COPIA: What Went Wrong?

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copia_tower.jpgBy Courtney Cochran

On the heels of news that COPIA: The American Center for Wine, Food and the Arts' petition for Chapter 11 protection was turned down by a federal bankruptcy court, many of us are left wondering just what went wrong at the sprawling multi-use center located in the heart of wine country.

Opened to great fanfare in 2001, the 12-acre non-profit center - which features three restaurants, a museum, classrooms, a 3.5-acre garden and outdoor performance space - was one of the last projects spearheaded by late Napa Valley scion Robert Mondavi, who passed away in May of this year. The center has struggled since opening to attract the kind of crowds initially expected, a fact that's made it difficult for management to maintain payments on some $78 million in outstanding bond debt. After attorneys for the insurance company backing the bonds convinced a bankruptcy court judge that it was not acceptable for COPIA to take on additional loans that would be secured ahead of the $78 million in bonds, the center announced that it is closing, likely for good.
Too Many Things to Too Many People
Though I am saddened by the news, I have to say that I am not terrifically surprised.  Why?  Because - simply put - COPIA tried to be too many things to too many constituents, with the end result being a vague value offering that wasn't enticing enough to compel valley residents and visitors to patronize the center.  My biggest take-away from all of my courses in business school was this fundamental truth about marketing:  a company must decide what sets it apart from competitors, and all communications to customers must highlight that "competitive advantage," as it's called.  Another key truth in marketing is that executing well upon this central competitive advantage is critical; if you try to compete on too many promises, you'll ultimately be "nothing to no one."

And COPIA, with its three-pronged emphasis on wine, food and the arts, certainly seems to be a classic case of promoting too many things to too many people.  To that end, a segment of COPIA TV featured on the center's web site promises that "programs are designed to appeal to beginners, professionals and everyone in between."  Still, had COPIA had one "killer app" (I'm borrowing a page from tech marketing, where they talk about "killer applications" that draw widespread acclaim; Microsoft Windows is a classic example), it still might have drawn visitors based on the enthusiasm and interest built around this single, really compelling service, product or installation (now we're coming full circle, because what I'm really talking about here is competitive advantage again).  

My Two Cents
But, so far as I could see, COPIA never had a killer app, and instead chose to market its offerings in the broadest sense, hoping that potential visitors would be compelled to visit the center for the sum of its offerings, rather than for a single experience.  And with so many possible activities to tackle at COPIA - from wine and food demonstrations to professional-caliber tasting classes to museum and garden tours and several dining options - I think it all came across as too much choice, without enough concrete reasons to go.  For this reason, should COPIA re-open my advice would be to focus on one or two aspects of the center's offerings and work hard on communicating truly compelling reasons for customers to come and experience those offerings.  Unfortunately, it doesn't look like this is a suggestion that will ever be road tested. 

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