The tourism season’s success will be measured differently this summer, says the president of the Mission Hill Family Estate Winery.
Darryl Brooker, president of the West Kelowna winery, said he already knows public gathering rules to combat the COVID-19 pandemic will mean a 25 per cent drop in wine tour visitors, the majority of which will be coming from B.C. and Alberta.
The winery tour season tends to kick off around Easter and extends into the early fall, but, this year as businesses were forced to shut down due to COVID-19, wineries have only started to re-open this month.
“In the past, 80 per cent of our tourism visits came from B.C. and Alberta, but I suspect the Okanagan to still be very busy in July and August even with the travel limitations. People will still want to get out and go somewhere this summer, it will just be closer to home,” said Brooker.
To address that reality, Brooker said Mission Hill delivered mail-out pamphlets to Lower Mainland residents and used social media messaging to focus in that same direction.
“It’s going to look a little different this summer but there are still some positives. We think the winery visit experience for our guests will be more rewarding because the tour group numbers on-site at any one time will be less. Providing for a more intimate experience along with some innovative guest experiences that having fewer people will allow us to do,” he said.
He said they are fortunate Mission Hill’s Terrace Restaurant is already outside and meets the social distancing requirements for restaurants, while other new tour visit options will help showcase the winery.
The winery will try to accommodate last-minute tour arrives, Brooker stressed reservations will be critical due to the crowd limitations.
“The positive thing is each group, whether it be two, four, six or more people will proceed on the tour together so you won’t be doing a wine tasting sitting next to someone you don’t know,” he said.
“The tours will be a little more controlled than the past where we had people freely wandering around the property, but I think that also will lead to us offering that more intimate experience being shared.”
Staff at the winery underwent a three-week training preparation to deal with the COVID-19 protocols called for by the provincial health officer.
“Whether the public wants to wear a mask or not is up to them individually. Our staff will wear masks when indoors, and will not wear a mask when outdoors unless it is requested by their tour group. We will ask that question before starting our vineyard tours.”
Brooker credited the leadership and guidance of Dr. Bonnie Henry, the provincial health officer, for guiding the province through the pandemic.
He said Ontario wineries are suffering from the unstable COVID-19 case curve, while further south Washington wineries face a similar predicament.
“In the U.S., every state seems to be doing their own thing so the response (to the pandemic) is not as well coordinated as it has been here in B.C.,” he said.
He noted Mission Hill also owns four other wineries in the Okanagan — CedarCreek in Kelowna and three others in the Oliver area — and all are trying to take advantage of their individual characteristics to adapt to public health safety restrictions.
Meanwhile, the Thompson Okanagan Tourism Association (TOTA) is one of 150 project recipients of provincial government grant funding to enhance local tourism.
TOTA received $100,000 to “enhance tourism economies by identifying priority infrastructure improvements (rest stops, road cycling, etc.) and business attraction needs to fill gaps in the visitor experience, and also to support collaborative marketing campaigns.
TOTA was unable to comment on how much of that funding is targeted to Central Okanagan projects at this time.