A group of 200 industry food tourism industry leaders met last April at the Basque Culinary Center in San Sebastian, Spain at a conference co-hosted by the United Nation (UN) World Tourism Organization. The purpose of the conference was to define food tourism and debate the value and future of the industry. The result? The consensus is that food and drink tourism is here to stay. Why? Economic impact is certainly important, but perhaps moreso is the preservation and promotion of our food culture.
Food tourism is all the rage. The topic is found on the agenda of all kinds of conferences around the world. Many destinations now include food and drink in their marketing mix. Convention centers and hotels regularly focus on locally sourced food to give delegates a memory and not just a meal. Who doesn’t like a tasty meal? But ask yourself, “what are we really eating with each mouthful?” The answer might just be a slice of the area’s history!
At the most basic level, food is a quintessential component of local culture – just like art, music, architecture, film, literature, humor and so on. What we eat, how we prepare it, the dishes and utensils we use, and even the recipes passed down by our elders are all part of our area’s food and drink culture. The strength of food culture in countries like Italy and France is readily apparent. Perhaps you’ve heard of pizza or foie gras? Foods like these have achieved iconic importance and serve as culinary ambassadors for their regions.
The difference in food culture between neighboring US states like Georgia and Tennessee, or neighboring countries like Australia and New Zealand, is less apparent to outsiders. This can confuse potential visitors, and confused (or uninformed) visitors means fewer sales. Georgia is known for peach pie, boiled peanuts, Brunswick stew and of course Coca-Cola. Tennessee is known for barbeque and whisky. The differences between the cuisines of Georgia and Tennessee will be readily apparent to food travelers who look for, and appreciate, these differences. Others may enjoy those foods too, without even realizing their cultural significance.
For the UN, the unique food of many destinations is regarded as an “intangible cultural asset” unlike tangible cultural assets we already know, like a building or painting. It might not always be easy to explain how a dish like Irish Stew has evolved since its creation, hence its intangibility. So far only Armenia and Mexico have had portions of their cuisine certified as an intangible cultural asset by UNESCO. More nations have applications pending. While UNESCO approval is the “holy grail” of culinary culture preservation, many areas are taking other steps to protect their food cultures. Consider the Southern Food & Beverage Museum in New Orleans, Louisiana; the Cork Butter Museum in Ireland; or the Guinness Storehouse factory and museum, also in Ireland.
Food and drink are becoming more pervasive in building a destination’s “persona.” A convention like this month’s IMEX America is an interesting study of just how destinations from around the world use food and drink as a lure. Scotland ended each convention day with a whisky tasting and education. Japan offered red bean paste cakes and fruit gummies. Colombia offered the best coffee at the show, and naturally, it was imported from Colombia. Even lesser known destinations got in on the game. Boise, Idaho, USA offered massive 1 kg baking potatoes (the state is known as the potato state and provides McDonald’s with many of the potatoes it uses world-wide in its restaurants). At a past National Tour Association convention, Portland, Oregon, USA brought an entire food truck to the show and served Dungeness crab and locally made ice cream that were shipped with dry ice. If you haven’t been to Portland, the city’s food trucks are an important part of its obsession with food. These destinations know that their food and drink are making an unforgettable impact on potential convention customers. The same lessons apply for leisure and business travelers.
There are many ways to preserve and promote our food and beverage culture. A great first step is to create an asset inventory of the various foods, beverages, recipes, tools, buildings and businesses that comprise your food and drink culture. Plot this list on a Google map and you’ll start to see ways to package together experiences that are near each other. Publicizing your food and beverage culture is another way to bring it top of mind with locals and visitors alike. “Publicizing” can be as simple as creating a brochure, or more sophisticated like a dedicated food travel website. The city of Ashville, North Carolina, USA has done an exemplary job doing just this with its Foodtopia website. Flanders, Belgium has also done a great job promoting its regional food and drink. While Flanders has several website sections devoted to food and drink, its newest promotion is the gourmet experiences showcased in its Flanders Kitchen Rebels top young chefs for 2016. This latest campaign does a great job of keeping a classic food culture fresh and relevant.
Travelers seek stories and experiences more than just a meal and your marketing efforts should reflect that. Promoting high-end dining experiences will attract a certain kind of foodie, namely those who are gourmet-oriented. Promoting a wide range of experiences is like casting a net wide. It can be effective if you want to attract a wide variety of foodies. However, if your destination has not yet identified its food tourism positioning, you should make a modest investment in research to find out what kind of foodie would resonate most with your destination. There are as many as 13 different kinds of PsychoCulinary profiles for foodies.
Most travelers need help making the right food and drink choices. Why promote your area’s 100 ethnic dining choices when many visitors have the same range of choices at home? And a restaurant guide that includes global brands that visitors can find on their own does not help them to discover your area’s best, nor does it benefit much the local economy. Why do you think people spend so much time snapping photos of their meals? We’re a food-obsessed culture, and thank goodness for that. So give your visitors what they want. Remember, it’s not a meal, it’s a memory.
Learn more about leveraging food and drink as drivers for economic development. World Food Travel Association Executive Director Erik Wolf will be delivering two sessions about food and drink tourism on November 3 at ExCel.