The global pandemic, the lockdown and the crisis that followed has forced many businesses to rethink the way they operate. Jacopo Mazzeo catches up with two of Britain's most successful wine educators to investigate why they've taken the decision to move most of their business online for good
‘In March when I saw [the lockdown] coming I thought that I couldn't lose my customers, so I had to find a solution,’ says founder of Enjoy Discovering Wine Erica Dent, one of the UK’s leading wine educators and WSET course provider.
We’re catching up over Zoom, the same platform that she swiftly shifted to as the national lockdown was announced in Britain, a lifesaver for her business.
‘Initially I thought “I’ll just do this once”, because I’ve always been anti-online. I really need people to be there.’ Unexpectedly however, online teaching turned out to be a rather pleasant experience, in fact more positive than she would have ever imagined: ‘It was so fantastic! Now, four months down the line I’ll probably do 90% virtual. That’s because of the feedback that I’ve got.’
With only a small percentage of her students wishing to be in a room, most of Dent’s clients are keen to continue learning through a screen. ‘Most said that [online it] actually works better, it wasn’t even that it simply works, it’s better,’ she says with unmasked excitement.
With only a small percentage of her students wishing to be in a room, most of Dent’s clients are keen to continue learning through a screen
Indeed, while the idea that students would prefer an online class to a face-to-face session might sound counter-intuitive, most people have actually been discovering the pleasure and value of doing things within the stress-free environment of their homes.
Thumbs up from the students
WSET London School’s former principal and founder of Global Wine Academy, Jim Gore, is also committed to moving much of his business online. He explains that people are now cheering for virtual training as they realise there’s more to it compared to the experience they get in class: ‘They get a lot more individual attention, by a long long way. It really freezes the time, they can send in the work for me to test in advance; they get to do it at their own pace; understand better what’s expected from them, and actually I get to mark much more of their work… Eventually, the time we have in the classroom is more about consolidating their learning.’
Dent calls it ‘flipped learning’: ‘Because of Zoom and because we use Google Docs I don't just say “come to class, here’s the information, here’s the wine, off you go”. Students prepare in advance and in class we work on really getting the concepts. It’s a very different experience.’
My students now do the majority of their tasting during the week and then they send in their notes, so during our session we work on an absolute perfect note. [By the time the virtual session starts], they had time to digest what they’ve done wrong and how they can improve
And the positives aren’t limited to the reading material. One of the key upsides of going virtual is that students have more time to spend with their samples, they taste them ‘in their environment and review them properly’, while in class they might only get a few minutes or so.
‘My students now do the majority of their tasting during the week and then they send in their notes, so during our session we work on an absolute perfect note,’ says Gore. By the time the virtual session starts, ‘they had time to digest what they’ve done wrong and how they can improve.’
The key for Gore is that his students benefit from being in a ‘positive learning environment’, as they find themselves in the most familiar venue, use their own equipment, and have their own space to taste.
Surprisingly, most students aren’t missing out on the social aspect of meeting peers during classes. ‘Last evening,’ says Dent, ‘I had to leave my Level 2 students to it because they just kept chatting, so I ended up giving control of Zoom over to one of them. I’m noticing that they’re actually making more of an effort to get together… it really seems like it’s created an even bigger bond.’
No Hong Kong, no M27
The students’ positive feedback is just half the story. Virtual classes have simplified Gore’s own life, too: ‘I’ve got a few days that I’m teaching in Hong Kong for the main WSET Diploma provider there,’ he says, ‘and because everyone has got so used to doing things on screen I’m teaching them from here. This saves money and I don’t have to teach while I’m jet lagged.’
Not having a venue is definitely making my life easier. I didn’t have a long commute, but it’s still that M27... “is it going to take me 20 minutes or one hour?”. It’s more about allowing the extra time and the added stress
Dent is also enjoying her new travel-free life. No venues means a significant saving on costs, admin and travel time: ‘Not having a venue is definitely making my life easier. I didn’t have a long commute, but it’s still that M27... “is it going to take me 20 minutes or one hour?”. It’s more about allowing the extra time and the added stress... and by doing it from home students can manage their time better, therefore no late arrivals, and it also feels like they’re more “ready”.’
The downside of online tasting however, is that a sample bottle for each wine needs to reach all students, a process that can severely impact on admin time and costs. But Gore doesn’t complain, as he soon discovered that ‘sending out the wines is a similar cost to hiring a venue… It’s quite bizarre’. Gore works with Borough Wines, which takes care of re-bottling the wines he selects into small glass bottles, fills them up with argon gas and handles the delivery. They even ship across Europe, while beyond Europe Gore partners with local wine shops or merchants to help him source similar wines to what he needs. ‘It’s not a perfect model, but the reach is a lot wider.’
Dent uses instead small recyclable bottles provided by packaging supply firm Juice Bottle: ‘I do the whole bottling, packing and shipping myself so a lot of time and cost goes into that, but still, bottling is much nicer than driving to Winchester.’
Despite the challenges of the past few months, Gore and Dent have even managed to expand their business opportunities. The duo successfully trialled a new project that will see them partnering on a new theory course aimed at helping students pass the mighty WSET Diploma's D3 exam. Guess what? It’s all happening online.