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Making the Most of Culinary Tourism

It wasn’t long ago that travelers who planned trips based solely upon the availability of certain restaurant reservations, the harvest of a particular product, or the release of a specific wine were considered obsessive. Not so anymore. Tourists want to get the most out of their vacation dollars. Visiting locales closer to home and eating well while they are away are at the top of their priority lists. In a suffering travel industry, the culinary tourism niche is the place to be.

Erik Wolf recognized the trend back in 2003 when he founded the International Culinary Tourism Association, a worldwide non-profit trade organization of food and beverage and travel professionals. In just eight years, membership has grown from zero to 15,000 members. To Wolf, the increases are logical. “Everyone loves to eat, obviously,” he says, adding that—despite the economy—people are more interested than ever in health and in locally produced artisanal products. Getting a slice of the culinary tourism pie is as simple as tweaking the product for the traveler and making the right connections.


The first step for restaurants hoping to latch on to the culinary tourism market is to take (or create) an inventory of options they can offer specifically to culinary voyagers. Because tourists want items they can’t get at home, establishments should highlight food and drink exclusive to the region or dishes made in a way particular to the restaurant. Nuevo Latino Chef Douglas Rodriguez is the owner of four acclaimed restaurants in several of the country’s metropolitan centers, including OLA (Of Latin America) in Miami Beach. He has increased the number of culinary tourists who walk through his door by developing fun, interactive events geared to Miami’s huge corporate group market. “We came up with the ceviche- and mojito-making 101 class and made it affordable to groups. The popularity is unbelievable,” Rodriguez exclaims. A bartender competition and a Latin-themed wine-pairing lunch also have been added.

Rodriguez recommends scheduling carefully because huge groups of tourists may alienate the regulars. “Most of the classes happen in the afternoon so they don’t interfere with the busy dinner crowd,” says Chef Rodriguez. Marketing is an important consideration as well. Rodriguez puts his public relations team to work at getting the word out. Rosemary Staltare is OLA’s director of marketing and events. “We market to destination management companies that handle large corporate groups coming to South Florida, corporate clients that have booked events in the past, and work through the local chamber of commerce,” she says.

Making the Connection

Reaching out to local organizations, as OLA’s team did, is a great way to launch and sustain culinary tourism programs. Local organizations offer the experience, tools, and access to funding that individual restaurants often lack. The organizations also assist restaurants in finding other operations that want to build up the culinary scene. By working together, restaurants can compile a list of one-of-a-kind opportunities worthy of a several-hour walking tour or a multi-day tasting excursion. Incorporate a few such experiences, and a culinary destination is born.

Asheville, North Carolina, may seem an unlikely locale for gastronomes to visit, but the town has become a model for communities that hope to boost their culinary profiles. The area boasts several groups devoted to promoting culinary tourism. The Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Appalachian Sustainable Agriculture Project, and the Asheville Independent Restaurant Association connect more than 50 area restaurants, and they plan promotions to increase business for everyone. For a recent campaign called “Get Local,” more than 20 restaurants featured one local product a month. By serving berries in July and apples in September, restaurateurs inspired locals and travelers to sample the regional specialties at several venues.

The Extra Mile
The culinary tourism business is certainly a fun enterprise, but it is not without its challenges. Not only must travelers find something “one of a kind” at each destination, but also the experience must be extraordinary. Because they’ve traveled a long way, culinary visitors’ expectations are high. And just because they may come from all over the country doesn’t mean that previous guests and potential customers don’t talk to one another. If travelers don’t share their experiences in the hotel lobby, they gab as soon as they arrive home, which makes word-of-mouth marketing as important for the culinary tourism business as it is for a restaurant designed for locals. International Culinary Tourism Association’s Wolf concludes, “There is no less expensive or more effective way to promote your business. Eating is one of the most personal activities in which we engage. Everyone has an opinion about it. When tourists have an exceptional experience, you can bet they tell everyone they know.”

The Web We Weave
Although Asheville’s culinary events are marketed on paper with integrated marketing material distributed to restaurants, bed & breakfasts, and airport brochure racks, the leaders recognize the importance of the Web. Providing people immediate access to all of the details they will need to plan a trip makes the Internet an ideal tool for building a culinary tourism reputation. In Asheville, every event is featured prominently on each organization’s site and on a microsite, which serves as the area’s culinary tourism hub. The site is jam-packed with information about farm visits, farmers’ markets, food festivals, cooking demonstrations, classes, restaurant promotions, and chef’s recipes that are guaranteed to make any self-respecting foodie salivate.

The Asheville Convention and Visitors Bureau recognized that a mouthwatering Web site is useless unless the public knows it is available. With this, it began to use the Web as a forum for a wide range of publicity messages. “First, we reached out to bloggers,” says Marla Tambellini, the bureau’s assistant vice president of marketing and public relations. From their enthusiastic response, “we realized we had a culinary destination worth writing about, and we shouldn’t be shy about touting it.” Additional public relations and social media efforts followed. Each push draws attention to the Web site and to the area’s innovative chefs, farmers, and artisan producers. 

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