Winery pioneers b-to-b web platform

While the wine industry - considered the world's oldest honorable profession, dating back 7,000 years - may be steeped in tradition, that hasn't stopped one Ontario vineyard from blazing a trail in the new economy. ...

While the wine industry – considered the world’s oldest honorable profession, dating back 7,000 years – may be steeped in tradition, that hasn’t stopped one Ontario vineyard from blazing a trail in the new economy.

‘Today, when you think of high tech and the Internet, people think of Bill Gates and all these phenomenally successful entrepreneurs [who] develop amazing technology. But it isn’t just about them. The opportunity of the Internet presents itself to anyone who is prepared to adapt the technology to their own business,’ says Paul-Andre Bosc, VP, marketing and administration at Niagara-on-the-Lake winery Chateau des Charmes.

‘I may not be able to replicate my dad’s pioneering effort in the vineyard or winery, but I’ve always tried to find ways to maintain that pioneering spirit on the marketing side.’

Last month, the wine producer unveiled its e-business strategy, a plan that included the launch of cdc.orders.com, a fully integrated Web portal targeting its restaurant and hotel clients, created in partnership with e-commatrix.com. The rollout makes it one of the first wineries in North America to adopt and execute such a Web plan, he says.

And while the winery has operated a Web site since 1996 (www.chateaudescharmes.com), this is the first time customers have been able to order wines online in real time, review their order history and gather information, including up-to-date pricing specials, new release information and product news. Chateau des Charmes also puts out an e-mail newsletter every two months to keep customers and connoisseurs abreast of any new developments and wine releases.

In conjunction with the launch, the winery also unveiled its License Loyalty Program, available through Ernex, a division of the Royal Bank, which will allow participating licensees to collect points from purchases made using the online ordering platform.

‘I belong to various loyalty programs and I run all kinds of business expenses on my personal VISA because I want to earn points. In the restaurant industry, there are a lot of entrepreneur owner-operators [who] would likely do the same,’ says Bosc. ‘In a more corporate setting, a hotel could accumulate the points and redeem them for trips or merchandise – something for the employee of the year, for example, or for a gifting program for top clients.’

The winery was also one of the first companies to recognize a promotional opportunity and sign on to a newly created b-to-b e-marketplace, funded by Societe des Alcohols du Quebec, called globalwinespirits.com – an online forum designed to bring together wine and spirit suppliers, and buyers, from around the world.

The site and loyalty program will be promoted on a one-to-one basis by the winery’s sales force.

Chateau des Charmes has been built up over its 23-year history in a fairly conventional manner – through a sales force in its home market of Ontario and agents in other markets throughout Canada, as well as importer agents in foreign markets. So, several years ago, when the Internet began to transform day-to-day business life, Bosc began to consider the potential implications on the wine industry, which he felt was already falling behind. When the regulatory environment in Ontario changed to allow Ontario wineries to sell their VQA wines directly to hotels and restaurants, he kicked his Web aspirations into high gear.

‘Nobody needs to buy wine. It’s an aspirational product – people want to buy it. And if they want to buy it, they’ve got a phenomenal amount of selection out there – there are 60,000 wineries around the world,’ he says. ‘So, as a marketing tool, you start to identify yourself with certain hot buttons. All things being equal (if your quality is good and your price is right), you still need other things to get people to connect with you emotionally, like being a family-owned and -operated business vs. a mega-corporation, for example,’ he says.

‘I want our winery to be identified by individuals in the hospitality industry who are techies – who see us as a leading-edge company and who say ‘I enjoy using the Internet, buying off the Internet and I see all the benefits that computerization brings to my business and personal life – and here’s a supplier that’s on the same page with me.”

The new online platform is being presented to potential clients in Ontario, of which there are 16,000 (licensed establishments). He says while it wants to be able to ‘preach to the converted’ – those familiar with the Internet and/or such a system – Chateau des Charmes is also prepared to do its part to educate potential clients.

‘If you’re the first or second guy into something, if you’re a pioneer, it’s not easy – it’s a lot of work, but the potential payoff is bigger,’ says Bosc.

‘If we sign up 100 clients, our goal, whether it takes a year or two, we’re predicting this will be at least a $3-million new revenue stream. If you’re IBM, that’s peanuts. But ours is a family business with 100 employees. If we’re right about this, we may have identified a new revenue channel that could represent 25 or 30% of our revenues in a couple years. That’s enormous.’

‘We’re convinced this is just a start. One opportunity will beget another.’