Bordeaux's tower of wine

Friday, 8. December 2017 - 13:00

Reviews of wine exhibits can make for gloomy reading. London’s Vinopolis was criticised up to its closure in December 2015. The National Wine Centre of Australia, still open, was initially described as a “white elephant” and a “cash-burning waste of taxpayer money.” Bordeaux’s Cité du Vin, on the other hand, has appeared to thrive since its launch in June 2016. So far, it’s scored mainly positive reviews from TripAdvisor, along with earning plaudits from National Geographic, which ranked it number seven in its October 2017 listing of the 11 best museums in the world. 

Monument to wine
The Cité du Vin, a large-scale exhibition devoted to the history and culture of wine, opened to great fanfair on 31 May, 2016. It not only attracted widespread attention, but also proved to be a tourist magnet in its first months, pulling in visitors who marvelled at its ability to offer a multi-sensory, multi-media experience, alongside a glass of wine. But will it be able to sustain this interest over the long term?

Although the Cité’s reluctance to provide up to date, month-on-month visitor figures makes it tricky to judge its success, there appear to be two potential area of weakness. First, an apparent slip in average visitor numbers, and, second, occasional overcrowding issues. The number of average monthly visitors dropped by one-fifth, based on two Cite du Vin news releases, from almost 39,000 month in the first seven months to about 31,000 during the next five months. 

Asked about the lower average numbers, Cité du Vin director, Philippe Massol pointed to seasonality effects, saying the “high season period lasts from April to October,” resulting in the “excellent seven-month numbers”. Meanwhile, the five-month figures represent calmer tourist months. Massol also said the next set of figures – likely to be released at the beginning of 2018 according to Cité du Vin president Sylvie Cazes – will show further improvements. In a separate interview, Cazes said that visitor numbers for June to October 2017 were 15% to 20% higher than the same period in 2016.  

If changes in visitor numbers are due to seasonality, the slippage will not be an issue. However, given that the Cité has set their cost-covering visitor target at 450,000 annually, which they aim to hit in years three to five of operations, they not only need to catch up, they need to find another 25,000 people prepared to pay the €20.00 ($23.33) a ticket. 

The other, somewhat related, weakness would appear to be visitor flow management. Unscientific as TripAdvisor reviews may be, the most oft cited criticism of the Cité is overcrowding, particularly around parts of the permanent exhibition; the venue also welcomes visiting exhibitions twice a year. That would suggest that if or when the 450,000 target is reached, the Cité du Vin must find a better way to manage visitor flows. 

The good news
At a broader level, the success of Cité du Vin seems to be agreed upon by most everyone, with Bordeaux taxi drivers, local journalists, season card holders and random tourists all weighing in with positive remarks. Digging into the reasons for that success-where-others-have-failed, three elements stand out. First, that the project involved non-wine expertise right from the start. Second, its geographical context and, third, the public-private financing structure. 

First in the mix is ‘non-wine’ exhibition designer, Casson Mann. The UK company was handed a 360-page document of proposed content for the Cité du Vin’s permanent exhibition. According to director Gary Shelley, there were serious disagreements  around “what might actually be interesting for visitors,” versus what the organisers thought would be interesting. The result was the tech-driven experience that sits on the second floor of the Guggenheim-like building, involving a 3-D experience of sounds, lights, aromas, games, multilingual audio and 19 different modules. 

“Our job was to make it popular and fun for ordinary visitors,” said Shelley. “Part of the success was down to having us, non-wine experts, involved. And, yes, there are people expecting to see an ancient wine press, and they might be disappointed. But you can see those kinds of things elsewhere – out at the chateaux, for example.” Casson Mann also insisted on excellent quality materials. “For example, we worked with a perfumer and a smell expert … to get the aromas right. So many of the aromas in museums and visitor attractions smell ‘chemical’ or cheap and horrible. We knew we had to up the game.”

Working in conjunction with Casson Mann was the second non-wine element:  Cité du Vin director  Massol, who had worked at Futuroscope, a futuristic French adventure park in Poitiers, from 1989 to 2000. Massol is in turn supported by the Cité’s highly diverse Scientific and Cultural Committee whose member expertise includes literature, geography, climatology, agricultural engineering, history, photography, medicine, responsible alcohol consumption and neurobiology. 

As well as breadth of expertise, the international reach of the exhibition’s content has also played a role, said  Cazes. “The more we talked about it [during the 20 years it took for the project to come alive] the more we realised it had to be much bigger,” she said. ”It had to go beyond Bordeaux. It had to be about international wine culture and our shared wine heritage.”

Moving on from design and content, the next element in the Cité’s successful mix is geographical context. This was a particularly important consideration for Shelley, given that he works in London, the city that witnessed the birth and demise of Vinopolis. “We had visited [Vinopolis] a few years ago. It always felt like ‘why is it here?’’ By contrast, Bordeaux – one of the world’s great wine regions -- felt like the right place to have a wine museum, And that is why tourists tend to be there for in the first place.

Shelley agrees the wider breadth of content is a better draw. “There is more about history and culture and global ideas in the Cité du Vin; how humanity and wine have been on this journey for over 4,000 years, whereas Vinopolis tended to focus more on the wine regions and styles.” Finally, Shelley said Vinopolis had a tendency to over-commercialise the experience. “You felt the ‘hard sell’ in some areas sponsored by different drinks companies. We were careful to avoid any hint of that … because otherwise, in our opinion, visitors stop trusting the exhibition and can become quite defensive about being sold to.”

Last, but not least, in the Cité mix is the public-private nature of the funding, which see it fall somewhere in the apparently fertile middle ground between too much private sponsor money, as with Vinopolis, and too much public money, as was the original funding structure of Australia’s National Wine Centre. This became such an issue that the Wine Centre was used as an example in a 2007 study called ‘Overcoming the ‘White Elephant’ Syndrome in Big and Iconic Projects in the Public and Private Sectors.’ In it, author Scott Prasser, from the Faculty of Business at the University of Sunshine Coast, says the Wine Centre, “highlights the issue that public ‘icon’ projects are frequently launched without an adequately identified business need.” He goes on to say that unlike private-sector projects, “taxpayer funded projects are frequently conceived and defined to meet a political need or justification while the business need is cobbled together to ‘legitimise’ the expenditure of significant public funds.” 

By contrast, 19% of the €81m ($94.5m) the Cité du Vin cost was raised privately, while the rest came from a range of public sources. The arrangement helped focus the team on containing costs and is highlighted in their press kit, which says: “compared with six other similar recreational sites, La Cité du Vin has demonstrated exemplary control of its construction costs.” For example, it says the average gap between provisional and final costs at similar sites is 158%. At the Cité there was only a 29% change. It also says that average final investment in similar sites is €200m ($233m), compared with just €81m ($93.5m) for the Cité. 

The visitor experience
There is no shortage of wine-related activities for visitors to immerse themselves in, from films to an aroma exhibition.  Cazes said her  favourite is the Belvedere tower at dusk, with Bordeaux laid out below. “There is a huge lamp up there, made of 3,000 wine bottles, and each one is full of lights,” she says. “It is a really a fabulous place to be any time, to get a full panorama of the city, but I especially love it at dusk. And that is where the tasting room is, so you can enjoy a glass of wine at the same time.” From the permanent exhibition, her favourite  is the short film called ”Le banquet des hommes illustres”’ (The Banquet of Illustrious Men – although Shelley said they managed to slip in a woman or two.) The film revolves around a dinner party in Paradise where famous figures – including Pliny the Elder, Winston Churchill, Alfred Hitchcock, Wolfgang Mozart and Colette – share wine stories. Shelley has noticed that the French tend to love that particular film. His favourite part, meanwhile, is the sofa where visitors can sit and watch a montage of art and wine, while poetry is whispered into their ears. “You are lying down looking up at a dome and there is music as well,” he says. 

The organisers know which modules appeal to the visitors themselves, as each module collects data from the visitors.  That data becomes the basis for any necessary adjustments or changes. The most popular module so far seems to be the Five Senses Buffet. 

Given that the Bordeaux Wine Council (CIVB) has made wine tourism a priority, and that they are expecting up to three million visitors in 2018 to coincide with the arrival of the Tall Ships sailing race, visitor numbers may not turn out to be an issue for the Cité du Vin – which will mean the founders will have achieved something unique: a wine exhibition that works. 
Sophie Kevany

This article first appeared in Issue 6, 2017 of Meininger's Wine Business International. For more great articles, why don't you subscribe? Or at least send off for a free sample.