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Mystery visitors as a vehicle to explore service quality at cellar doors of the Stellenbosch Wine Route
This study examines the validity of the mystery shopper research method, which was applied in the context of wine tourism. In the process of achieving this objective, the service quality of selected wine estates along the Stellenbosch Wine Route (SWR) was also established. Furthermore, the findings reveal whether this research method is beneficial to facilitate customer relationships. Wine tourism is considered a special interest tourism that has received heightened global attention in the past decade, both practically and academically. This growth is also mirrored domestically, as wine tourism is one of the major attractions in the Western Cape. Since 2006, the number of wine estates in the Stellenbosch region rose by 12.3%, resulting in more than 140 wine estates that are currently available. This ultimately means that there are more wine estates, which all compete for the same customer base, and this increases competitiveness. Moreover, being a relatively homogenous product offering, with the key differential point being the actual winescape, it is important that wine estates focus on delivering superior service quality in order to achieve competitive advantage. This also calls for a need to systematically test service quality and procedures to ensure that desired levels are maintained. The research methodology that was used is exploratory in nature, comprising of two in-depth interviews and sixteen mystery visits via judgmental sampling. The mystery visits were conducted at the Stellenbosch Hills and Bottelary Hills sub-routes. One popular and one less recognised wine estate per sub-route were observed. Findings showed that service quality at these estates are generally high, yet experiences at all estates were vastly different. The most important discovery is that the concept of mystery visitors is, in fact, an appropriate vehicle to assess service quality and to facilitate customer relationships. This method was successful in identifying the source of problems that led to sub-optimal performance, which allowed for corrective action to be taken. As a result, the service quality of the estates can be further increased to ensure a perfect experience on each occasion, which, over time, builds the reputati~n of the wine estate. Ultimately, this research has demonstrated that mystery visitors can be applied in the context of tourism on both an individual and collective scale. Key words: wine tourism, special interest tourism, wine tourists, Western Cape, Stellenbosch, Stellenbosch Wine Route, service quality, research method, mystery shopper and mystery visitor.