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Looking ahead: Ian Harris MBE, chief executive, WSET

Published:  14 December, 2018

Tumultuous political times are offering an interesting backdrop to our latest Looking Ahead series.

Not to be perturbed by the toing and froing of Downing Street, we will once again be catching up with the trade over the next few weeks to find out how businesses are making the most of the all-important Christmas trading period, while also looking ahead to the challenges and opportunities 2019 will bring.

We continue our series with insights from Ian Harris MBE, chief executive of the Wine & Spirit Education Trust. 


Would you say that the trade is in a stronger or weaker place now than at the same time last year, and why?

It depends how you define ‘trade’, but in its broadest sense, the ‘industry’ (defined as a person or company who physically touches a case, a bottle or a glass of wines or spirits) is in a weaker place; this is due to margin pressures, currency fluctuations and increased options for consumers to spend their leisure budget.

What were the highs and lows for your own business in 2018?

WSET is in the fortunate position of having a broad spread of markets (75 countries) across the world where WSET courses are available with core strength in all the big wine and spirit markets, particularly USA and mainland China. The ‘highs’ for WSET were the continuing growth in student numbers around the world (+11% year-on-year) and the successful recruitment of key personnel (including our USA-based team) who will ensure that this growth continues. Difficult to pick out any ‘lows’ – but, perhaps it was the realisation of quite how big of an opportunity we’ve been missing out on in terms of educating advanced spirits professionals! We’ll be addressing that in 2019 with the launch of our new WSET Level 3 Award in Spirits.

What were the most significant trends in the drinks world that occurred in 2018?

The seemingly unstoppable force which is gin – and all around the world – and the growth of interest in, and quality of, non-alcoholic alternatives to wines and spirits.

What drinks trends do you predict will emerge or become more firmly established in 2019?

As above, plus the move to more on-line purchasing, particularly from ‘cellar door’ as producers realise that they can develop their own route to market. There will also be a continuing growth trend of ‘trading up’ as a result of increased knowledge of wines and spirits, both at point of purchase and within the more affluent consumer base (driven – of course – by the knowledge gained from WSET qualifications!)

What are likely to be the biggest opportunities for the trade in 2019?

With the hospitality sector in the doldrums, I would like to see multiple retailers (the big supermarkets) doing more to encourage consumers to trade up. It’s not difficult to persuade someone who is willing to spend £3 on a take-away coffee that £10 will buy you a much better wine than a £5.99 bottle.

What will be the biggest challenges facing the trade in 2019?

I hate to throw Brexit into the discussion, but undoubtedly this will be the biggest challenge for 2019, particularly as NO-ONE knows what will happen at the end of March. The challenge of uncertainty is the worst type of challenge, as you can’t see the barriers and the hurdles which will be in front of you, let alone knowing how high or even if you will have to jump them!

Who are the people, companies or sectors to watch in 2019?

Watch out for Amazon taking an even bigger share of the wine market, watch out for more innovation from Copestick Murray, and watch out for some exciting activity from WSET in our 50th anniversary year.

What, for you, would make for a perfect Christmas?

Personally: to avoid any aches, pains, germs and accidents over the Festive period.

Professionally: to see the Government all singing from the same Carol Book to get a good Brexit deal – it might mean plying the Brussels guys with strong drink.