Where next for the Wine and Spirits Education Trust?

Not only did the WSET turn 50 this year, but it's undergoing a rapid expansion. Felicity Carter caught up with CEO Ian Harris, who explains his hopes for a Guinness World Record.

Ian Harris speaking at ProWine Shanghai 2019
Ian Harris speaking at ProWine Shanghai 2019

Ian Harris admits he sometimes gets those dreams where you find yourself doing an exam you haven’t studied for.

“I wake up and think, ‘did I get that qualification’?” he says.

It’s reassuring to know that even the CEO of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, the global wine education body, knows what it’s like to sweat over exams. “I did the Diploma and failed in my first year,” he confesses, saying his career was going so well he couldn’t find the time to study. But he tried again. “It was 1980. The way you found out if you had passed in those days was, you looked in Harpers, because they published the list.” He bought himself a copy, opened it up, “and there was my name!”

Today, Harris is steering the 50-year-old organisation through a rapid international expansion. “Mainland China for us is growing by 31%,” he says. “In the past 12 months, we had 22,000 students in China. In 2005, that number was 50.”

Harris was speaking at ProWine Shanghai in November, where his staff passed out blue-topped 50th anniversary cakes to anybody who passed by. It was one of many 50th anniversary celebrations that took around the world, which included public tastings. “The biggest one was in London in September, which was a tasting by Olly Smith. We had 350 people doing a masterclass – so we’re hoping we got a Guinness world record.”

Digital evolution

A lot has changed since the WSET offered its first class. Digital is increasingly important, says Harris, and that’s changing the way that information is delivered. “Traditional classroom learning is still the best way to immerse yourself, because it’s not just about what you’re taught by a qualified teacher, but also about the people you meet in the classroom,” says Harris. “The interaction is more important, particularly as people from different sectors do the courses.” In China, for example, Harris says there is a higher proportion of non-wine trade people signing up to study than is true elsewhere. But what everybody has in common is they are time poor, so more people want to study on their own time, through digital channels.

“People thought the digital option was easier, but then they realised that doing something digitally is the same as being in the classroom, except you have to buy your own samples,” says Harris. “You have an online educator, you have tests, you get feedback. It’s not like an old-fashioned correspondence course.”

What has also changed is the way the information is delivered, because course material has to be optimised for smart phones. Videos have to be “short and snappy – 15 seconds maximum,” which is the timing set by the popular TikTok app. “People want to learn when they’re on the go.”

As to what people are learning, Harris says the “syllabus has been revamped and we’ve taken spirits out, so that’s given us a bit of space to introduce new subjects to the Diploma.”  Even so, the WSET “cannot possibly cover the whole world of wine, even at Diploma level.”

This means there are gaps in the syllabus, including the absence of some Eastern European countries, but Harris says whether or not something goes in depends on whether it has global reach or not. Natural wine is also excluded. “If something is fragmented and has no definition, it is very difficult to teach,” says Harris.

Settling in for the next 50 years

The WSET is now present in 70 countries, backed by more than 800 educators and attracting 108,557 students. “The big drivers of our businesses are China, the USA and the UK,” says Harris. “We’ve beefed up the team looking after the Asia Pacific region.” The WSET also opened a subsidiary company in the USA.

Not everything is smooth sailing – in October, protestors set fire to the business underneath the WSET’s Hong Kong office.

In general, though, things are going well, with the WSET’s financial future looking secure. Harris predicts the organisation will grow at 15% a year, until by 2023 “we will have 250,000 candidates a year. Spirits is an area we’ve underplayed, so that’s an area we’re going to focus on.” Online education and assessment is also tipped to grow. Not only that, but in recent years the WSET acquired three London properties, some of which have tenants whose rent is paying off the mortgage.

Harris says that while getting a Diploma from the WSET doesn’t guarantee anybody a job, education does improve the profitability of the overall industry – particularly when consumers sign up for courses. “The most important thing is to make sure the wine industry gives the consumer a reason to spend more,” he says. “The industry is not making much money and that will have a negative effect. The point about education is that it gives people a way to understand why they have to spend a bit more.”

Which is why those exams are worth the effort, nightmares or not.

Felicity Carter

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