VINISUD’s Digital Seachange, A Talk With Ahmad Monhem

Ξ February 13th, 2012 | → 4 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Interviews, Languedoc/Roussillon, Wine News |

From February 20th to the 22nd of February, the Parc Des Expositions, outside of Montpellier, is transformed by a grand celebration, VINISUD, The International Exhibition of Mediterranean Wines and Spirits. A bi-annual event, this is how it describes itself:
 
“VINISUD is the showcase for the world’s leading wine region, the Mediterranean, which on its own accounts for more than 50% of world output.
Each event brings together the majority of Mediterranean wine producers and professional buyers from every continent, thereby helping to open the Mediterranean up to new markets for wine.
In 2010, 33,000 visitors and 1,650 exhibitors attended VINISUD:
 
French producers from Languedoc, Roussillon, Provence, the Rhone Valley, South-West, Corsica,
Producers from Spain, Italy, Portugal, Tunisia, Turkey, Morocco, Algeria etc.”

 
Now in its tenth iteration, VINISUD, 2012 anticipates this February’s Leap Year with a leap of its own, a leap into the Digital Age. In the interview below with VINISUD’s Director General is Ahmad Monhem – surely one of the most energetic and tireless of people – you will read of what is meant by the phrase, Digital Seachange.
On a personal note, I have been very fortunate to have been selected as one of eight of VINISUD’s ambassadors. My beat is the US. On to the interview.
 
Ken Payton/Admin It must be an enormous challenge to put on VINISUD. Now in its tenth edition, and with an excess of 33,000 visitors and more than 1,650 exhibitors, can you tell me about the history of the organization?
 
Ahmad Monhem Since the beginning of the 10th edition’s organization in November 2010, it has been both an enormous challenge and a great pleasure for me and my team. Our goal is to make of this next edition an exceptional and successful event for our exhibitors and visitors. We are trying every day to improve the experience for those who have given us their loyalty; I mean the quality and the conviviality of the exhibition, but also the professional and personalized service offered by our team.
 
How did you come to the leadership of VINISUD?
 
AM Since 1995, I have managed around ten different exhibitions in several industries. In 2007, my CEO gave me the challenge to organize the Vinisud 2008’s edition. I instantly accepted the mission. From that moment forward, I have worked to defend and develop the fame and the role of this exhibition throughout the world. And my goal remains the same; satisfy the customers (exhibitors and visitors).
 
What have been among the greatest changes and challenges you have witnessed in Mediterranean winemaking and viticulture since you assumed leadership of VINISUD for the last three editions? You might consider marketing, the rise of organic farming and sustainability issues, and climate change, as examples.
 
AM For me, the most important change deeply affecting the Mediterranean vineyard has been in communication and marketing. In 2008 – my first edition as the exhibition director – Mediterranean wines have finally started to lose the image of bad quality that had been the reputation of the region for years. Of course, the first main change came from winemakers themselves who decided to bet on quality instead of quantity. However, it is thanks to marketing that the world has discovered the real potential of Mediterranean terroirs. That is how in 2008, we could measured the new attractiveness of Mediterranean wines by welcoming a large part of international visitors.
 
Today, Mediterranean wines benefit from a very good image in a large number of mature markets. But the new challenge will be to seduce the emergent markets – China, Korea, India, Brazil… The seduction of these new consumers will require time because knowledge about Mediterranean wines is very low in these countries. It is going to take a lot of work to explain Mediterranean terroirs, for example, the specifics of its diversity. In these markets the main challenge of Mediterranean producers is to bravely face the fierce competition from the New World. But at the same time, in their owns vineyards, winemakers have had to adapt to another important trend: a greater respect for the environment. For many years, “terroir” was one of the key factors to make a good but “typical” wine – revealing the distinct characteristics of each diverse region. So it in that spirit that viticultural practices changed as well toward a greater respect for the many soils. As a result, we have witnessed a rapid rise in organic farming. Today, another concern has entered into the thinking of producers: sustainable development. Incidentally, I can tell you that this subject will be discussed a lot during Vinisud 2012.
 
An exciting new direction has been announced to this year’s program. It has been referred to as a digital seachange. Can you explain what this concept means?
 
AM As in every industry, an exhibition must evolve and adapt. We have seen for some years now the importance of the internet in the world. The wine industry has integrated step by step this evolution. Today with the birth of the « web 2.0 », a new communication appears. Now, 2.0 could be frightening. I admit that it took me time to weigh the pros and cons, and to determine the advantages of such a communication tool. Nevertheless, we initiated this « digital seachange » 6 months ago by creating the Vinisud’s page on Twitter and Facebook. Then quite fast, we felt the need to create our own platform: it was the birth of the Vinisud blog.
 
We have spoken about a « seachange » because web 2.0 has had deep consequences for the communication between companies and consumers. We understand the change, that in a short period we’ve moved from a formatted communication managed by strict rules, to a dialog in which each person can freely express themselves and openly share with each other. That is a quite huge SEACHANGE!
 
Although a general description has already been published on the VINISUD website, can you tell me what you hope will take place at Pavillon 2.0?
 
AM In that space we hope to see the gathering of winemakers, buyers, bloggers and journalists around this new trend: the web 2.0. The goal is to implement exchanges and debates between all the actors of the wine industry. Numerous bloggers will share their experience and give advice to winemakers. But as well will wine producers themselves speak about their own experience with the web 2.0. The idea is to offer for the 3 day event, a convivial space where the virtual world will become real.
 
In your view, what is VINISUD’s global strategy, how important has digital communication become for implementing VINISUD’s global strategy?
 
AM When I chose to develop a digital communication strategy at Vinisud, I had two ideas in mind.
The first one, obviously, was to increase the recognition of the exhibition internationally, especially in foreign markets. As organizers, it is our responsibility to ensure that international buyers have all the necessary information about the fair. They are assailed by requests, of course, so it is difficult to find the good way to capture their attention. E-mails were preferred some years ago to other communication means; but today it has became far too impersonal and moreover, quite useless due to the shear number of e-mails professionals receive each day. We needed a less formal way to speak to our producers and visitors: web 2.0 appeared to be the best way.
 
But Vinisud is a bi-annual exhibition, a showcase of the Mediterranean vineyard as a whole. Since 2007, one of the main challenges for me and my team was to keep and reinforce the link between two editions. It was difficult in a top-down communication context to keep contact with exhibitors and visitors coming from all around the world. The idea was to find a means to bring together Mediterranean wines lovers from moment to moment. The web 2.0 offered us the solution. Thanks to social networks and our blog, we would ultimately like to create a community speaking about Mediterranean wine culture; a kind of “virtual” Vinisud during the 727 days when the “real one” has finished!
 
How was it decided to include the international wine blogging community for VINISUD 2012? How can wine bloggers, including ‘ambassador’ bloggers, one of which I happen to be, be of assistance?
 
AM With the web 2.0 we came back to an ancestral means of communication: the word of mouth, the spoken word. Bloggers are, for me, proof of the huge power of such a means of communication. In fact, the majority of them are not professionals; they are just passionate by a subject, in our case, wine. Today people trust bloggers. Wine is a question of passion, and so we have decided that bloggers could very well be the best to speak about Mediterranean wines. Offering a complete information platform about Mediterranean wines – the first iterations of the Vinisud blog – had been such a huge amount of work for us. So, we have now decided to bring together diverse information sources. Today, the Vinisud blog aggregates articles coming from bloggers around the world, speaking many different languages, and more importantly, offering different and contrasting points of view.
 
Beyond that, we felt the need to more deeply involve select bloggers in order to build around them Vinisud’s community. That is why we elected 8 bloggers, opinion leaders in the major wine markets, to be Vinisud ambassadors. We hope to develop with them a close relationship around a shared goal: to develop the wine culture all around the world.
 
What would be your advice to wineries with respect to digital communication? How important is social media to a winery? How can social media be best used by a winery.
 
AM First of all, be curious. They must take time to discover what web 2.0 is all about and how it can help them to communicate. My second piece of advice would be to be prudent. Communicate through social networks means involvement with consumers; so it is very important to be prepared to launch such communication. Keeping up a dialog with customers takes time. Then, I recommend to them that they be honest. Because of web 2.0 people are eager for closer contact with producers; but equally want total transparency.
 
Finally, I would like to tell them that before beginning digital communication they must to ask for advice from “digital people” themselves, and share their thoughts and questions with them. We hope that the Pavillon 2.0 will facilitate these exchanges.
 
What can international visitors expect to learn at VINISUD 2012?
 
AM Discover and taste new wines, explore non-famous appellations and rare grape varieties. Meet recognized wine producers, and become acquainted with the new generation. Once more, this edition is going to welcome young winemakers who are ready to break the rules and to offer a new vision of Mediterranean wines.
During the three days of VINISUD, international visitors will be able to travel all over the world’s biggest vineyard in a single, unique location.
 
Finally, they will be able to optimize their visit thanks to the numerous free-tasting areas which allow an easy and quick wine selection. The best example is the Palais Méditerranéen where more than 2100 wines are waiting the visitors.
 
And just as it happens at VINISUD every two years, I know that this year our exhibitors will be full of surprises!
 
Thank you very much for your time, Ahmad. I look forward to seeing you at VINISUD.
 
AM Thank you.
 
Ken Payton/Admin

 

From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech

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