At Sula Vineyards in Nashik, India, there is a steady flow of visitors to the winery, all through the year, from those who stay for a few hours for a wine tour and wine tasting and perhaps a meal at one of the on-site restaurants, to those who spend a night or two at The Source, the guest accommodation located at the main winery complex. During the cooler months, between November and February, on a typical weekday there are about 600 visitors, and about 2000 on Saturdays, and another 2000 on Sundays. In summer the numbers fall, and during the monsoons they rise once again as the landscape is lush and the weather cool. The SulaFest, held during the first weekend of February, brings vast numbers of music lovers to Sula – about 14,000 people over two days!
Preparation for the festival starts several months in advance as the winery puts a detailed plan in action for the music groups who will perform and the food and wines to be served for all the visitors who make their way to the winery.
“As the festival has been such a huge event for Sula since the beginning, it is on our mind throughout the year whenever we go in for any changes or additions at the winery complex,” says Monit. “However, for the most visited winery in the world there is hardly any time and space to initiate changes on a normal working day.”
The silver lining in the Coronavirus cloud. This changed during the pandemic. With the coronavirus spreading steadily and a nationwide lockdown declared on 24th March 2020, the winery was closed to visitors. Only skeletal winery operations were allowed to continue to complete the harvest and bottle the wines fermenting in the tanks. As the weeks passed, it became clear that the situation was not going to get better in the foreseeable future.
Sula took advantage of the situation and decided to make the most of it by deciding to initiate projects that were feasible with the few members of the staff allowed to come to work and those working from home.
Maintenance of the winery premises and guestrooms was undertaken alongside the bottling of wine. Staff members were encouraged to opt for on-line training as well as learning new skills related to functions at the winery such as labelling and bottling processes. “The Sula L&D Team conducted numerous online sessions with staff all across the country,” Monit says. “Lots of learning and motivational activities were organised to keep morale high including online quiz sessions to assess the learning.”
It was decided to call off the Sula Fest 2021 and this decision gave the team more time to take long term initiatives for the winery. “We spend months planning for the two-day SulaFest event. Having decided to call it off due to the pandemic, we found we could focus our efforts on bringing more long lasting changes at the winery,” says Monit, “for the visitors who come to Nashik on the other 363 days of the year.”
Given the need for social distancing , Sula decided to design props and spaces that would encourage people to visit the winery and enjoy the outdoors. More than 6,000 trees were planted on a hill outside the winery as a greening initiative where visitors could go for a walk; cycling and walking tracks with proper lighting were laid out and bicycles, including tandem cycles were purchased for couples to use.
Boards about Sula milestones were placed strategically around the campus to create awareness of Sula’s success story as the most visited winery in the world as well as highlighting historic spots in the vineyard such as the vineyard plot where India’s first Chenin Blanc vines were planted. A gazebo erected among the vines provided guests the opportunity to dine al fresco for a special night out or a romantic rendezvous.
Recognising the role of social media in creating brand awareness, the team felt the winery needed to create specific spots which would provide photo opportunities with Sula in the background as an attractive destination. “Instagram plays a very important role today,” Monit points out. “New Zealand is the most Instagrammable country in the world and this draws visitors.”
As months passed, shadowed by the coronavirus cloud, the Sula team worked at these initiatives. “At Sula we value the role of social media. We get thousands of visitors who enjoy the experience and take pictures, so why not make the most of it as a marketing opportunity? Many visitors were seen taking selfies, so we thought it was a good idea to design attractive selfie points that also clearly indicated that the location was Sula. Not all visitors are going to tag Sula with every photo they take and upload on social media.”
With this in mind a number of selfie-spots were developed such as #SULA signs, attractive displays of Sula wine bottles, six 25-foot-high fibreglass bottles of Sula’s leading brands, informal seating with the word SULA and a large red heart behind it, the Sula logo of a sun with a smiling face that are now dotted around the campus starting from the entrance. Eye-catching installations such as a yellow stationary cycle, a yellow Piaggio and a yellow signpost indicating the distance between Sula and world cities subtly reinforce the colour of the Sula logo.
When the lockdown was gradually lifted in August, the winery hotel was opened with 33% capacity for resident guests only and Covid-19 protocols in place such as digitised menus and contactless check-in and check-out options. The swimming pool at The Source hotel was closed, but open-air seating and food and wine service was offered around the pool, along with live instrumental music over the weekends and on high occupancy days with at least 35 rooms booked. Until the tasting lounge re-opened, wine tastings were held in the open courtyard at The Source for resident guests.
By early October 2020, The Source opened with 100% capacity; and soon after the winery opened its doors to day trippers as well. Once the winery re-opened, Sula witnessed an increasing number of visitors with people taking the winery tour and enjoying wine tastings, walking through the vineyards, shopping at the outlets and staying back to have a meal while taking lots of photographs.
In January and February 2021 there were so many visitors that Monit described it as post-lockdown ‘revenge tourism’! “People love being here to enjoy a glass of their favourite Sula wine and we are happy to have them!” he said.
A version of this article appears in the print edition of SI Issue 3, Autumn 2021