A future for NZ wine tourism?

Before the Covid-19 restrictions, wine writer PHIL PARKER ran a thriving wine tourism operation. Now, he’s had to rethink everything.

 

Waiheke

 

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As we head out of the internal travel and social strictures of NZ Covid Level 2 in Auckland – and the Government finally moves to free the NZ economy somewhat – many New Zealand tourism operators will be having to think seriously about whether they still have a viable business.

Can I still make a buck out of this, or do I look for another job.

Back in 2000, I tentatively launched my business as ‘Insider Touring’ online with a basic website. I was still self-employed as a physiotherapist in private practice but looking to make a more flexible living and a better income. The original plan was that I’d host wine tours and my wife would host shopping tours. But in the end, the ‘fine wine tour’ became the popular option and I formally registered the business as Fine Wine Tours Ltd.

Phil’s tour coach

One of my physio clients (a Dutch, 7ft tall surfer dude) knew a bit about websites and offered to set me up properly online. Those were the days when websites were a new thing, and many search engines were battling it out to be numero uno.

By 2019 I had been fulltime guiding wine tours for 18 years and my tours were rated No.2 wine and food experience in Auckland on TripAdvisor, on page one of Google for ‘wine tours Auckland New Zealand’, and turning over a respectable $140K a year.

And, like most NZ tourism businesses, inbound tourists represented about 90 percent of my clients, with locals more focused on group tours and corporate events. Wine tourists from the USA, Australia, UK and Canada were keen to come here and experience our wine culture, having tasted our wines back at home. These were generally the well-heeled, middle to older age group and well-informed, seasoned travellers. They happily paid top dollar for a premium experience if you were rated highly by travel advisories and delivered the goods on the day. The vast majority of these folk were pleasant, generous and kind people who were a pleasure to host. Also, they were a huge boost to our economy by generally staying longer and spending more per head.

Wine tasting with Rob Meredith, Peacock Sky, Waiheke

But as of now, that high-end luxury slice of the market has vanished due to border restrictions. Possibly for years. So now, operators must remodel their businesses and appeal to the domestic market. To achieve this, both the operator and the customer must find a sweet spot that suits both parties. Realistically, we wine tour guides can’t continue to charge rates that are unaffordable to the average Kiwi domestic tourist. And likewise, NZers should appreciate that we can’t run a business that makes a loss.

Sure – your mate Dave ‘who knows a bit about wine’ can take you to Kumeu in his SUV because he did a night school class in Wine 101 in the early ’90s, but are you getting a premium experience? Or do you pay a reasonable fee to go with an expert who has had a real relationship with the wineries for decades and can take you behind the scenes to deliver a memorable tour?

A Pinot Hall cask at Kumeu River

So, I have ‘pivoted’ (hate that word). I have revised my pricing downwards and posted a sliding scale of tour fees, depending on how many people are on the tour. I have also made the tours totally private so that just one family or corporate group is on tour that day with their ‘bubble buddies’. To be honest, I’m still struggling and will make a loss this year. I’m hoping for an uptick around December and January with family groups and corporate bookings. I am lucky that I can draw on savings for the next 10 months before I can claim a modest NZ Government superannuation and draw on Kiwisaver. I’ll certainly keep the business open and I have no plans to shut it down because it’s a job I truly love and I remain optimistic that the tourists will return one day.

Meantime, let me drive you to drink. You will have a fantastic day!

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