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Wine cruise operators race up the river

WINE cruises through the Swan Valley have been dominated until recent times by Boat Torque Cruises, but Sandalford, a vineyard which has been the prime destination of one of Boat Torque’s most successful cruises (the Houghton & Sandalford cruise), has decided to get in on the act for itself.

Sandalford has invested as much as $6 million in recent times to improve its Swan Valley location and the decision to promote an alternative wine tourism destination via the river cruises seemed to be a natural progression.

While the vineyard may be dipping its toe its into the waters of tourism, Boat Torque, not to be outdone, is taking its own first steps into wine.

Boat Torque’s Trevor Kitcher now owns 50 per cent of Pemberton’s Gloucester Ridge winery and has set up a full Gloucester Ridge wine cellar room at Mulberry Farm (also owned by Boat Torque) where guests on the Houghton & Sandalford wine cruise sample the Gloucester Ridge product.

Mr Kitcher is also on the verge of opening the Bells restaurant and café at the Barrack Street Jetty.

Although the Sandalford Cruises and the Boat Torque wine cruises appear to offer similar products, both camps are adamant that their respective cruises are rivers apart.

“The difference comes from the Sandalford reputation, having people experience all of Sandalford and the luxury of our vessel, Miss Sandalford,” Sandalford’s operations manager Tracy Sturmer said.

“There’s a lot of booze cruising around, but we’ve walked away from that market and we’ve gone premium.

“Sandalford Cruises has been brought about to offer a premium product to people wanting to have a look at the Swan Valley. To be pampered by the staff, be shown a good time in a more sophisticated manner.

“You are sitting in a lounge situation rather than steel tables and plastic chairs – we’re right away from that.

“We’re the only people who do luxury cruises down here.”

But if the word from the Boat Torque camp is to believed, the Miss Sandalford is a Boat Torque reject.

According to Boat Torque director of sales and marketing Helen Ferry, the Miss Sandalford once belonged to Boat Torque but was retired because it wasn’t considered a vessel of sufficient quality for the operation to use on its river cruises.

“There’s a big difference in the vessels,” Ms Ferry said.

“Mine is a $1.5 million vessel and theirs (the Miss Sandalford) is a $200,000.

“Mine is definitely the more luxurious.”

The Miss Sandalford indeed was a former Boat Torque vessel and spent several years as a house boat, but has since had a huge overhaul, with about $500,000 spent on both structural work and interior refurbishment in recent years.

Ms Ferry said she wasn’t particularly concerned about the competition offered by Sandalford because of the product differentiation and the longevity of Boat Torque’s reputation in the wine cruising market.

“We’ve been doing these cruises for 23 years and we’re established in the market,” Ms Ferry said.

Her main concern was the impact of a general downturn in Australian tourism and the introduction of the GST which, when combined, has had an impact on Boat Torque’s wine river tour business.

“I would say that tourism is down about 25 per cent,” Ms Ferry said.

“Because of the GST and the downturn in tourism we have suffered a bit.”

She remained adamant that, despite these factors and the added competition in the area, her cruises would remain strong.

“It is very, very successful,” Ms Ferry said.

“Because I think we market it well, there is a very high quality and it is one of the best overall day tours in Perth available in the market.”

The Sandalford crew are indeed newcomers to the cruising market, having been on the water for only six months.

“It’s hard work,” Ms Sturmer said, “but launching a new product always is.

“Sandalford has stepped into the tourism arena and in essence it is all new.”

But what they lack in tourism history Sandalford certainly brings to the party in wine history, having operated in the Swan Valley for 160 years.

Sandalford is hoping some of this reputation and history will help bring its tourism business to the fore, and that the foray into tourism will work to cross promote its wines.

“We wanted to bring more people up to the winery for the Sandalford experience and the most lavish way of doing that is via the Miss Sandalford river cruiser,” Ms Sturmer said.

“We’re also hoping to appeal more to the inbound tourism market by working with people who run groups into Perth through international travel agencies.

“People like the Japan Travel Bureau, Kintetsu and Wel Travel.”

Although the Miss Sandalford currently isn’t working at full capacity, those who have travelled are coming back for more, according to Ms Sturmer.

“Word of mouth has been very positive. We have found our biggest success is people who have done the tour and are coming back with their friend for a second tour,” she said.

“It’s very successful because we have such a unique look and the atmosphere is very relaxed and very comfortable.

“We launch our new season on September 1 and, by the end of the summer season, which is March 31 2002, we hope to be at full capacity.

“I think our reputation will get us there.”

Boat Torque also relies on the inbound tourism market to fill its cruises, offering tourist-specific services like complementary hotel pick-up to encourage the non-Perth tourism market.

Sandalford Cruises and Boat Torque are both trying to up their stakes in the corporate tour market and the charter game.

In this regard, the Sandalford team is pinning its hopes on the perception that it is a “premium” operator.

Sandalford Cruises’ Miss Sandalford costs $2500 for the first two hours on any weekend evening, not including food or beverages, while the same ride at the same time on Boat Torque’s Lady Divine, or sister boat The Mystique, costs around $1200.

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