Simone Incontro, the head of Veronafiere for China, returned from Italy in late March. His plane was diverted from Beijing to Tianjin, where he was put into a mandatory 14-day quarantine in the city’s suburbs. I asked him about his experience and the outlook for Italian wine projects in China.
JB. You just spent two weeks in quarantine. How was the coffee situation? Did you have an espresso machine in your room?
SI. No coffee, no wine and no pizza — not even any tea — for two weeks! But I didn’t miss coffee as I much as I thought. [I don’t believe this–Ed.]
So what did you eat and drink?
I had white rice and vegetables for lunch and dinner. And boiled water. I also had chamomile tea and Italian pastries I brought from Italy. I paid 170 yuan (EUR25) per day, 110 for the room and 60 for the food. It was not a hotel but the room was nice.
What was your first meal after quarantine?
Actually, an Italian restaurant called Bella Vita, 73 km away from where I stayed, was able to send me this pizza two hours before I took the van to Tianjin airport. It was cold, but the best.
It took a six-person WeChat group to organize the delivery. A pizza, salad and bread for 150 yuan (EUR20). No delivery fee. They are great people. And the best coffee was this, in Tianjin airport.
Did you also have to quarantine when you made it to Shanghai?
I just need to have my quarantine paper, which testifies I am okay now and am negative for COVID-19
So, two weeks in Tianjin. What did you do with that time?
It was two weeks plus that first day. I left the quarantine center on the last day at 7 PM. I lost almost 8 kg.
During the two weeks, I read books, listened to podcasts, made many video calls and walked at least 10,000 steps per day even if the room was only 12 square meters.
Did any of that involve wine projects?
I was doing calls with our agents in Slovenia, Brazil and South Africa. Then with winemakers in Europe and our offices in Shanghai and Verona for Vinitaly and in Shenzhen for Wine To Asia. I used Webex for the China calls and both Zoom and Skype for Europe and the rest of the world
How do things look for upcoming events in China?
According to the law, no trade show is allowed until June at the earliest. The market is waiting to hear about Chengdu (the huge annual China Food and Drinks Fair). In terms of promotion, everything is stuck right now. Wine importers are very worried about not being able to attend fairs and return to normal and sell again.
So what are they doing in the meantime? Contacting sub-distributors by email? By Wechat? By video? Or just waiting?
It is a mix of all this. One wine importer told me they need three times as much effort for half of the results.
That’s why we will push more online projects. We’re going to livestream more Italian wine tastings via Yizhibo and Weibo. For example, one 12-person tasting in a Hangzhou showroom had 2,500 viewers online.
We’re also going to help, mostly through Weibo but also WeChat, with the promotions Italian wine merchants are planning. I’m in touch with the social media team in Verona and we post pictures of Italian vineyards with the hashtag #sharethewine, and this is something that we notice people like very much. So we try to make some noise.
You guys are hoping to hold the first Veronafiere in Shenzhen in November. Can you say more about that project?
We will work closely with the wine associations and the wineries. But in order to make an efficient marketing, communication and recruitment plan, it is important to know what is going to happen with the Chengdu fair.
Shenzhen is — I think — a very good choice. The city was booming before the virus, it has a new events center, and the number of importers is pretty high. And I think what we miss right now in southern China is a professional international trade show. So it may be a great opportunity in our opinion.
Note: After the Q&A, I talked to Incontro about that 73-km pizza delivery. As lighthearted as that story sounds, he revealed the fear of these times.
“I saw the Coronavirus was so strong in north Italy and that my parents were really scared to die,” he said. “When my family had enough masks, I went and bought them enough food and water for at least three weeks, then went from Venice to Rome by train, slept one night in a deserted hotel, took a flight from Rome to Moscow, and got the last seat available from Moscow to Beijing. It was a nightmare and I was very scared in that fully packed flight. Everybody in that plane was so scared to get the virus.”
And, on his last day of quarantine, he ordered that pizza. Based on my past experiences with Incontro, it’s just the type of love-of-life thing he would do.
“The important thing was to get back and try to restart everything,” he said. “We need to do things like that, we need to be decent.”
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