A look at the evolving culinary travel industry and how agents can tap into this feast of opportunities.
One hundred percent of travelers eat and drink, the World Food Travel Association (WFTA) sagely points out, and although not everyone is motivated to travel for food-related experiences, it’s getting pretty close. The WFTA’s 2018 State of the Food Tourism Industry noted that 93 percent of travelers have taken part in non-dining food activities like cooking classes, wine tastings and food “experiences,” from rolling and grilling tortillas in Mexico to a street food tour in Hong Kong.
“In other words, almost everyone can now be considered a food traveler,” the WFTA says.
“People like to call themselves foodies,” says Amy Fagerli of Affinity Travel in South Bend, Indiana. “It’s become cool.” Jewell Ramos, a travel advisor with decades of experience planning culinary trips and head of Virtuoso independent member Trip Matters in Hendersonville, North Carolina, notes, “Years ago, people would eat at their hotel three times because they felt it was safe. Now, they want to eat what the locals eat.”
And the industry is taking note of travelers’ hunger for such experiences. According to the WFTA, “nearly every sector of travel, from lodging to tour operators, cruise lines and airlines, now focuses on quality food and beverage products”—providing travel advisors even more opportunities to please the palate of food-loving travelers, from booking clients on an Air New Zealand flight where they can enjoy locally sourced food and wine on board to signing cruise travelers up for a multi-course, upscale and intimate chef’s table experience.
Whether travelers want cuisine to be the main focus of their trip or an added bonus on a broader vacation, agents can earn clients’ trust, loyalty and business—and boost their business returns—by recommending the right food and beverage experiences. Read on for a look at how it’s done, from authentic one-off options to full-on specialization in this growing niche.
Custom culinary experiences rank right behind VIP tours and private cars and drivers among travelers’ most desired luxury experiences, according to Travel Leaders Group’s 2018 Travel Trends Survey. Yet not every “foodie” trip needs to be an exercise in pricey indulgence: Travelers who have sampled elevated street food at U.S. restaurants can experience the real deal in destinations like Mexico City, Bangkok, Tokyo, Honolulu, New Orleans, Paris—all listed on CNN Travel’s menu of top street food cities—and many others around the world.
“It doesn’t always have to be expensive or the destination you think,” says Fagerli. “There are budget-friendly options.” Adds Ramos: “Clients are asking where the food trucks are,” even when they’re heading to typical “fun and sun” destinations like Hawaii.
That’s especially true of millennial travelers, who “want to experience the culture, eat the food, drink the wine and meet the people,” Ramos says. Television shows like Top Chef and celebrity chef-driven programming and restaurants may spike interest in older travelers, but immersion in social media (food photos are among the most popular images posted on Instagram) makes millennials a natural audience for culinary travel. In fact, tour operator Contiki reports that more than half of their millennial travelers identify food experiences as their top reason to travel.
Travel Leaders Group’s list of top international destinations not coincidentally includes some of the world’s culinary capitals, including Italy, France and Mexico. And Peru has made off with the title of World’s Top Culinary Destination in the World Travel Awards for the past seven years.
However, experienced travel advisors can build a food and wine trip even in less obvious destinations, like Cornwall and Devon in the southwest of England, where Ramos has sent clients to sample Cornish cider, Plymouth gin, and Devonshire wine, crab and cream tea.
Clients and Qualifications
Travel advisors who plan culinary vacations sometimes build on their own past experiences, such as Gina Donati, an independent agent with Nexion in Redmond, Washington, who worked in the wine industry for years (earning a sommelier certificate along the way) before launching an agency focused on food and wine trips to Italy and France. Her former career also led her to travel to the wine regions of both countries, so she can draw on personal experience and reach out to family, local partners and fellow Nexion affiliates when building a tour.
“You don’t have to be a sommelier, but wine does take a lot of research,” says Donati, who still regularly reads Wine Spectator magazine to keep up with the latest trends. Ramos, too, relies on her personal knowledge of regions, restaurants and wineries, and also works with trusted companies that vet local food and beverage providers. “I also do a lot of webinars on food and wine,” she says.
For Donati, qualifying knowledgeable foodie clients means drilling down to a deeper level of detail about the regional food they like and the specific varietals of wine they’re interested in sampling. Ramos inquires about what kind of wine clients have in their house to "feel out how adventurous they want to be,” and also asks whether they would like to eat in a good local restaurant, in someone’s home or cook the food themselves.
Some people “are not there yet” when it comes to dining where a white tablecloth and a waiter are not involved, says Ramos. “This is a new concept to a lot of people, especially older clients.” On the other hand, she says, “I don’t think I’ve had many say ‘no, I’m not interested in that.’ ”
Selling and Planning Culinary Travel
Thousands of travel advisors identify themselves as culinary travel experts; a smaller but still significant subset focus on even narrower food travel topics, like vegetarian/vegan or gluten-free travel. Although a niche market, vegetarians represent about 3.2 percent of adults in the U.S. (according to a study from Vegetarian Times), and another 3.6 percent have food allergies (according to a study from Brigham and Women’s Hospital).
Not surprisingly, marketing of food trips often involves a literal taste of the destination. Fagerli, for example, hosts wine and cheese tastings at her home to introduce her clients to culinary trips to Paris, and Ramos still runs updated versions of the classic travel slideshow (heavy on food photos, of course).
Often, clients’ quest for unusual vintages and grapes leads Donati to eschew familiar destinations for less-explored regions, like Piedmont in northern Italy. “People who love and collect wine love Barbera, Barbaresco and Asti,” Donati says. “There’s really not a lot of tourists there. It’s just about drinking great wine and eating great food.” Even destinations not traditionally known for wine tourism are ramping up their offerings and gaining international attention—take Mexico’s Valle de Guadalupe in Baja California, for example, which has entered the spotlight in recent years thanks to its exciting wines, acclaimed restaurants and boutique hotels.
Agrotourism is perhaps the most immersive form of culinary tourism, putting travelers in direct contact with the land where food is produced and the people who harvest what lands on their plate. For instance, Ramos recently sent clients on a G Adventures trip to Kameni Dvori, a working farm outside Dubrovnik, Croatia, where guests are hosted by the Mujo family, who produces both the food and wine served at every meal. A villa on the property served as a base for daytrips throughout Croatia’s Konavle wine-growing region.
“You’re right in the middle of a community with families that have been there for hundreds of years,” says Ramos.
Traveler desire for exclusive experiences, a prime driver for luxury travel in 2018, can be accommodated through companies like Eatwith, which vets chefs in 25 countries on five continents and allows travelers to choose the chefs they want to prepare and share a meal with—in a restaurant, in a home or even on the edge of a cliff. “People want to have a special dining experience,” says Ramos.
Tour companies like International Culinary Tours and Gourmet on Tour focus exclusively on foodie travel, but “it seems like everyone is getting into it now,” says Cindy Stephan of International Culinary Tours, with food-focused travel offerings available from tour companies like Tauck and Collette to The New York Times and Whole Foods. Uniworld Boutique River Cruise Collection, AmaWaterways and other river cruise lines offer a variety of wine cruises in Europe, while American Cruise Lines offers itineraries in the wine-growing region of Oregon.
Wellness travel has become nearly as ubiquitous as food travel, and the two often intersect. For some travelers, that may mean a sugar detox at a health spa, choosing healthier food options without sacrificing an element of indulgence or making sure they’re engaged in physical activity during the course of their trip. “I find that people enjoy the food and the culture but also want some fitness and wellness,” Stephan says. Ramos agrees: “The trend right now is pure, green and clean. People want to eat local food, but also to eat healthy.”
For foodies who are also focused on wellness, advisors can recommend experiences that offer a taste of fresh, local bounty, such as farm-to-table tours and meals, and destinations with access to exceptional produce, seafood and the like. It’s also wise to build a culinary travel itinerary that includes a break from indulgence.
“You don’t necessarily want to go for overkill,” says Donati. “Not everyone wants to drink every day.”
With such a wide menu of options to choose from, there’s no denying the appeal—and opportunity—for agents using culinary travel and experiences to please clients and bolster business.