Monday, 19 October 2020 12:59

Wine tour woes

Written by  Brenda Webb
Explore Marlborough. Photo by Jessica Jones. Explore Marlborough. Photo by Jessica Jones.

Bookings for premium wine tours “vanished” when New Zealand’s borders closed, say operators struggling under Covid-19.

“Overseas wine tourists were a huge boost to our economy by generally staying longer and spending more,” reports Phil Parker of Auckland Fine Wine and Food Tours. “That high-end slice of the market has instantly vanished, possibly for years. Ninety percent of my typical Auckland wine tour clients were inbound tourists.”

Operators could remodel their businesses to appeal to the domestic market, but finding a sweet spot that suits both parties is not always easy, says Phil. Operators could not continue to charge rates that were unaffordable to the average New Zealand domestic tourist, but “likewise, Kiwis should appreciate that we can’t run a business that makes a loss”, he says. “Sure, your mate Dave who knows a bit about wine can take you to Kumeu but are you getting a premium experience?” Phil can’t see borders opening for 12 to 24 months and believes the lucrative trans-Tasman bubble is also some way off. “Many operators are thinking seriously whether they have a future and I’m one of them.”

In Marlborough, most operators have seen their businesses drastically affected. Karen Walshe, who runs Explore Marlborough cycle vineyard tours from Rapaura Rd, Marlborough’s iconic “golden mile” of wine, lost 90 percent of her custom overnight. “It’s pretty dire to be totally wiped off the planet like that,” she says. “We are just hanging in and waiting to see what happens and really hoping next summer might pick up. But that is looking less likely with the rest of the world slightly chaotic. It’s a constantly moving space and so hard to plan for.”

The light at the end of tunnel is the prospect of a busy future once New Zealand does reopen, and Karen says it is up to operators to use the time now to productively plan for that. “It’s a good opportunity to start looking at how Marlborough tourism as a whole can plan for a busy future – it will come back, we just don’t know when.” While New Zealanders are travelling domestically, they are a tiny percentage of the wine tourism market and, generally speaking, don’t do guided tours, bring their own bikes and spend less, Karen says. “We are trying hard not to pre-judge it, and my view is that we just have to get out there and build the New Zealand market and try to earn enough money to cover costs”. The hardest part was trying to remain available for the domestic market which could be fickle, she says. “You can either shut your business down or stay open – you can’t put a tourism business into hibernation.”

Being ex-navy has been a godsend for Jess Daniell and Dean Fielding who own and run Marlborough Wine Tours. Dean is still in the naval reserves and has taken up a role managing a quarantine facility in Auckland. “We went from having 70 people a day and seven vans on the road to nothing,” says Jess. “There is no way we could have survived without Dean’s wage.” The company had a high profile on travel websites such as TripAdvisor and therefore it had to keep active. “You can’t just shut – you have to keep going,” she says. “And you’ve still got the overheads.” Marlborough traditionally has busy summers and quiet winters, and most operators adapted to that, she says. “We all had such a good summer– the problem will be not having any fat from this coming summer to get through next winter. That will be the critical time.” 

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