Morgen McLaughlin, President and CEO of Finger Lakes Wine Country since 2007, is leaving to take the position of Executive Director of the Santa Barbara County Vintners’ Assocation in California.

McLaughlin has spent the past six years with two simple, if challenging, goals: bring more people to the Finger Lakes, and bring more Finger Lakes wines to the people. She has aggressively pushed wineries in the region to submit wines for critical review. She has urged Finger Lakes wine professionals to engage with customers on a wide range of platforms, including social media. And she has piloted a number of tourism initiatives.

This is a significant loss for the local wine industry. Finger Lakes Wine Country, run by a 17-person board, will initiate a search for McLaughlin’s replacement.

McLaughlin agreed to answer questions via email, and in doing so, was able to be more forthcoming on a number of issues.

Why did you decide to take the job in Santa Barbara County?
I felt it was time. I read a few years ago that the most effective leaders of non-profit organizations on average stay in their positions for about seven years. I have put my heart and soul into the running FLWC and I feel we, as a destination and organization, have accomplished an amazing number of things since 2007. We have published a well-received travel magazine for three years, launched a first- and second-generation mobile app, generated a lot of media recognition for the Finger Lakes in some of the most regarded publications, and most importantly, continued to generate increased visitation to the Finger Lakes.

[pullquote_left]I personally believe fracking in its present form, with little government regulation, is a threat to the environment in the Finger Lakes.[/pullquote_left]

I am a person that thrives on challenge and opportunity. I feel over the last six years, we have really been able to shine the light on the Finger Lakes as a region debuting on the world stage. Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association is in a really good position right now. We have a solid team in place, our funding is stable, and our marketing strategy continues to be very effective. The opportunity in Santa Barbara County was such that I just couldn’t turn it down. Plus, I have a lot more to learn about the marketing of wine regions. My husband is in the wine business as well and he is looking forward to the new opportunities that lie ahead. My three boys are also looking forward to playing golf and baseball year-round. In the end, it was really the best decision for our family right now.

My heart will always be in the Finger Lakes and I look forward to watching the future successful development of the region.

Finger Lakes Wine Country will have to hire someone to fill your role. Do you think that person should be from the region, or from outside the region, and why?
I know of at least two people within the Finger Lakes that would be a good fit. The position requires someone who can lead a non-profit organization, work with a diverse group of board of directors and stakeholders, and has a strong marketing background. I do expect that the association will see applications from all over the country. This is an excellent opportunity for someone to step into an organization that has been well-run with a solid marketing plan already in place. With all the recent attention bestowed on the region, who wouldn’t want this job?

What is the biggest change you’ve seen since you arrived?
The biggest change I have seen in the past few years is how much more recognized the region and its wines have become. I remember one of the first meetings I had with an assistant editor at a wedding publication in New York City on a media trip. I pitched Finger Lakes Wine Country as a destination wedding locale, and the young editor said, “Why would anyone want to get married in the Finger Lakes when the wines aren’t any good?” That singular meeting set my path for the next six years.

Since then we have worked hard to promote the quickly improving quality wines of the region. Now when we meet with editors, they are quite familiar with the Finger Lakes and that some of the most highly regarded rieslings from North America are coming from here. In fact, we now routinely hear from brides all over the county who want to get married in the wine country of the Finger Lakes because of the overall quality of the wines. It is now becoming more commonplace that wines from the Finger Lakes are receiving excellent reviews and being included in Top 100 and Winery of the Year mentions from the top wine publications. We have come a long way in six short years.

It seems a growing number of quality-focused wineries are deciding not to join the wine trails. How will this impact the region? Would you advise them to join? What you like to see the trails do?
I have voiced my concerns in the past that the industry is starting to fragment. Many of the new, smaller producers are choosing not to join a wine trail for one reason or another. Some don’t want to participate in the large consumer wine trail events while others want to take a more focused approach to tasting room hospitality. The wine trails provide a very significant portion of the private sector funding to FLWC, which in turn helps us further promote the Finger Lakes. Without this important funding stream, we, as a destination and association, would not be where we are today. I hope in the future the wine trails can find new ways to bring more wineries under their umbrellas. I think the wine trail events will continue to evolve and that wine trail marketing will develop into more promotion of the sub-appellations of Seneca Lake and Cayuga Lake. I hear someday that Keuka Lake might get its own AVA too.

What is the single most common mistake you see wineries make?
The most common mistake I see wineries make, and not just in the Finger Lakes, is the collection and use of consumer data. We are in an era that wineries should be sending highly targeted marketing messages to their core customers. Too many wineries have no true understanding of who their customers are, how to find more people like them, and how to effectively communicate with them. I think many wineries in the Finger Lakes believe they will continue to receive a steady stream of customers through their doors. It is a very competitive landscape in the wine industry right now. There are good wines being made all over the country and more regions like Ohio, Virginia, Texas, Missouri, and Pennsylvania are investing in wine country marketing. If wineries want visitors to become customers for life, they have to develop personal relationships with them at the first point of contact.

This is a region grappling with fracking. You haven’t taken a position on it. Now that you’re exiting, can you state your feelings on the issue? Do you view it as a threat to the region? What, if anything, can the wineries do if they want to try to stop it?
Finger Lakes Wine Country Tourism Marketing Association does not take positions on political issues like natural gas exploration or wine in grocery stores. However, I personally believe fracking in its present form, with little government regulation, is a threat to the environment in the Finger Lakes. I also believe the Finger Lakes faces losing valuable vineyard land to future residential developments. It is vital for those potentially affected businesses to work together on lobbying and working with elected officials to address the many issues that face the wine and tourism industries.

Government is generally responsive to those who speak the loudest.

The local business community has, in large part, supported fracking. Did that come as a surprise to you?
Over the last five years I have come to appreciate the various viewpoints associated with controversial issues. At first I was surprised by the local support for the natural gas exploration industry in the Finger Lakes and throughout New York State. You watch 60 Minutes segment and read a series of articles in The New York Times and wonder how anyone can support fracking. But the gas and oil industries generate a lot of direct and indirect revenue for hotels, restaurants, shopping centers, real estate companies and farmers, all of which are part of the tourism industry. It is an issue that will remain controversial until we can develop cheaper sources of alternative energy.

Many wineries remain content to focus on tasting room sales. Is that good enough? In other words, what would you advise wineries to do if they want to reach more customers?
As more and more wineries open in the Finger Lakes and throughout the country, it will be imperative that wineries continue to search for new customers and find a focus. Visitors are looking for interesting and authentic tasting room experiences. Too often I hear from people that they can’t remember the names of the wineries they visited whether it is in the Finger Lakes or elsewhere. Wineries should determine what they do best and do that over and over.

Three-tier distribution will continue to be more dominated by the large national brands with no foreseeable end to this trend. It is vital for wineries to foster the personal relationships in the tasting room that can be carried over to direct to consumer platforms. With Amazon getting aggressive in the wine and grocery categories, the Finger Lakes has the potential to be at the forefront.

A lot has changed in the Finger Lakes over the last ten years or so. Many wineries in the past have been able to sell all of their wines from their tasting rooms at very good margins. As more wineries have opened and created more competition within the region, and as more regions become known as wine regions, the new models of successful wineries will change. My bet is on those wineries that focus on unique and memorable tasting experiences that go beyond the traditional tasting room bar set-up.

Some skeptical wine professionals doubt the value of social media, which you’ve strongly pushed. Is there enough return on investment to show that social media is a valuable tool?
Social media has been one of the most successful components of our marketing strategy over the last few years.

Since the beginning of the 2013, 30% of our visitor leads have come from social media sources. That is a huge number compared to all our sources like search, direct web traffic, paid media, consumer email marketing, and web referrals. We have worked hard to build the base of fans in our Facebook community through a variety of tactics. We have over 57,000 likes on our main fan page and recently launched a series of geo-targeted Facebook groups that are connecting travels and wine lovers in certain key markets like Ohio, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. We have used our Facebook fans to help win accolades for the region that have generated significant more traditional media coverage in publications like The New York Times, Budget Travel, Travel & Leisure and Sherman Travel.

Additionally, Twitter has been an excellent tool for connecting with journalists and travelers in the region. People need to be reminded that social media should be just one part a business’s overall marketing plan. We still buy radio and print advertisements because they help build our destination brand and I think there is a lot of opportunity for wineries to leverage good old fashioned direct mail. I think those wine professionals who are skeptical about the return on investment for social media haven’t figured it out to leverage themselves.

Finally, when you want to convince someone that the Finger Lakes can make great wine, and you only have one wine to pour for them, which do you go with?
That is a bit of an unfair question because there are a lot of interesting wines coming out of the region right now. When my husband and I entertain at home during the holidays we always include bottles from different Finger Lakes wineries. I think people are often surprised most by the wines that they least expected to enjoy. Whether is a sparkling wine from Wiemer or a Lemberger from Fox Run, those wines are always well-received. My husband recently brought an older vintage Rkatsitelli from Dr. Frank’s to his tasting group and those in attendance were blown away by the quality.