Today's traveler wants to 'taste the place'
By Kate Rice
For many travelers, eating is a key travel metric. "For some people, it's how many countries they've been in," Joe Diaz, co-founder of Afar Magazine, said in an address during the Young Travel Professionals Futurelab event in New York last month. "For me, it's how many kitchen tables I've been to."
Travelers literally want to taste the place they're visiting, but the best local dining experience varies with the client. For some, it could be fried frog on a stick in a remote Cambodian village market. For others, it could be eating in the kitchen while watching a chef prepare their meal.
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The challenge for agents is to find those idiosyncratic experiences for their clients, be it the little-known Michelin star restaurant without a website or the beachfront surfer hangout whose waiters serve sublime coconut shrimp on tables set in the sand.
Consortia partnerships with local providers around the world are giving agents that foodie intel about under-the-radar culinary experiences delivering over-the-top deliciousness.
Travel Leaders In-Country Partners, Ensemble's On Location program and Virtuoso's On Sites are just three examples of programs that are partnerships with in-destination specialists that give agents that kind of boots-on-the-ground knowledge.
"Obviously, culinary and wine travel is a booming segment of the market," said Marnie Brown, manager of Travel Leaders' In-Country Partners. "We've been seeing this trend for several years, and all of our suppliers have been moving to support agents and provide products that address culinary interests."
Culinary travel requests are the most popular for In-Country Partners, Brown said, adding that it has gone beyond cooking classes in Paris and making pasta in Italy: It's not just eating food but seeing where food products are grown or how they're prepared.
One example of this kind of experience is Babylonstoren, a luxury working farm (a Relais & Chateau) in South Africa's Cape Winelands. Its Cape Dutch farmhouse dates to 1777, and visitors can not only enjoy the cuisine but see where it's grown and prepared.
"The difference in using In-Country Partners is they know the unique properties and culinary experiences that impress the more sophisticated traveler," Brown said.
It's about discovering the great foods in exotic destinations such as India and Asia, for example, or finding new entrants or secret spots in established destinations such as Ireland, Brown said.
Travelers are increasingly seeking an authentic experience, said Suzanne Hall, senior director of land supplier partnerships for Ensemble Travel Group, and food is an integral part of that. There's nothing like being able to pull off the road on a drive in the Lorraine to sample the Mirabelle plums for which a local farmer is famed.
Hall described the wide variety of culinary experiences that await travelers. It could be touring the Cusco home of Peruvian artists Pablo Seminario and Marilu Behar, whose ceramics are in the Chicago Field Museum, drinking wine with them and talking art. Or it could be visiting a rural village in Vietnam where an elderly woman who loves beetle nut rolls some up for visitors to chew. She told her visitors how to do it, as well.
"No English required," Hall said, remembering the experience.
The drive to experience a locale through its food has always been there, Hall said, adding, "I think the focus is just deeper today."
On Location partners have relationships not just with restaurants but with local farmers, dairies and vineyards. And those relationships mean agents have even more to offer clients.
Hall said one Ensemble agent positions On Location partners as an extension of his own office. "He calls them 'my people in France,' or 'my people in Italy,'" she said.
And given the expertise and support they provide, they really are.