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Why Vancouver International Wine Festival likes late-February time slot

45th incarnation of the festival slated to run Feb. 24 through March 3
Vancouver International Wine Festival executive director Harry Hertscheg enjoys a glass of Italian wine in advance of his festival

Festivals might be one of the only things around where admission prices are not rising.

Ticket sales have been strong for the 45th Vancouver International Wine Festival (VIWF) perhaps in part because organizers have not raised prices from last year, VIWF executive director Harry Hertscheg told BIV.

The festival has absorbed some cost increases and has been reluctant to try to pass them on to festivalgoers, he said.

“People are spending enormous amounts of money on going to see Taylor Swift, and they are travelling like crazy and seeing professional athletes,” he said. “Then they don’t have any money left for local groups and events. I'm hoping people will support their local events so we can have a strong culture.”

Hertscheg’s 2024 extravaganza takes place Feb. 24 through March 3, and will be the second consecutive festival put together on a shortened timeline, given that its 2023 event was in April.

For some wineries, two festivals in 10 months is too much, given that some end fiscal years at the end of March and only allot a certain amount of money toward attending wine festivals.

The COVID-19 pandemic descended weeks after the 2020 festival ended on March 1 of that year. The festival was forced to cancel its 2021 incarnation and then come back with events at 50-per-cent capacity in May 2022, to enable more social distancing.

The festival’s plan, however, was to incrementally get back to its preferred time slot in late February – a booking that tourism industry advocates, such as Destination Vancouver CEO Royce Chwin, also like.

Chwin told BIV that his organization has been working to attract more visitors to Vancouver during shoulder seasons, such as January through March.

Hertscheg said his team worked hard to truncate the first six months of work on the festival into four months, and then to be back on their regular annual work schedule starting in early October.

“It is amazing how important a timeline is,” he said. “It is like the supply chain of an event.”

The VIWF's late-February time slot is key for the festival because organizers require all participating wineries to bring at least one principal. Those people almost always need to rent hotel rooms, and hotel room prices in Vancouver are at about their cheapest in late February, Hertscheg said.

CoStar data for hotel room rates backs that up. In each of the past two years, Vancouver hotel rooms were their cheapest in January, with February close behind, and March being the city's third-cheapest month to rent a hotel room. 

“We're not at the end of February because we decided we just wanted to be at the end of February,” he said. “We are in late February because when you look at the wine-business ecology, it is the best place for us.”

Düsseldorf, Germany, holds its large global exhibition Pro Wein in the early March, with this year’s event taking place March 10 through 12.

Hertscheg said winery principals often want to go to Düsseldorf, and they would not want to attend a Vancouver festival that was immediately following, or preceding, Pro Wein.

Other considerations are also at play when considering the VIWF’s timing.

“We can't hold the festival during Dine Out Vancouver,” he said, referring to the region’s fixed-price dining festival held Jan. 17 though Feb. 4, and involving 389 restaurants.

This is partly because the VIWF will include 15 dinners this year.

Winery representatives often also do not want to attend the festival if it includes a long weekend because they may have personal plans. As such, mid-February was not a possible time slot because Feb. 19 was Family Day in B.C.

“We can't be doing it during Valentine's Day and we can't do it during the spring break school holidays, because many people in the industry are on vacations with their families.”

Added to the calculus of when to host the festival is whether it is possible to secure the largest space at the Vancouver Convention Centre, where four large public tastings and two trade-only tastings take place. Those events involve 147 wineries from 17 countries pouring approximately 600 wines.

Renting space at the Vancouver Convention Centre can be competitive. Last year, for example, the VIWF was forced to use the old convention centre, or Vancouver Convention Centre East, because the newer structure was booked, Hertscheg said.

He added that his plan is to continue to use the newer convention centre whenever possible. It opened in 2009, and is popular in part because its largest public space has windows so visitors can look out to the North Shore.

Italy is the VIWF’s theme region for the fourth time, and it is bringing more wineries than ever before: 71. That is more Italian winery representation than has ever happened before in B.C., Hertscheg said.

Italy brought 60 wineries when it hosted the 2016 festival, 50 wineries when it hosted the 2008 festival and 38 wineries when it hosted the 2000 festival, he explained.

Overall, he expects about 25 per cent of the participating wineries to be attending the festival for the first time, and for about 75 per cent of the wines poured to be unlisted in B.C., meaning that the wines are only available by special order or at the festival’s on-site British Columbia Liquor Distribution Branch-run liquor store.

Two exhibitors are in the fast-growing non-alcoholic wine sector and are expected to bring a total of about 20 different non-alcoholic wines. That, Hertcheg said, may be the largest selection of non-alcoholic wines ever served at a wine tasting event in Canada before.

“People have a tendency to think, ‘Oh the wine festival has been around for a long time. It must be the same-old, same-old,” Hertscheg said. “It’s amazing how people will establish opinions that are not based on facts or data.”

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