Graeme Crossman believes the global popularity of kiwifruit is a magnet that can draw tourists to the Te Puke area.
The former All Black likens it to the pull champagne has for the French region of the same name.
The first cruise ship of the 2019-20 season arrives in the Port of Tauranga in just three days.
It will be start of a hectic summer for Graeme and wife Gayleen, who own and run Kiwifruit Country Tours, and Kiwifruit Country owners Andrea and Gavin Fleming, Graeme and Gayleen's daughter and son-in-law.
Graeme and Gayleen previously ran Kiwi360 with Andrea and Gavin, owning the retail side — but saw an opportunity to shake up the business when the lease came to an end.
"We decided to take the opportunity to relocate and set up somewhere on the main highway on the direct route to Rotorua," says Graham. "It also coincided with Seeka looking for a new site to develop a headquarters, so it worked out very well."
Kiwifruit Country now operates from the old Longridge Park premises in Paengaroa and offers orchard tours, tastings of a range of kiwifruit products and a cafe.
Graeme and Gayleen's side of the business provides tours for cruise ship passengers.
Kiwifruit Country is a stop-off point for many of the Rotorua-bound cruise passenger buses that will begin plying their trade up and down State Highway 33 at the weekend.
"Hundreds of people will pull in and on cruise days in the morning and afternoon, the place is packed with 12 seaters, 15 seaters. Some hire big buses to fill — it's really busy," says Graeme.
It is also a popular stopping point for independent travellers, but those who prefer the certainty of an excursion during their brief stay in the Bay of Plenty are the passengers targeted by Kiwifruit Country Tours.
"Gayleen and I decided we would specialise in our business, which was the on-board sold cruise excursions — the ones passengers purchase directly from the ship, either on board or from the cruise lines website. It meant Gayleen and I would only work on cruise days, and could specialise in developing the experiences and the venues we were offering the cruise excursion passengers.
"We identified orchards we could use, a marae we could use on our visit to Maketu, and had to find a place where we could host the significant numbers we had on cruise days.
"We needed a big place that had toilet facilities, which is extremely important, bus parking, kitchens and big areas."
Paengaroa Hall had all the necessary ingredients.
"It's perfect, it's beautifully kept, and it's part of the community, so part of the story we tell."
Graeme says the passengers booking with Kiwifruit Country Tours are generally older people: "They prefer the further assurance of the cruise ship-sold excursions — so the quality and getting back to the ship on time, all that kind of stuff."
The average age of their clients is 63.
"Our particular excursions are described as easy, they are not long treks — so they attract a certain demographic — and they are four hours, so it's not a big haul and it ticks a few boxes. But we also have to compete with some ships with 17 other excursions that are sold on board and a myriad of other ones that are sold off the ships."
Kiwifruit Country Tours runs two separate excursions — the Glorious Bay of Plenty and Tauranga Highlights and Kiwifruit.
"They get an orchard tour, go under the vines then we take them to Paengaroa Hall, have morning tea, tasting and a little bit of shopping. They are half-day as opposed to the full day that goes to Rotorua."
One tour includes a visit to the Elms while the other takes passengers to Maketu and visits Tia Marae. Both take in orchard tours.
"We put guides on the coaches, step-on guides rather than the bus driver doing it — then passengers get a consistent story about the area, about Te Puke, about kiwifruit.
"We are pumping them with knowledge. At the orchard we are telling the kiwifruit story — the soil, the climate, why it's here, the nutritional benefits, how we grow it. And then we'll take them to Tia Marae. That hapu do a wonderful job because it's intimate. They go into the wharenui and are given an experience by people from that marae."
Graeme and Gayleen have worked in the tourism industry since the early 2000s.
"In 2003-2004 there were three cruise ships that we had tours sold on. This coming season they will be sold on 95 ship visits."
Providing a consistently high-quality experience is crucial.
"With the cruise ships, once you get into the relationship, you've got to perform to a
certain level and that has to be reflected in guest surveys — if you don't, you get taken off and you don't get back on."
Gayleen says the couple are well known to the cruise ship agents.
"They know we are safe, we are constant and they don't have to worry about us or worry about customer expectations — they know what they are going to get."
Between the two operations, a large number of cruise ship passengers are catered for.
Moving from Kiwi 360 has been key to securing those numbers.
"Kiwi 360 was always a detour, even to get off State Highway 2," says Graeme. "Buses had to go off the highway and back in and we thought, with the TEL opening up, that was only going to get worse."
Graeme believes that as the kiwifruit industry continues to expand, kiwifruit country tourism can only rise in popularity. He says cruise ship passengers aren't interested in visiting the beach and trying to sell the Mount main beach as an attraction isn't the correct approach.
"Many of the passengers are Australians and they are not coming here for that reason — what we've got here that's different in New Zealand and the world is the climate and the soils and the product that we produce in such volumes.
"Kiwifruit is sold in 60 countries in bigger and bigger volume, so more people who are touring are more and more aware of the health and nutritional benefits, which is the platform Zespri uses [for its marketing]. If that's not a great springboard to sell an area, I don't know what is."