Last July, a number of “competing” tourism-related organisations merged to form Visit Stellenbosch (www.visitstellenbosch.org) to market the Eikestad (“City of Oaks”) more effectively…
“Previously, Stellenbosch 360 promoted tourism,” says Visit Stellenbosch general manager Jeanneret Momberg, “and Stellenbosch Wine Routes marketed about 150 estates in the region. There was very little alignment in their respective marketing strategies.
“This made no sense because – if you think about it – wine is the main reason people come to Stellenbosch. In addition, nearly all the estates have restaurants or accommodation and feature some form of activity other than winetasting and cellar tours.”
One result of the dysfunctional historical relationship between the various bodies, says Momberg, is a lack of comprehensive up-to-date tourism statistics for the Stellenbosch municipal region (which includes Franschhoek and Pniel).
Everyone knows tourism is booming … but no-one knows just how well it’s booming or how loud the bang could actually get. However, information provided by Stellenbosch Wine Routes (SWR) for a 2017 post-graduate thesis by Caitlin Hunter – The development of wine tourism in South Africa – reveals that more than 350,000 people travel to Stellenbosch annually just to visit wine farms.
How many of these people also eat at restaurants or shop in the town? Visit museums or art galleries? Stay at urban/“non-wine” hotels, guesthouses, B&B establishments or private residences?
The data overlap between SWR and Stellenbosch 360 was never plotted so a comprehensive tourism picture could not be drawn. So the creation of Visit Stellenbosch was greeted with relief by all parties involved, including local government.
Structures were created and an integrated marketing plan was in the early stages of implementation when the Covid you-know-what splattered the fan.
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Two months ago, proudly Stellenbosch-based homeware and accessories brand @miamelange was still producing their signature 100% cotton rope baskets and bags. Today, they’re registered as an essential service provider and have flipped their atelier into a manufacturing hub for fabric face masks. Visit our website to read more and subscribe to our newsletter, so you can stay up to date with what is happening in and around Stellenbosch. #proudlyStellenbosch #warmheartStellenbosch
As former boxing world champion Mike Tyson phrased it: “Everyone has a plan till they get punched in the mouth.”
“We had all our ducks in a row, had formulated our strategies and were about to launch our winter campaign when this disaster struck,” admits Momberg. “Those first couple of weeks were extremely difficult … mainly because the directives we received from the government were contradictory.
“Our first priority was to ensure those foreign visitors who were still in Stellenbosch had places to stay and were looked after. Once they’d left, we started planning very seriously for the future.”
For Spier, says hotel and leisure general manager Joep Schoof, the key to recovery has been the speed with which the business accepted the fact and magnitude of the virus disaster.
“We felt the effects even before lockdown was announced. There was a day when hotel bookings worth several millions of rands were cancelled in the space of just a few hours. That’s a hell of a knock for a team that has worked for five or six years to make the business a success.
“So, yes, Covid-19 has had a massive impact on us but I wouldn’t say it has been ‘devastating’, nor that we are ‘down and out’. The business is experiencing a crisis but we have a lot of positive energy and confidence for the future.”
But – and this is a belief he shares strongly with Momberg – hoping for the best is not the same as having a practicable recovery strategy. Life in tourism and hospitality will not “go back to normal” even after lockdown is lifted completely and the pandemic has run its course, insists Schoof. Money, he says, will be tight and people will be afraid.
“Traditionally, cleaning is something we’ve tried to do as unobtrusively as possible. In future, we’ll have to make cleanliness an even greater priority and our commitment to guests’ good health much more visible.”
The new realities will offer opportunities for creative thinking (on the one hand and cold-eyed business realism on the other) in tourism in general and hospitality in particular.
“In the anxious and confused first weeks of the pandemic, says Schoof, “we were adapting our business operations on a daily – sometimes hourly – basis as we introduced new hygiene measures or followed all the regulations laid down by government.
“We had five international guests still staying with us when lockdown came into effect. They were with us for an extra fortnight before being repatriated. We didn’t think it would be fair to charge them board and lodging … they were there due to circumstances beyond everyone’s control … but asked if they would be willing to make a donation to the Solidarity Fund.”
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Local chefs are hard at work preparing meals for different charities. @bertusbasson and his team are working from @eikebybertusbasson. Feel free to drop of vegetables, if you are masked up and sanitized. #tasteStellenbosch #warmheartStellenbosch #LockDownSA #InThisTogether #warmheart #Stellenbosch #SALockdown
Spier has also partnered with StellenboschUnite, a public-private collaboration that provides social support to vulnerable community members as a result of the pandemic.
Like almost every tourism and hospitality operation, the Spier Hotel shut up shop (except for a small team that looked after the “castaways”) and facilities were mothballed while management sought ways to keep the business on its feet.
“The first priority was to avoid mass retrenchments. Stellenbosch is a small town with a population of under 200,000 people spread across about 50,000 households and a particularly strong sense of community. With more than quarter of the population involved with agriculture, tourism and hospitality in one form or another, an injury to one is an injury to all.
“Obviously, everyone was filled with anxiety because they talk with other people and the news was filled with announcements of retrenchments, pay cuts and people being placed on furlough.
“We only introduced pay cuts in May but these were implemented on a sliding scale: higher-earning individuals had their salaries reduced while those earning closer to the Spier minimum wage … already 40% higher than the national level … were not affected.”
Salaries, he said, have been guaranteed till the end of July, regardless of government regulation of hospitality industry activity. Allaying income-anxiety and maintaining a semblance of routine has, adds Schoof, helped employees to come up with creative solutions to problems posed by the pandemic and lockdown.
“Our scenario-planning has gone from how to scale down the business to how to scale it back up again and even how to repurpose parts of it. At the same time, we embarked on a cross-skilling programme. People who are no longer active in the hotel have been constructively employed elsewhere on the farm.”
Schoof and Visit Stellenbosch agree that the nature of tourism and hospitality in the town makes it better placed to recover from the Covid thumping than most other local destinations.
The fact that so many leisure activities take place on wine farms for which these are generally profitable but nonetheless ancillary operations means Stellenbosch tourism should battle its way back to health as travel restrictions are lifted.
Already, many hotels are repurposing themselves as offices-away-from-home for travelling businesspeople.
Local tourism’s salvation, says Visit Stellenbosch’s Momberg, lies in the almost 50-50 split between foreign and domestic visitors. The latter do not often stay over in the town – if they do, it’s generally for one night only – but they spend quite liberally.
They also are largely compliant with social distancing requirements: recent Wesgro research into visitor trends shows that day-trippers (71.8% of visitors) come by car and that almost 70% of this number travels alone or in pairs.
The big challenge, says Momberg, is to get more domestic visitors to stay over in Stellenbosch and to make up for the expected drop in occupancy rates as inbound international tourism dries up for the foreseeable future.
But, with the end of lockdown anticipated for the end of the year, it’s expected that locals will be unwilling to undertake the risk or be financially unable to travel abroad on holiday. That’s a fair chunk of change that could be moving south from Gauteng.
Jim Freeman – Citizen
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