Donna Fellman is the Online Education Director of the World Tea Academy. She will be giving a workshop called “One Plant—Six Teas” at the Rocky Mountain Tea Festival, which will take place July 29-30, 2017, at the Dushanbe Teahouse in Boulder, Colorado. By sharing her expertise in the tea industry she has prepared people from around the world for careers in the field. She imparts her wisdom on the importance of tea education in this Q&A.
Talk about the importance of ongoing education for retailers and their staff.
Donna Fellman: Many years ago, I managed teahouses, one in Seattle and one in Boulder. One of the things I learned was how important it is to educate myself, the staff and customers about tea; what a noticeable and tremendous difference it made in tea. The owner of this established teahouse in Seattle knew what his sales had been for years before that, and then after we had a highly trained manager who put a lot of focus on training the staff and educating the public, there was a clear and positive difference in dollar amount of sales year over year. What became very clear to me was there was a tremendous need in the tea industry and in the specialty tea industry to provide education both at the level of staff and to the public at large. That was when I decided that I would provide tea education for tea professionals as a way to help support and grow the specialty tea industry, and that has been my focus ever since.
Tell me more about the kinds of retailers who seek out and benefit from tea education.
DF: As director of the World Tea Academy, my vision is to provide education for tea professionals. The largest response is from teahouse owners who realize they don’t know enough and people who want to own a teahouse and do this education ahead of time. There are many people in the tea industry who don’t have a background in tea. Coffee retailers used to not have to offer tea but they can no longer afford not to offer tea. Most have spent their whole lives in coffee and now they want to learn about tea because they want to improve the quality of the tea they offer in their coffee establishment. These students make up a large percentage of the people who take classes at World Tea Academy.
Tell me about the importance of tea festivals.
DF: They’re a way to reach potential customers and potential members of the professional tea community. The growth of the specialty tea industry also includes educating the public. I believe it’s particularly valuable to attend regional tea festivals where I can reach out to the public at large because those are not only future customers, they are potentially future participants in the specialty tea industry. The people who come are clearly already interested in tea, so it’s very rewarding. I have my best possible audience in front of me when I’m talking because I know that they’re there because they want to learn about tea. There are so many different things to talk about.
Tell me why you chose the topic of “One Plant, Six Teas.”
DF: I chose this topic because so many people are not aware that all six teas come from one plant. That is one of the first, most amazing things people learn about tea. My experience in the teahouse was a clear demonstration of the fact that the more people know about tea, the more interested they are in it and the more tea they drink.
How can a retailer get his or her employees and customers enthused about the story of six teas coming from one plant?
DF: Well, it’s, “How do you get them enthused about tea?” The story of how six teas come from one plant is one of many fascinating, intriguing stories that interests people.
How does staff education impact customer experience in a teahouse or store?
DF: The way it impacts it is that when you educate your staff they feel empowered and excited about tea and are able to communicate that excitement along with the information about tea, and pass that onto the customer. The more excited and interested the customer is in tea, the more tea they drink and the more they come back. When they see you as a source of not only tea but information in this amazing story that goes with this amazing beverage that we sell—sales go up. Not only do sales go up, but you have employees who feel empowered and feel good about their jobs and want to stay and work and are happy with their jobs and that is directly transmitted to customers who then become very loyal and enthused.
Tell me about some good customer education programs.
DF: There would be a lot of tea tastings, but with an educational focus. I would put together classes about tea that had some kind of theme. It was either all Chinese teas or Japanese teas, or black teas or oolong teas and then talk about how they’re made and the differences and similarities between the teas that were being served. So many teas have amazing stories and myths that go with them, and people just really love that stuff. When I wasn’t working at a teahouse, I would do classes at the Denver Botanic Gardens and Lifelong Learning and other places, too. There are so many different ways we can share what we know about the amazing teas we have.
What would you like people to know about the World Tea Academy? Is there anything you would like people to know about the curriculum?
DF: World Tea Academy offers classes at two levels. There is the core curriculum, which of course is essential. It’s a foundation for understanding the basics of tea. We have a really strong, thorough foundation program. The most exciting thing about the program to me is the advanced classes. Many of them were written by tea industry professionals who specialize in different areas and were amazingly generous and thorough with the amount of information that they put into these World Tea Academy classes. And a lot of that information isn’t available in any book or class anywhere else that I know of. It really is pretty amazing to me. People ask me how I knew what classes to offer. Basically, I designed the program that I wish had been around when I wanted to learn about tea, when I wanted to take what was a hobby and a passion and transform it into a profession.
Students need seven classes to graduate as a certified tea specialist, all the core classes plus one advanced class. To gain one of the three advanced certificates, students have to take an additional five advanced classes that qualify for one of the three tracks for the advanced certifications. Those certifications are: certified tea professional, certified tea sommelier and certified tea health expert.
What are some World Tea Academy student demographics?
DF: When we started the World Tea Academy, we didn’t foresee how large the international demand would be for tea education. We’ve had people from 42 countries, six continents, 43 of the U.S. states and six of the Canadian provinces take classes at World Tea Academy. We’ve had more than 500 people. Some people have taken all 17 classes.