Mariëtte du Toit-Helmbold has always loved travel. But what inspired her tourism career wasn't being out and about in the world. It was the customers who came into her shop.
“I had to start working to pay for my post-grad studies and my first part-time job I worked at a curio shop next door to the Information Office,” she says.
Just a few weeks into the job, and she was already in trouble with the staff at the Information Office next door. Instead of tourists asking them for information about Stellenbosch, they would queue at the curio shop and ask her, instead. “It was something that came naturally to me.”
So she started a travel business, called Into Cape Travel Lounge.
“I started a travel business when I was super young and naive,” she says.
Aged just 28, she became CEO of the newly established Cape Town tourism organisation.
One thing led to another and, aged just 28, she became CEO of the newly established Cape Town tourism organisation. It was 2004 and not only was the digital revolution in full swing, but South Africa was also getting ready to host the FIFA World Cup. Cape Town had to go from being “a little city at the tip of the African continent” to being a world city and a world brand.
Ten years later, Du Toit-Helmbold founded her own company, Destinate. “It was time to work on a wider variety of things, and also have more flexibility with my family,” she says.
Her first big project, working with the Stellenbosch Wine Route, brought her into wine tourism. “They approached me in 2013 as I was still busy wrapping up at Cape Town Tourism, and said ‘we need your help in terms of working out how we work together with tourism as wine’.”
Since then, Du Toit-Helmbold has become internationally renowned for her wine tourism work, including consulting for other countries. And she says that wine tourism is on the cusp of change.
South African wine tourism
South Africa is generally regarded as at the forefront of wine tourism. Partly it’s because the country has an experimental streak coupled with an openness that visitors find appealing. And partly it’s because of savagely high unemployment levels and an urgent need to create jobs in rural areas that has driven innovation.
It hasn’t been easy. In the past decade, South Africa has faced an epic drought and associated water restrictions, plus the pandemic, where alcohol sales were banned and wine exports shuttered. Not only has there been a dramatic economic downturn and a fall in the Rand, but the electricity grid is collapsing, and the electricity goes off multiple times a day.
“Farming is a tough business to be in,” says Du Toit-Helmbold. To survive, wineries have had to drill their own water holes, install solar panels, and embrace digital.
Wine tourism has also helped.
According to research by VinPro, wine tourism represents 14.7% of winery turnover. For ‘micro wineries’, or those whose turnover is less than 10m Rand (US$500,000), wine tourism accounts for 41% of winery turnover. Altogether it contributes 7.3 billion Rand ($390m) to South Africa’s economy, along with 36,000 jobs.
“We figured out a long time ago that wine tourism is a great way to distribute tourists into rural areas that need tourism,” says Du Toit-Helmbold, plus the profit margin on wine is much higher if it’s sold at the farm door. “Wine tourism is a great way to get people to stay long, and it’s a great secondary income.”
Importantly, wine tourism is a subset of general tourism. “Most wine tourists wouldn’t define themselves as a wine tourist,” she says. “A small percentage of travellers travel specifically to wine regions. That is the upper level of the wine tourism market ― they really know their wine.”
The more typical wine tourist is someone who is travelling primarily to enjoy the region and everything it has on offer, from the wildlife to the food. Du Toit-Helmbold says these travellers are on the younger side, and their experiences often help them fall in love with wine.
What’s special about South Africa wine tourism?
Recently, Du Toit-Helmbold hosted a group of European winemakers who were, she says, so excited by what they saw in South Africa that some told her they couldn’t sleep.
They also couldn’t stop talking about how friendly and welcoming people were. She explains that there were four other things that impressed them.
Training and knowledge
“Number one was the level of hospitality, and the training and knowledge of staff around wine, and how they translate that for visitors,” she says.
But the ingredients for success aren’t always easy to transfer elsewhere. “So much of what we’ve done is a natural evolution of who we are as a people."
Another thing that surprised the winemakers, she said, was the attention to detail. “Whether they went to a really old homestead that was rustic and simple, or to a five-star hotel, it was a quality experience.”
Telling a good story
Having a good story and being prepared to tell it also pays dividends. But while South Africans are more than willing to talk about the dark past of apartheid, many other destinations insist on presenting nothing but a shiny, happy face, shorn of historical drama and nuance.
A region that isn't good at storytelling, however, can still focus relentlessly on the business side.
Good wine and good people
Foremost, a wine region has to have good wine to offer. “You can’t fool people for much longer than their first visit,” she says.
And staff who are able to talk about the wine and the region. Du Toit-Helmbold says that at a recent United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) conference she attended, she was struck by how many of the academic attendees “thought it was really important to have an international university degree in wine tourism and improved training courses,” she says. “In my career, I’ve had to employ a lot of people, and passion and personality was always the most important characteristic. The rest, I can teach you.”
Wine tourism stumbling blocks
Attractiveness of the job
In order to attract passionate people, wine tourism has to be more attractive and better paid. It has to offer a real career path because, as Du Toit-Helmbold says, “the conditions under which people work aren’t great. It’s long hours and the peak busy time is when a lot of other people are on holiday. You can’t go on holiday when your kid is on holiday.”
As a result, many people treat it as a first job, or the part-time job they do before they start a serious career. Staff retention and career ladders are therefore exceptionally important. “We’ve seen that in South Africa; you have people who first started out as a picker, and eventually they’re an accountant.”
The level of expertise
Where qualifications are critical is at the business end. “We need more people to become accountants, or CEOs, or good managers because when you run a top lodge or a wine estate, you need to be a really savvy business manager,” she says.
Taking wine tourism seriously also means understanding what customers want.
“Let’s take Spain,” she says. “They are very serious about expanding their wine tourism offering ― they’ve just hosted the UNWTO conference. But if you go as a visitor, some places still close down for siesta.”
The winery shops can also be badly stocked, with some not selling single bottles of wine. “You have to buy a case, and you can’t even make up your own case,” she says. “And most of them have these beautiful tapas bars or restaurants, but some close at three o’clock and sometimes don’t open again.”
There is an existential question at the heart of this ― if the siesta is an integral part of Spanish culture, then isn’t it something that is part of the tourism experience? Du Toit-Helmbold agrees, but says in that case, local norms need to be communicated. “And sometimes this may lead to lost opportunities.”
Before anybody jumps into wine tourism and starts changing the way they do things, Du Toit-Helmbold says it’s important to be honest about whether a property lends itself to a visitor experience.
“If you’re committing to it, you’ve got to make operational changes, you’ve got to have the staff.” Other requirements include sales and marketing knowledge. “You’ve got to consider the visitor journey, so you must understand why you’re doing it.”
Finally, it takes investment. “It’s no longer good enough just to have a tasting room.”
Developments in the future
Du Toit-Helmbold says that a market is developing around the sophisticated wine drinkers that’s willing to spend on travel that’s specifically about wine. But “I don’t think we can afford to just focus on that market. We’ve really got to focus on the younger market as well ― the future traveller. And really understand what makes people tick. We’ve got to be more customer-centric.”
This, she thinks, has traditionally been a problem for the wine sector because tradition plays such a large role that, in many regions, there’s a reluctance to change.
Another trend she sees emerging is “restorative travel”, which is emerging alongside regenerative agriculture. People want to know that their travel is not harming the world, or is actively making it better. Not only that, they want to reconnect with nature. “Mother Nature’s very healing and people are realising that. People want to travel, but they’re asking what they can do to make travelling more responsible. Then there’s this whole concept around rewilding or restoring the self through travel.”
She says this is likely to manifest as a back-to-basics travel, where there’s “less of the fancy stuff. So you’re not staying in a gilded palace on a game farm, but are actually walking with a guide and staying closer to the earth. People are paying huge money for those experiences.”