In the past three years, Elizabeth & Wine has grown into a thriving business that I am so proud of. From pubs to pandemics and everything in between, the Elizabeth & Wine journey so far has been the biggest and best learning curve of my career in wine and I’m looking forward to sharing a little more of my story with you. It’s not always been easy but it has always been exciting.
From employee to entrepreneur
In my first blog post, Behind the Scenes with Elizabeth & Wine , I told you all about my first ten years in the wine and hospitality industry, working in hotels and running bars and pubs. During this time, I ran team training sessions and organised countless wine tastings and events for clients and customers. Although I was always working diligently behind the scenes, when it came to the sessions themselves it was usually a male member of staff in charge. I saw lots of tastings full of technical information and felt they lacked one key ingredient – fun! I noticed that too much detail clearly caused people to switch off, and always quietly thought that I would be able to do it so differently, and in a much more engaging way. I knew I could wine tastings in a modern and accessible way and bring the fun factor to the world of wine.
2018 was my very first year as a wine entrepreneur, and one of the most exciting years of my life. I was used to a much more transactional relationship with my customers – people entering a bar or restaurant have already decided that they are going to make a purchase, and so very little is required in the way of selling. I had to switch to proactively selling myself and my business! I used the network I’d built working in the City to tell people about my new business. I made it my mission to keep handing out as many business cards as I could.
I was also keen to make sure my wine knowledge was in great shape. I had completed my Wine & Spirit Education Trust Level 2 and 3 qualifications several years previously but went back to Level 3 for a second time in order to consolidate my knowledge and give me confidence. I found that the WSET had stepped up the demands of L3 but - while it was a worthwhile exercise - I was also frustrated by the syllabus which felt very traditional and focused on Old World wine producing wine regions. After completing this qualification I bought every book on wine I could possibly find and now approach my own wine learning as an exciting voyage of self-discovery.
Elizabeth & Wine’s first booking came in February 2018, a good-sized wine tasting event involving 5 wines and 20 people which gave me a huge amount of confidence and some great recommendations. Word of mouth has always been a huge part of my business, and this initial booking was a great boost. After this, every single new enquiry that came through felt like a huge adrenaline rush, and I was so touched that people had faith in what I’d created. There were plenty of disappointments, of course, including friends and close connections promising to make bookings and then never following up – I had to work very hard to learn to not take this personally and remember it’s just business.
I also found that without tangible materials such as a website, business cards, flyers and a LinkedIn account, it was much harder to get potential clients to take Elizabeth & Wine seriously, and so I invested time and energy into my marketing materials. This was a huge help in presenting Elizabeth & Wine as a serious business. I’d do it all again, but I think it is important to not get bogged down in the detail … winning clients is more important than choosing a colour for your website.
Moving into my second year, I had hit my targets of running two to five tastings per month and always having at least three new leads in my pipeline at any one time. LinkedIn has always been by far my most productive platform for winning new business and it is still a brilliant source of business leads today. My benchmark was to match the income that I had had when I was employed and I was happy to achieve this and more in my first year, which was a fantastic feeling! There were a few times where I had been tempted by offers from recruiters, but I made a huge effort to remain focused and my hard work felt like it was paying off.
It was in year two that I started to push much more actively towards the female market. I had been passionate about championing women in wine for a long time, and I began offering exclusive sessions to businesses aimed at the women in their management teams. Many of my clients were large corporations, and in the wake of female empowerment and #MeToo, many firms were keen to do more to support their female staff. My philosophy of championing female winemakers in my tastings fit perfectly, and throughout 2019 I made wine tastings for women.
Alongside this, my pipeline was ever growing and much more consistent, I was hitting all my targets and running a minimum of 4 tastings per month, so as we moved into 2020 and year 3, it felt like Elizabeth & Winewas really hitting its stride. And then … Covid-19 hit.
Along came Covid
As Elizabeth & Wine entered 2020, I was fully booked for the first quarter of the year and looking forward to another exciting 12 months. However, as the Covid-19 pandemic spread across the globe, cancellations began flooding in as companies closed their doors and I went from being on top of the world to feeling that everything that I’d built was falling apart. For a few weeks I was paralysed, obsessing over watching the news and unable to move forward with the business.
After a while my entrepreneurial instincts kicked back in and I saw that virtual events were becoming ‘a thing’ during lockdown. I started making plans for Elizabeth & Wine to start offering virtual wine tastings. But businesses were not yet in ‘events mode’ – they were too busy trying to keep going while getting everyone to work from home.
However, I knew that everyone was bored at home in lockdown and missing socialising. I pivoted the business towards the private client market and got my thinking cap on. My first step was to do a good old-fashioned mailshot, printing off 500 leaflets and hand-delivering them around my local area. Within days, my first booking came in from a lawyer who lives locally and wanted to get his friends ‘together’ over Zoom. Word spread and I soon found myself spending several hours a day on Zoom delivering tastings to all kinds of groups - from friends and family unable to spend time during lockdown to groups of colleagues. The one thing I think that they all had in common was that they were all happy to talk about something other than coronavirus!
The Covid challenges kept coming. I had to convince my wine merchants to support me by sending small batches of wine out to clients in advance of my virtual tastings. My merchant partners were amazingly supportive, a testament to the benefits of having good working relationships. I also moved away from my normal focus on female winemakers to offer ‘holiday’ themed wines which would transport my clients outside the confines of their homes to all the places around the world where they really wanted to be.
It wasn’t all plain sailing, of course. I would send out the wines as soon as I received the bookings and so had to be quite firm on occasion to make sure it didn’t get drunk before the session! On one memorable occasion, a courier I was using was also working for the NHS and the wine deliveries got bumped off the van in favour of a blood transfusion (but at least it was for a good cause!). There were also some exciting challenges like trying to work out how to FedEx wine for an international virtual tasting which included participants from Europe, New York and Ghana!
Back to business
As we’ve moved into summer, I’ve been thankful that my corporate bookings are starting to resume as companies regain confidence. In many ways, the Covid-19 pandemic has been the making of Elizabeth & Wine, forcing me to think outside the box and bring my business to a place that it never would have been in otherwise. I’m seeing more enquiries than I’ve ever had, delivering ‘series’ bookings of several events for different clients and generating lots of repeat business. Elizabeth & Wine has been tested by the crisis and – so far - proved itself to be an agile and scalable business and I’m very proud of what I’ve created.
The pandemic has really shown the beauty of running a small business and my ability to move quickly to change and adapt. I’m proud that Elizabeth & Wine was able to take instant advantage of a number of trends which Covid dramatically accelerated, including homeworking, socialising from home and a huge increase in home delivery services. Small businesses can be nimble, and I now find it extremely reassuring to know that a recession or something like Covid-19 isn’t the end of the world if you have the right kinds of ideas and attitude. Through virtual events, my reach is bigger than it ever was before and I am able to run multiple events across multiple countries, continents and time zones.
Now, I’m ensuring that Elizabeth & Wine remains strong and able to adapt to anything rather than worrying about what may happen next. I’m not sure what the future holds but for me the Covid-19 crisis has tested my business and also inadvertently sparked off new opportunities and ideas for growth.