While off-licenses and tour providers have adapted, will it ever be business as usual? Julia Bryce hears how firms are working hard to offset the impact of the pandemic and prepare for the future.
Initially when the coronavirus pandemic unleashed its wrath upon the world, all anyone wanted was to get back to normal.
But it quickly became apparent that normal – as we know it – may never return in quite the same way.
As a result, many food and drink businesses have had to continuously adapt to operate throughout lockdown, and will be faced with just as many challenges reopening and building back up.
And although some will be able to do this quickly, other industries will take time to get back to what they used to be.
Bottle shops which run tastings and events and tour operators who transport tourists and locals alike across the country are having to rethink how they offer their services.
The owner of Inverurie Whisky Shop in Inverurie, Aberdeenshire, Mike Stuart, is determined to get back to offering the bespoke in-person tastings he prides himself on.
He said: “Our biggest success story of lockdown is our virtual tastings. We were quite quick off the mark to offer them as an alternative to the in-store events. This stemmed from a Facebook Live tasting I held with the GlenAllachie Distillery where I described the whisky to live viewers.
“The main feedback I got was that I was simply making viewers jealous! We did some research into what we could offer and decided to launch our virtual events through Zoom. We send packs of five whiskies or gins to our customers with log-in details to a Zoom room. We all get together and I describe the unique nature of each expression, how to pair it with tonic and garnish, and answer questions from the tasters. It has been very successful, with whisky lovers from Norway, Switzerland, France and Spain all joining in. We are currently looking at ways of keeping these going even beyond Phase 4 of easing lockdown.
“We are also encouraging customers to return their packs to us so that we can re-use them – after a deep clean of course! This is allowing us to donate money that we would usually spend on buying more bottles to charities. We are giving £5 from every kit returned to a variety of local causes, including the NHS, Charlie House and more.
“Our tasting events have grown rapidly and help to make up for the cancelled/postponed tours. We are doing on average three tastings a week – from private bookings for whisky clubs, friends and family get-togethers, to our public events available online.”
Managing to healthily maintain his sales levels in comparison to last year, Mike invested time into ensuring his website was easy to use and his customers could easily communicate with him on social media as well.
“Our website is getting more exposure than ever so we’ve tweaked certain things that were planned for, bringing in changes such as; better delivery rates, a wider option of deliveries and an evening collection slot for people who were still working regular hours, forward.
“Looking at last year’s April/May figures as a comparison, not just during Covid but all year round, our sales have remained healthy compared to 2019. The only outlet that is under performing currently is the tours, which we have had to cancel or postpone. We are still getting enquiries though so it is not completely dead in the water.”
With 2020 set to be one of Inverurie Whisky Shop’s biggest yet, Mike is certain people will want to book face-to-face experiences and visit his shop in person once again, albeit when they feel safe to do so and in accordance to Government guidelines.
“This year was lined up to be our biggest year yet for experiences and we had also launched the Highland Whisky Academy – a week-long experience encompassing five distillery tours within Aberdeenshire with some fantastic speakers,” said Mike.
“This is still planned for November but obviously some contingency plans are now in place to delay or adapt the experience. We expect 2021 to be huge for tourism in Scotland, either with staycations or with visitors who missed their whisky experience this year gasping for a dram from the home of whisky.”
He added: “In terms of bringing people and staff back into the shop, plans are already well under way. Obviously strict provisions are in place but we are adapting the shop to make it the same experience as possible with sanitation stations, maximum numbers and a one-way system being implemented. As a business, we are very flexible and I have to commend our staff for their attitude to the changes. We are able to turn around very quickly if, God forbid, there is another spike in cases.”
Lucinda Craig, owner of Still Tours Scotland in Aberdeenshire which was set to launch its series of whisky distillery tours in May this year, is eager to introduce tourists and locals alike to her new experience-based business.
Listing more than 100 distilleries from across Scotland, there’s plenty of experiences to sign up for.
She said: “Before lockdown we had run one tour up to Royal Lochnagar and another to a different distillery. They went really well and were fully booked.
“We’ve been running virtual tastings in partnership with Ellon Whisky Shop. Before lockdown we were doing whisky and gin tastings there every Friday night so instead, we’ve been doing them virtually. We’ve had 24 couples from across the north-east on most weekends. We have someone who delivers parcels on the day of or before the tasting and participants get six bottles within it, which are all numbered.
“They also receive a spreadsheet for them to put their thoughts down on the different expressions. Everyone is encouraged to guess as we go through the expressions. We also give participants nuts, crisps and popcorn to snack on throughout and we supply the mixers for the gins and garnishes, too.
“We have a great online community already. We’ve done whisky quizzes on our Facebook page as well.”
While distilleries remain closed and uncertainty around when exactly they reopen is still unknown, Lucinda is preparing for life after lockdown and is looking at different ways she can deliver her service safely.
She added: “There will be questions like ‘How many people can we take on our tour buses?’, ‘When will the distilleries reopen?’, and, ‘How many people will they allow in?’, so there’s going to be challenges. Once we have that information, we can figure that out.
“We’re preempting what we might have to do like providing hand sanitiser and masks. We’ve really had to look at health and safety and how the tours will work. Whisky is one of the biggest exports of Scotland, but I think it will be September or October until we start thinking about operating.
“At this point in time we’re looking locally for support, but tourists will of course be a big part of our business. No one is really ready to travel or think about that yet so I think more people will be looking at what they can do locally. I think we could be busier than what we had actually envisioned as a result of that.”
In St Andrews Peter Wood, owner of St Andrews Wine Company based in the centre of town, is also looking forward to reopening when it is safe to do so.
While Peter hasn’t had to make many changes to his business, he has had to re-think some elements of his offering, and says delivering his goods to customers doors has been one of the highlights of his time in lockdown.
He said: “The only difference really is that I’m now out delivering rather than being in the shop, but that actually gives me the chance to talk to each customer one-on-one, which I think they like!
“Our website actually has more information on the wines than the labels in the shop do, so you can actually make a more informed choice, and I’m only an email away if anyone wants a recommendation. Our mail order business has grown with people who may come to St Andrews once or twice a month now buying remotely. All I’ve done is keep doing what I’ve always done, e-mailing customers, being active on social media – it is just that my customer’s buying habits have changed a bit.”
Ahead of the game, Peter has been hosting virtual tastings on his social media pages for the past three years, although he admits there is now more competition due to everyone else now jumping at the opportunity to run online tastings.
“I started doing online interactive tastings using Facebook Live and I think I was the first retailer in the UK and USA to do this.
“Now, because everyone was stuck at home, every retailer has started doing them and consumers understand the advantages of having a tasting in your own home. Essentially seven years of planning and three years of execution was caught up by everyone else in a few weeks.
“Instead of getting all grumpy that the world had caught up, I started a new initiative called ‘Winemakers Live’ with one of my suppliers, Daniel Lambert, where we are bringing the winemakers straight to the consumer with an online tasting.
“By not branding it as St Andrews Wine Company, it allows independent wine shops all over the UK to join in these tastings and invite their customers to take part. It is free for the retailer and consumer to use, with unlimited viewers and the consumer can choose to buy as many or as few bottles as they wish – they can even just watch the tasting and not try the wine. You also get to ask winemakers questions and have a direct link to the person making the liquid in your glass which is what I think people want now.”
Familiar with also hosting wine dinners and in-store tasting events, Peter is working on new concepts to give customers the chance to indulge in his offering, and the events he runs in new wonderful ways.
He said: “I’ve been able to trade throughout the lockdown but thought that it was irresponsible to encourage people to come to the shop to buy booze, so have focused on the online and delivery service instead. By having the shop shut it is giving me the time to refurbish it, thinning shelves to enable social distancing and giving it a new coat of paint!
“I think we’ll be looking at July before the doors open again, and we’ll obviously be limiting numbers in the shop and discouraging people to handle the bottles unless they are buying them. The main thing is though, we’ll still be doing free local deliveries and shipping wine nationwide so people really don’t need to come into the shop if they have access to the internet.
“I’d like to think that these will happen again soon, as they are great fun to do, but I’m not certain they will. So I’m looking at a few other concepts that might be able to make this happen in a different way.”