Sunday, 13 November 2011

Thoughts on Winefuture

The Hong Kong Government must have been delighted with its decision to host Winefuture, a conference that attracted a Who’s Who of the international wine industry, reaffirming Hong Kong as an important wine hub in Asia.

Most speakers were professional and provided insights to the audience. I particularly enjoyed the panels ‘Looking ahead - regions, varieties, styles’ led my Tim Atkin MW, and ‘The use of the Internet and social media’ led by Lulie Halstead. Tim had obviously done his homework and threw probing questions to his panel speakers, while Lulie was brilliant in leading an interactive discussion among local and remote speakers (Gary Vaynerchuk was talking through Skype).

However, I found some panels superficial and one-dimensional, and a lot of subjects overlapped or were covered by more than one panel. Worse, some key issues and challenges facing the industry were ignored—economics, alcohol levels, government regulation, health, to name a few. The closing panel, ‘The final debate: the future of wine’, should have distilled the essence of the conference, but it was sadly rushed. I was particularly annoyed that after waiting ten minutes for my turn to ask the question, "What are the speakers’ views on low alcohol wine?", the question was misinterpreted, and conference chairman Pancho Campo MW was rushing to close the panel in time for the junk trip scheduled in half an hour. Given that some big brands are now marketing ranges of low alcohol (5.5%-9%) wine in the UK and that consumers, especially new consumers, are increasingly expressing concern over health and obesity, I think this is an important issue, one of many the wine industry has to address, and very much on-topic for a conference like this.

The objectives of Winefuture, if I interpret it correctly, are to address the opportunities and challenges facing the industry now, and debate the way forward. In my opinion, it would be more likely to achieve these objective if its conferences were broken into five category topics:

• Product: environment, climate change, alcohol levels
• Supply chain: supermarket power, consolidation, direct sales
• Business and economics: the financial crisis, vertical/horizontal integration
• Marketing: the new generation of consumers, communications
• New markets: China, India, Brazil, Russia

Half a day should be devoted to each topic to allow for a meaningful in-depth discussion. Participants should be invited to submit questions at least a week beforehand and moderators should summarise the questions for the speakers in advance and prepare a debate. There should also be plenty of time for the audience Q&A during the discussion.

Nevertheless, despite these reservations, I thought Winefuture was a success. For those who listened, there were some thought provoking insights from the speakers. Although it was at times a little disorganised, I am grateful to the Wine Academy for the enormous amount of work they must have put in to pull it together and for assembling such a star line up of speakers. And in particular I thank Pancho for addressing participants’ concerns quickly, improving the conference and panels 'on-the-fly' each day. By the way, all panel discussions will be available on the Winefuture website.

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