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Stephane Tillement, CEO of Wine Paths, shared with Oleksandra Hryhorieva, WTA Project Lead, some peculiarities of his business approach and behind-the-scenes of his tour operator’s work. As the winner of the Wine Travel Awards 2021-2022 in the category Ambassador of the Year, Stephane and his team were awarded during the WTA presentation and tasting organized at La Cité du Vin in Bordeaux where he briefly talked about the concept of Wine Paths. We thought it might be interesting to share Stephane’s experience in the wine tourism business with Drinks+ readers. So, let’s get started.
Before talking about the concept of Wine Paths, let’s talk about its founder. I believe that our life and professional experiences lead us to the place where we are now. Stephane, please tell us a bit about your professional background.
I first started my career in the airline business at British Airways where I worked for 15 years. This experience brought me interesting insights on how a big company works and how it manages customer service. Now the importance of customer service has always been part of the DNA of my own companies. Then, after 9/11 the CEO proposed me as a senior manager to leave with my share. And I bought my first company in Bordeaux called Mauriac Voyages. This is a luxury travel agency for French people traveling abroad. The clients of this company are mostly French hired in the wine industry. So, I make them travel for their business, leisure or in groups. For example, two weeks ago, we organized a road trip for the Union des Grands Crus, 80 chateaux in Bordeaux, to the USA. They were able to present their wines and do tastings for the American market in Houston, Miami, New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles.
Later, I created a local travel agency called Bordeaux Excellence to promote Bordeaux, Cognac and the Basque Country. This is a destination management company (DMC). So far, this is the biggest company in Bordeaux, partially with a virtual network. I made this company grow by buying other companies. I also own some equivalents of this company in Champagne and Provence.
Then I came up with the idea of a company called Wine Tour in France. The focus was on wine and spirits tours in France offered to travel agencies in the US. This company worked well, and I started getting more and more requests either from direct customers or travel agencies asking for some help from Italy, Portugal, Napa Valley, etc. So, it became a global company that provides such services on high market brands. However, it did not last long.
How did you come up with the idea of Wine Paths which is a worldwide digital tour operator featuring luxury wine, spirits and gourmet travel experiences?
My experience with the Wine Tour in France brought me to the idea of creating Wine Paths. We operate in 15 countries now. The company provides services either to direct customers who can contact us via the website or travel agencies around the world which need our expertise on wine and spirits for their customers.
How have Wine Paths developed over its 6 years of existence? What has changed?
In the beginning, I thought I would target more direct customers, but now I can see that direct customers and travel agencies are the same in terms of turnover. So, we are receiving more and more requests from travel agencies that need our help.
Visiting the winepaths.com website gives you the impression that it is a truly large and global project that includes various aspects of wine tourism experiences. Talking about the basics, if one wants to book a wine trip, it can be done either via a local expert or via direct contact. You cover many different destinations such as Argentina, Australia, Chile, France, Italy, USA, Portugal, Scotland, Spain, South Africa and more – this is impressive – how do you find those local experts (I imagine it is lots of work)? Are there certain requirements for them to start working with Wine Paths?
My concept was to give as much freedom as possible to our customers. And freedom is also about the possibility to choose. A customer can book an accommodation, a tour to a winery or a distillery, but we do not do direct sales. Between 5 to 10 requests per day come to our office, we verify their quality and then send them to our partner. So, the partner receives only a pre-paid verified booking. If it is a more complex itinerary with a driver, boutique hotel or something else, then this request goes to our DMCs and they prepare a real package. It is always a personalized offer. We follow a customer-focused approach.
Regarding local experts, I have been dealing with so many companies and business contacts in different areas that now they all are part of my professional network. So, I always know where to find a good expert.
How did you form your base of unique places to visit? Does it work the other way around when wineries, accommodations, distilleries contact Wine Paths for work and cooperation? Do you accept any places, or is it always about luxury? Has it ever happened that a not-too-luxurious direction was taken into your portfolio, preferring a special experience or even extreme? If so, please tell me more.
We receive a lot of suppliers or contacts who are asking to join Wine Paths. Our team conducts its own selection based on word-of-mouth, notes on wines and feedback from our local agencies. Then, a supplier has a chance to join our community by paying an annual fee.
It is not only about luxury, but this is also about an experience which is a keyword here. I always communicate to wineries and chateaux that if they have cooking experiences, a nice garden, paintings, etc., they should put them on board, so that the customers who like those kinds of things could make their selection. On the other hand, extreme is not for my target audience.
Wouldn’t it be interesting for you to visit Ukrainian vineyards someday? Of course, when a peaceful sky reigns over them.
Sure. I have a list of countries and directions that we would like to open such as Israel, Hungary, Brazil. And obviously when Ukraine wins and we are back to the normal situation, we will be glad to contribute to Ukraine’s recovery by opening it to our customers.
How did you adapt to the pandemic situation? Were all tours cancelled? I saw your team initiated virtual tours and tastings. Was it successful? What are your insights from this experience? Do you keep practicing virtual experiences now and is there still a demand?
Exactly, we started practicing virtual tastings during the pandemic. In order for our brand to keep getting recognition on the market, even though people were still travelling, we made 50 Facebook lives available to all kinds of public and we reached around 50 thousand people around the world. At the same time, there were corporate clients requesting private tastings. And now virtual sessions are in demand mostly among private corporations. We select and contact wineries and we ship their wines to all the participants of a virtual tour. On D-day, the winery holds the presentation and tasting. Soon, we are having a virtual tasting at the St. Supéry winery owned by Chanel. I must say that one quarter of our profit comes from this concept. It works well because it is quite cheap for corporations and for us it is a powerful tool.
The recent news is about our cooperation with Amazon. Now we provide similar virtual experiences for Amazon customers via the Amazon Explore platform. The first winery which went live was Château Pape Clément. Moreover, this tool will help us to strengthen our SEO because we are linked with Amazon now.
Wine Paths also benefits from the expertise of shareholders specialized in the digital sector and the wine business such as Michel Rolland. Give us some other names please. What is their role and main task?
I have two advisors in the company. One of them is a very serious and knowledgeable entrepreneur in the B2B sector Christophe Poupinel. Now he is a partner in ISAI (a French Tech Entrepreneurs’ investment fund that finances high potential digital companies). And I also work with winemaker Michel Rolland who helped me to build the portfolio of wineries due to his expertise.
As a content bonus, the website features inspiring travel articles about luxury wine, food & spirits. Who are your authors? Are they local experts or journalists? Do you accept media partnerships to support other wine travel media projects?
They are all journalists. I cooperate with the media when they need my comment or expertise on something for articles. Besides, when the media send their journalist on a wine trip, we are asked for support. And in return, they mention Wine Paths in their materials.
Wine Paths has recently won the title of the Ambassador of the Year in the Wine Travel Awards 2021-2022. We understand that you have already gained a high reputation and maybe new recognitions are not so important for your clients. But the victory was given to you by the professional jury, and it can be used decently for PR. In general, through which channels do you spread the word about your tours?
To be honest, I almost do not use any advertising tools. I prefer putting money only in SEO. We have a lot of activities on the website, so my only concern is the investment in this channel. To give you an example, we are working on adding quality videos on the website now. We are going to embed 50 videos from Facebook live to entertain our audience even more.
Thank you, Stephane, for such an insightful and interesting conversation. Now our readers can better imagine how Wine Paths functions and what kind of a leader you are. Our sincerest congratulations one more time on your victory at the Wine Travel Awards 2021-2022!
Thank you too, Oleksandra! It was my pleasure to answer your questions.