Niklas Ridoff is the CEO of WineTourism.com, a new, but fast-growing, modern and extremely offering wine tourism platform. Yes, just like its name says. In a world that slowly comes back to motion, after two years of pandemic paralysis, we were curious about the way Romanian wine can gain its well-deserved fame through wine tourism, and Niklas was happy to oblige.
Why is wine tourism important for wine producers?
WoR: First of all – have you ever been to Romania?
Niklas Ridoff: I went to Sibiu, about eight years ago, and we went up on the Fagaras Mountain, hiking for a week, and it was truly beautiful. But that was the only time I visited Romania. Next time, instead of focusing on hiking, I hope to come and focus on the wine.
WoR: Why is wine tourism important for wine producers? The new coming wineries, and especially the smaller ones, don’t see it as a good investment – the extra wages they have to pay are not covered by the sales. There’s no immediate benefit…
Niklas Ridoff: I agree that it is an investment, and an important one if you don’t have a tourism infrastructure already running. But it is an investment in the true meaning of the word – you are investing in a constant stream of revenue in the future. You have to calculate when your break-even is. That will depend on the winery, the region and the country you’re in. There is an investment, but there are several ways to set things up.
You can be more or less ambitious about how much money you put into it. But if you offer wine tourism for your visitors, it doesn’t have to be more advanced than making yourself available at your winery, showing them around the facility and telling a story. And this is what I push – the story.
That is the beauty of wine tourism – when people come to visit you, you don’t even have to offer wine – well, you should, and many will have it – but the most important part is the story. You can tell them about the history of the winery, how you started producing, the history of the family, how you ended up with the vineyards, the history of the surrounding countryside and the history of the grapes. As long as you are open and welcoming and make the people feel they are part of the story that’s unique to your winery, you have succeeded in wine tourism.
You don’t have to get lost in huge accommodation facilities, infrastructure, modern presentation or tasting rooms, as long as you are there and you present the visitors with a genuine story. In our experience, on our website, when a visitor has a pleasant experience, they will end up purchasing that wine, either at the cellar door or later, they will visit the winery’s website and some will sign up for newsletters.
WoR: And we come to the word-of-mouth promotion, which is hugely important, mainly for smaller wineries, who don’t have wine bottles on every supermarket shelf. If you like the story and the wine – you don’t have to fall in love with it, but you will still recommend it because you know its story.
Niklas Ridoff: Absolutely. And looking a bit ahead, especially for Romania, it’s a great opportunity, and also a big challenge. The opportunity is that it is a very young wine country. The investments made now in wine tourism are not only made in modern facilities, but also in modern mentality. It is important to be aware of the expectations of modern wine visitors. And the modern wine visitor is younger, and is more likely that they make the research and bookings online and they also put a premium on the ability to plan, but also on the ability to be spontaneous. So it’s challenging to capture the modern consumer. But if you do it successfully, I believe it would bring the competitive advantage a country like Romania needs.
WineTourism.com has over 4,000 wineries in total
WoR: Is WineTourism.com doing it successfully? I saw there are over 3,000 offers on your website – and that’s only for France and Italy…
Niklas Ridoff: Yes, there are over 4,000 wineries in total, but our spread is Eurocentric, with the traditional countries – Italy, France, Portugal, Germany and Spain – being best represented, but that’s quite natural, that’s where most wineries are. But we are making efforts to make our website’s offers global. We are represented in 45 countries, we already have a few wineries in Romania and we know it is important to go global and cover these new emerging countries. There’s a lot of potential there, but also a lot of challenges.
WoR: Investing in wine tourism also means developing local communities. A tasting point creates at least four or five jobs. Meanwhile, tourists may not only come for a tasting, but they will also have to shop locally, even though they may only buy water and snacks, they will try local restaurants… But we started investing in vineyards in the ’90s, then we invested in cellars, and now the time has come to develop tourism. The time is right. But you know there are still infrastructure-related problems… How do you see Romania and its wine tourism from the accessibility point of view?
Niklas Ridoff: I agree, that’s also what I think about where the Romanian wine tourism is. It’s a general impression, I’d like to go more to Romania and experience it first-hand, but what I know is that you have to start somewhere and build the Romanian wine into the conscience of the consumer. And don’t get me wrong, but most consumers see Romania as a new wine country. Of course, that’s not true inside of Romania, you probably have one of the oldest histories in winemaking, but that is not in the mind of modern consumers.
What you need to do, and that is what Wines Of Romania is doing, is create this presence, this awareness. There is a long road ahead and there are no shortcuts, it’s a slow and steady job. The word of mouth is a powerful tool in the beginning, but also a slow component. So you need to spread the word, to be active online, to diffuse the message through other wine organizations and participate in wine events and festivals. You have to make sure that you have a good message and that is getting out.
When people find out about Romania...
When people find out about Romania, they start coming there and then comes the problem of wine tourism, infrastructure… It is my understanding that there are regions that are better positioned than others, which should be the first to promote, like Dealu Mare, which is outside Bucharest and has better transport infrastructure. Or Dobrogea, near Constanta.
I think it makes sense to focus on your strengths in the beginning. And then, the next step is what happens while visiting the wineries. They must have a clear understanding of what wine tourism is. They mustn’t see it as a costly investment, they need to be aware of what wine tourism means – the modern visitor wants reliability and predictability of service, of what they are going to get, especially when you don’t have a history, a credit history in the eyes of the consumer. You need to make a good first impression and there needs to be a very clear explanation of what they are going to receive – this kind of tasting, these many wines, and that explanation needs to be fulfilled.
We had this challenge with many wineries that see wine tourism as a secondary activity. And among those, it happens that a winery calls and cancels a visit the day before or even during the day of the visit, sometimes for a good reason, because something happened and they couldn’t get a hold of a person speaking the tourists’ language or some problems preventing the host from attending, they had to prioritize the harvest or something else. And that’s OK, it happens, but I also know that is a problem of attitude for many wineries that haven’t internalized the values of wine tourism. And you have to be very careful because you get only one shot when it comes to first impressions, and when you depend on word of mouth.
WoR: It’s easier to have a set calendar. Let’s say no visits during the harvest or no access to the cellar during fermentation…
Niklas Ridoff: Yes, and that would mean meeting the expectations. On the other hand, the harvest season is a great opportunity, many people would like to come to Romania to see what’s being done during the harvest. In other parts of the world they don’t avoid the harvest season, they even put up special events for it.
WoR: Where are the clients using WineTourism.com coming fro
Niklas Ridoff: Most are coming from the United States, some 30-40%, and for them the most popular destination is Italy. We have many clients from the UK, Netherlands and, of course, Italy and France. But that’s just the natural flow, without anyone steering it. There are many ways to steer these audiences. It doesn’t take a lot of information to convince an American who wants to go to France or Italy, where they know what to expect, to choose another wine experience, because they aren’t narrow-minded. If you catch them in the right stage of their planning cycle, they are open to going to Spain, Portugal or other destinations.
WoR: You employ a lot of local guides…
Niklas Ridoff: Yes, we talk a lot about wineries on our website, but what we really want for us is to offer a genuine wine experience, rather than just wineries. So, as you mentioned, we started to use local sommeliers, local guides, and other organizers in the country, who provide wine experiences. It was at the beginning of the summer that we started putting local guides on the website and there’s been a lot of positive responses. It’s a great compliment to wine tourism – wineries can offer great tasting, but it is a limited experience. A guide can put together more complex packages.
Clients prefer to choose a package where you spend a weekend, and visit several wineries, not just one, with organized accommodation and lunches in between, organized transport… So it’s important to have guides who can cater to different types of clients, who can bring in an expert or sommelier at a cottage or at the hotel’s bar or restaurant…
WoR: Just to make it clear for our readers – just how large is your audience?
Niklas Ridoff: Since we are relatively new and still growing, we have some 100,000 visitors per month on our website, and we have 4,000 wineries and local guides. But we have a great conversion rate, most of the visitors who discover the website tend to stay there, we see them returning, them even coming for the third time, a few months later, and that’s when they make the booking. We expect significant growth next summer if there is no other crisis that may affect the travel patterns, but we are in for the long game anyway.
We don’t want to be a simple transaction or booking platform, we need to be a marketplace and an information point where visitors discover new wines and new wineries, so it’s important for us to show a lot of information, a lot of wineries, a lot of background, not just bookings. The next step for us is to broaden our interests, from the European-centric platform that we are now, to a truly global platform. If you take Romania as an example, I think we have now about 20 wineries, a pale shot, compared to the 400-500 wineries you have
WoR: And about 100 worth visiting…
Niklas Ridoff: At least! So there are many countries like that, and we want to expand our presence there, also outside Europe. And we want to provide as many unique experiences as possible – they are all experiences, but the unique experiences are the ones that draw visitors. Thinking of Romania, I think about how much you can add – the great outdoors, the untouched wilderness and other cultural enrichments that add up to the wine experience.