Operating during the COVID-19 crisis has been an unprecedented challenge for every tourism business, but opening a new business for the first time during a global pandemic takes it to another level. Such was the case for Bespoke Spirits House in Parksville, B.C. who was scheduled to open in April 2020.
“I didn’t have COVID-19 built into my business plan,” says Shelly Heppner, owner and distiller. “I had to completely re-think my opening and delayed to May 1st.” To add to the challenge, Shelly is a sole entrepreneur and one of a handful of female distillers in British Columbia. “Distilling as just one person is challenging,” she adds.
Bespoke was a perfect candidate for the Vancouver Island Coastal Tourism Resiliency Program. As the program is designed to provide one-on-one support to tourism businesses, Heppner was paired with a dedicated Program Advisor who worked with her on a personal level to understand her needs and provide the appropriate support.
“To have someone to talk has been really valuable,” Heppner shares. “As a new business, to also be able to meet with industry experts in different areas from finance to marketing has been beneficial. Each component of the program has given me insight into what I can, and need, to do to be successful.”
One of the biggest challenges Bespoke has faced is the disappearance of key distribution channels. Heppner was counting on selling through farmers’ markets, but the number of vendors allowed has been reduced so this hasn’t been possible. This also impacts building brand awareness.
Bespoke has relied on word of mouth and social media thus far and has been able to cross-promote with Mount Arrowsmith Brewing. “It’s a natural fit,” says Heppner. “We are not only in the same industry, but in the same plaza. It just makes sense to promote each other and we will eventually create a collaborative product together.”
Beginning in September, Bespoke will also offer a series of gin workshops where participants can partake in “nosing” the botanicals, blind tastings of different varieties of gin to determine flavour profiles and create their own custom bottle of gin.
“My business background is corporate, but I approach distilling with my creative mind,” Heppner explains. “I think the people that come and see what I am doing are amazed that one person is doing it all, in very challenging times.”
Bespoke Spirits House has managed to jump through a number of hoops to open. Heppner appreciates customers who have been supporting local businesses but needs to build recognition (and sales) with locals and tourists alike. She concludes, “I feel if I can open a business during a pandemic, I can do anything!”