The key to the continued growth of North Carolina’s wine tourism industry may be one of the state’s longstanding hallmarks: Southern hospitality.

That hospitality — in the form of excellent customer service — ranked as the top feature prompting consumers to visit a winery, according to a new research study on tourism to North Carolina’s wineries led by Dr. Erick Byrd, an associate professor of hospitality and tourism management in UNCG’s Bryan School of Business and Economics.

The research was funded by the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development, the Department of Commerce and UNCG. UNCG faculty members Dr. Bonnie Canziani, Dr. Yu-Chin “Jerrie” Hsieh and Dr. Keith Debbage also participated in the study.

North Carolina is home to many award-winning wineries, but the state’s nascent wine industry lacks the brand association of Sonoma Valley, Napa Valley or France, Byrd said. What does resonate with consumers is the story behind the product. “Customer service is where it’s at,” he said. “It helps create a story.

“A lot of people who are drinking North Carolina wine or visit North Carolina wineries consider themselves wine novices,” Byrd said. “They may not be able to tell you, ‘This is a Bordeaux and it was grown on the sunny side of the hill.’ But they can tell you, ‘The person who sold this wine to me was pleasant and knowledgeable. And I like that.’ We found that was why they went and why they would recommend it.”

Eighty-seven percent of visitors said customer service was an important feature of a winery and that hospitality was a key indicator of both their likelihood to return and to recommend the winery to others. Customers’ mindsets are, “If I get good customer service, when I go back, I’m more trusting of the staff and their recommendations,” Byrd explained. That relationship can lead to customer sales.

The study found that 80 percent of winery customers are visitors to the community, with more than 70 percent coming from inside the state. Most overnight visitors went to North Carolina wineries as an activity during a vacation while only 12.4 percent indicated that visiting the winery or a winery event was the primary reason for their trip.

The project also found three distinct markets make up North Carolina’s winery visitation: local customers, day visitors and overnight visitors. Special events — such as tastings and holiday events — are likely to attract greater numbers of in-state customers and to cultivate client-to-winery relationships.

Overnight winery visitors are looking for a vacation experience, the report found, and seek out additional attractions and reasonably priced accommodations. For these people, “the winery is part of their weekend trip but there have to be other activities around,” Byrd advised. “If a person stays for the night, it doubles their economic impact on the community. To help create a stronger economic impact, think about the vacationers and what else around the winery could make it a destination.”

The report gives important guidance on how to promote tourism opportunities in the state, said Wit Tuttell, director of tourism marketing for the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development.

“There’s a great message in this research that the Division of Tourism should continue to promote wineries as part of the overall North Carolina vacation experience,” Tuttell said. “It also tells us that events are important for wineries to build their local audience, but dining and accommodations are the keys for getting visitors to come and stay. Getting outside visitors will bring a much greater economic impact to these areas.”

Winery tourism has the potential to be a major niche industry for the state, Byrd said, especially for rural communities. “We have the beach, we have the mountains, we have major cities. Now in some of these rural communities — Yadkin County is a prime example — people are starting to identify that I can come and spend a day going to two, three different vineyards. It’s starting to gain some traction. People are starting to latch onto the idea that this is a way for communities to make money.”

It’s also a way for regions to retain their agricultural heritage, Byrd added. “It helps keep the rural landscape preserved by bringing in a new crop that can be produced.”

Other key findings from the study include:

• Overnight visitors were nearly 80 percent likely to make a return visit to a North Carolina winery and nearly 85 percent said they were likely to recommend the winery to others.
• Similar to all visitors to North Carolina, most overnight visitors to wineries came from surrounding states, including North Carolina (43.5 percent), South Carolina (7.6 percent), Georgia (7.2 percent) and Virginia (6.8 percent).
• 38.7 percent of visitors to the wineries from outside the community indicated that they were staying overnight in the area. Average length of stay for overnight visitors was 2.1 nights.
• Almost 70 percent of the winery customers who indicated the appeal of the winery website was very important to their decision to visit the winery were likely to share the experience with others via a social media website.
• On average, respondents reported visiting 5.23 wineries over the past year.
• 56 percent indicated their level of knowledge ranged from basic to no wine knowledge in grape varieties and types of wine, wine region geography, North Carolina wine history, grapes grown and wine produce in the state and North Carolina wine tourism
• 84.5 percent of survey takers indicated that they were likely to revisit a North Carolina winery in the future.
• 89 percent would recommend the winery they visited to others.

The researchers surveyed 832 visitors at 23 wineries across North Carolina between May and August 2012. The Division of Tourism and UNCG conducted the study to develop a profile of the visitors to inform marketing and outreach strategies.


By Lanita Withers Goins