Representatives from across the wine industry met in New York City on May 15-16 to discuss issues facing importers and distributors in the U.S. market
The first-ever Alcohol Beverage Importers & Distributors (ABID) conference, which kicked off on May 15 in New York City, brought together importers and distributors from around the world in order to learn more about operating in the competitive U.S. marketplace. As Stephen Fahy of The Wine Library pointed out in the opening keynote, the event is designed to give importers and distributors an easy way to share best practices and key insights from across the industry.
Given ABID’s focus on solving problems facing small and midsize businesses, many of the event’s speakers took a practical, hands-on look at how to address specific issues that occur in any import or distribution business.
Highlights from Day 1 of the ABID Conference
Bill Sciambi, Co-Founder and Chairman of the Board of Verity Wine Partners, started off Day 1 of the ABID conference by analyzing what he refers to as “the distributor’s dilemma.” In other words, how does a distributor in the U.S. marketplace deal with all of the competitive pressures, both internal and external? His suggestion was to focus on specific touch points within the business, and then apply proven tactics to solve one problem at a time.
While Sciambi focused on the concerns facing current importers and distributors, the next speaker – Kevin Rapp, Co-Founder and President of Rapp Wine – took a slightly different approach. His talk, titled “Want to Import or Distribute Yourself?” was intended to be more of a guide for anyone looking to get into the import or distribution business for the first time. Rapp focused on the challenges faced during the first 365 days of business, including questions about how to properly allocate time and money during this challenging period.
One common theme that emerged during these two opening presentations was that many of the problems facing small- and midsize importers and distributors are legal in nature. To take a closer look at the legal issues facing importers and distributors, Donna Hartman, Esq., attorney at OlenderFeldman LLP, walked attendees through a distributor’s business legal checklist. Taking a checklist approach, suggested Hartman, helps to keep businesses focused on the most important legal challenges that they will be facing.
During the break between the morning and afternoon sessions, attendees were able to check out the more than 100 exhibitors at the USA Trade Tasting event, taking place next door at the Metropolitan Pavilion. The idea of holding both events – the ABID Conference and USA Trade Tasting 2018 – at the same time was part of a broader effort by the event’s organizers, Beverage Trade Network, to bring together participants from across the industry into one central location, where they could start putting key takeaways from the event into practice immediately.
The Day 1 afternoon session kicked off with a Q&A with Stephen Fahy, Senior Buyer for The Wine Library. The Q&A session, titled “Straight Talk With the Buyer,” was exactly that – a chance for audience members to ask direct questions to Fahy, who shared his insights on how to train sales reps, how to merchandise for retail, how to create an elevator pitch for a new brand, and how to create a floor display for a brand. Importers and distributors need to recognize that their job does not end when they ship a product to a retail store, suggested Fahy. Instead, there is a lot that needs to be done to make sure that product actually sells on the retail floor once it has been delivered.
Getting back into the everyday basics of what importers and distributors do, Jessica Brady, Marketing and Sales Development Manager for JF Hillebrand USA, covered the types of shipping and logistics issues facing players in the wine industry. These issues, she explained, can cover anything from port congestion and reduced truck capacity to exchange rate volatility and customs issues.
In the final presentation of Day 1, Alyssa Wolf, Owner of Red Wolf Imports, discussed the various ways that importers and distributors can use social media in order to sell more cases, stand out from the competition, and build relationships. The goal, she explained, was to avoid being just another faceless organization. Social media – and especially Facebook, Twitter and Instagram – can be important tools in putting a “face” on a company and building relationships.
Highlights from Day 2 of the ABID Conference
Day 2 of the ABID conference kicked off with a presentation by Matthew Johnson, SVP and National Sales Manager of Opici Wines. Johnson focused primarily on the best tactics to recruit and retain talented people. As Johnson pointed out, it’s not enough just to hire the right people – you also need to be able to create an environment where they can thrive. There is a real science, he says, to building a great team.
Next, Holly Higuera, General Manager of Through the Grapevine Imports, reviewed the key principles of the “millennial mindset.” Millennials are now the largest demographic group for wine consumption, but the way that they buy and even consume wine is very different from the previous Baby Boomer generation. For one, brand loyalty is not nearly as strong. And secondly, they are much more willing to try out new grapes, new countries and new styles. And finally, says Higuera, “The story is the most important part of a sale for Millennials.” In other words, your brand needs to stand for something if it is going to resonate with Millennials. One of the first things that a millennial wine drinker is going to look for is your brand story.
Following up on some of the themes from Day 1, which focused on how to optimize and streamline an import or distribution business, Donna Pace, Founder and President of Gathering Harvests (Connecticut), covered the major points of “running lean.” She shared real tactics that she used to help build her distribution business. Running lean applies to every aspect of an import or distribution business, including purchasing, sales, shipping and hiring sales reps. One major takeaway from the presentation was that collaborating with a brand partner can save costs.
One concern on everyone’s mind at the event was how to sell more. To provide insights into this challenge, Mark D. Smith, Sales Manager for Vintage Wines Inc., talked about the relationship between a wine sales rep and the importer or distributor. It’s important, he says, for bosses to help wine reps succeed. What they need to recognize is that “your field sales reps are your direct connection to the marketplace.” As a result, empowering your wine sales reps to sell more will bring you closer to the end consumer.
Wrapping up Day 2 of the ABID Conference, the next two speakers took a closer look at how to sell to two key industries: the restaurant industry and the hospitality industry. Sharyn Kervyn, Wine Director of The Capital Grille, shared her thoughts on a success formula for getting into national restaurant chains. Based on her own experience at the nation’s most popular upmarket chain steakhouse, Kervyn talked about the little steps that importers and distributors can take to get onto the wine lists of on-premise chains.
Then, Gary Clayton, Founder of CompassPoint Imports, talked about the various tactics that importers and distributors can use to get onto cruise lines and airlines. It’s all about “myth busting,” says Clayton. Once you know what the most common myths are, you will be in a good position to develop the optimal selling strategy.
Overall, the two-day ABID Conference in New York City provided a detailed, comprehensive, and eye-opening approach to the U.S. import and distribution business. Participants walked away with real, actionable steps on how to grow their business and optimize its future profitability.