Tentative first steps for South West tourism

Tentative first steps for South West tourism

South West businesses are advising visitors to adjust their expectations ahead of the long weekend.

After months of travel restrictions and limits on social gatherings in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Western Australia Day long weekend offers welcome relief for those eager to hit the road to the South West.

But while holidaymakers are busy making plans to flock to Margaret River and other coastal areas, life is far from back to normal in the tourism and wine destination.

Local tour operators are urging tourists to plan their trip, book in advance and be prepared to ‘do’ Margaret River like never before.

The response to the McGowan government’s recent opening of regional soft borders was immediate, according to David Moyes, managing director of premium holiday home provider Private Properties.

“Since the Sunday announcement of phase two, we have just been really busy,” Mr Moyes told Business News.

The business has more than 100 homes on its books, and Mr Moyes said the week leading up to the WA Day holiday was a record for sales.

And he believes that now is the time to build business, with plenty of Perth visitors lined up for Margaret River and the South West in the coming months.

“It’s an opportunity to reach out to new people because we have a captive market,” Mr Moyes said.

“Before COVID, only 70 per cent of our bookings would come from Perth and Western Australia; now it’s a chance to connect with our fellow West Aussies and show them what we have on offer down here.”

It’s not just the luxury end of the accommodation market where business had increased, according to RAC executive manager of brand and tourism, Tony Pickworth.

During the past 10 days or so there had been a significant increase in bookings and inquiries across all nine of RAC’s holiday parks and resorts, he said.

“There has been particular interest in our South West properties as intrastate travel restrictions have started to ease,” Mr Pickworth said.

While accommodation bookings are great news for a tourism destination, business operators are concerned many remain unaware of the impact of restrictions.

Geri Lanyon from Grape Escape South West Tours was prepared for six months of interruption to business and paused the business’s professional service subscriptions, professional indemnity and commercial vehicle licences. However, the business has been flooded with inquiries since the transition to phase two was announced.

Unfortunately, visitor inquiries made clear many were unaware the majority of cellar doors remained closed due to regulations, which made running a wine tour impossible, Ms Lanyon said.

“Guests don’t seem to understand that down here the same rules apply that apply in Perth. Wine must be enjoyed alongside a substantial meal,” she said.

“And while some wineries are offering a tasting alongside a meal, it’s impossible to do five meals within one day of a wine tour.

“Visitors seem to think they can have their same South West holiday that they have always been able to, just because the borders have opened.”

Like many local businesses, Ms Lanyon and her husband, Paul, decided against opening for the weekend.

“It’s better for us not to start up again [but] instead to keep a high-quality product for when we can reopen properly, rather than just try and do something to fill the day because a few wineries are now doing meals at their cellar door with a tasting,” Ms Lanyon said.

While some businesses have been able to pivot and adapt their product, there are plenty adapting to offer an experience close to the one visitors have come to expect.

Among them is Kellie Tannock, who set up Margaret River’s first town-based walking tour in late 2018.

“After that first year passed with Walk Talk Taste Margaret River, I felt a real shift in the dynamic of the business. Everything was possible, and there was so much opportunity. I could focus on settling into it, expanding what was possible,” Ms Tannock said.

“And then COVID hit and it just stopped. It was jarring and disappointing.”

While her phone hadn’t been ringing off the hook, she credited this to people using their common sense.

“I think most people are so across social distancing that an intimate group walking tour involving food and drink tasting just isn’t on the cards,” Ms Tannock said.

“I keep it small and sociable. I don’t want to change the dynamic of the experience so I haven’t even attempted to reinstate the tour in its previous format.”

The federal JobKeeper program has enabled Ms Tannock to keep the business afloat, and has given her the opportunity to develop a new product, which will be launched in a few months.

“I’m building a great, resilient offering that will override any concerns about COVID,” she said.

“I’m looking at a model that can operate in the brave new world of social distancing. Intrastate leisure travellers will think very carefully about how they spend to maximise the experience. It’s got to be high quality and value for money.”

Janine Carter from Voyager Estate was of a similar mind, suggesting guests needed to understand there would not be an immediate return to business as usual, despite Voyager being one of the few fine-dining establishments to reopen, albeit not in the same format as pre-COVID.

“As a region it’s about setting some expectations, because there are just too many restrictions to go back to the way things were before,” Ms Carter said.

Changes to the restaurant operation at Voyager include a four-course set menu and two timed sittings to ensure dining numbers are strictly adhered to. There is less flexibility on the day, so pre-visit communication is essential until further notice.

“Bookings have been really strong so we are happy about that,” Ms Carter said.

“It definitely shows that it’s worth reopening and offering something for people. I just hope in their bookings and decision to come down to Margaret River for a holiday and break [that] people understand what will and won’t be open and possible.

“Intrastate visitors tend to be traditionally very much walk-ins; they don’t book and take a relaxed approach to itineraries. Businesses are absolutely doing what they can to try and reopen, but people just need to prepare a little more than previously.”

Founder of The Margaret River Discovery Company, Sean Blocksidge, is even more forthright in expressing his views on what to expect in the months ahead.

“The problem with West Aussies is they think they know everything,” he said.

“After getting down here, they turn on autopilot with the same places to visit and cellar doors to taste at. The truth is, loads of businesses are going to go under, and the tourism landscape will be significantly changed at the end of this.”

Sean Blocksidge doesn’t expect the holiday weekend will be a game changer.

Mr Blocksidge said the impact on his high-end tour business was initially devastating, although he was hopeful Western Australians would take the opportunity to discover the riches on their doorstep.

“I went from several months of fully booked tours to zero,” he said.

“From canoeing on the Margaret River through to mountain biking through karri forests, hiking the Cape track, fishing adventures, and the caves and lighthouses.

“We’ve got WA all to ourselves at the moment. It’s a chance to do it differently and see it from the eyes of those international tourists who aren’t lucky enough to live here.”

However, Mr Blocksidge acknowledged significant uncertainty remained, given the sudden, severe nature of the lockdown and the effort required to get back to business

“I’ve had new bookings but there’s nothing beyond August at this stage,” he said.

“That will be the real challenge for me as I have to see that pick up. It’s all come on faster than expected but anyone who gets excited thinking we are back on is delusional.

“We are not back on, it’s just tick along.”