a host of activities and experiences may draw many curious first-time visitors, it is the core product and experiences that they enjoy most and that keep them coming back. 

As repeat customers tend to be the most loyal and most valuable, it is important to provide high levels of customer service and to keep experiences interesting and fresh in order to extend the repeat visit satiation point as far as possible. This could mean updating the tasting and tour experiences regularly and making repeat customers feel valued by offering loyalty programs, exclusive events and products. With the winery’s reputation and reviews being the most important motivator to visit, it is crucial to maintain publicity and reviews of both the product and the property through PR, advertising, wine ratings, social media and the ever important word-of-mouth from satisfied customers. Lastly, when designing new buildings, it is important that they make a strong impression.

The study was conducted by Dr Robin Back, Dr Diego Bufquin and Dr Jeong-Yeol Park from the University of Central Florida’s Rosen College of Hospitality Management. 

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