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Incorporating culinary experiences into travel itineraries

The commonality of participating in a food and beverage activity while on vacation has become so prevalent, it’s now an actively sought after travel experience. What’s behind the movement and how can tour organizers get in on the culinary action?

Sipping craft beer from 5-ounce taster glasses at a local brewery; smelling grains and herbs that will soon be boiled in a still;

Bilbao Ribera Market

Culinary tours of Bilbao, Spain, typically schedule a stop at Ribera Market, the largest indoor food market in Europe.

chopping vegetables in the home of an Italian cook; snapping a picture of a perfect plate of food and sharing it on social media. These are the kinds of gastronomic activities people seek out and participate in while on vacation, and they’re no longer limited to a select group of explorers.

For many years, culinary travel was considered a niche market, but the trend has exploded recently, becoming a key driver in the kinds of places and experiences many travelers choose to visit. With the ever-increasing interest in food tourism, there has been a surge in unique food and beverage activities in destinations all over the world. As tour operators and travel agents build itineraries, it would benefit them to incorporate authentic, dynamic and entertaining epicurean experiences, as these are what many travelers look for when planning a trip. But before hopping on the culinary travel train, let’s first examine who these travelers are, what makes them tick and the industry overall.

What is Food Tourism?

TheWorld Food Travel Association (WFTA) defines food tourism as “the act of traveling for a taste of place in order to get a sense of place.” This kind of travel has been around for years but has only recently started gaining traction and attention.

Based on the association’s research, it’s clear more people are participating in food tourism. According to the WFTA’s 2016 Food Travel Monitor survey, 93 percent of respondents had participated in a unique food or beverage activity while traveling in the previous two years. That’s a significant increase over past studies.

It’s not entirely clear what is driving the influx, but media and technology could be major players. According to travel industry intelligence platform Skift’s article “Travel Megatrends 2016: Food Is Now the Leading Hook for Travel,” there’s a sense that in an extremely digitally focused world, food provides a real-life connection to a destination.

Spain’s Rioja Alavesa wine region

Spain’s Rioja Alavesa wine region

“Food has an unmatched ability to communicate a unique sense of place,” wrote Skift editor Greg Oates. “Local cuisine provides a direct connection to the history of a region, the soul of its people and the rhythm of daily life.” The WFTA survey responses support this idea, as 81 percent of leisure travelers “believe eating and drinking help in understanding the local culture.”

At the same time, social media has put everything from high-class restaurants to food trucks on the map—or more accurately, on the Instagram feed. There are thousands of food-based travel influencers—along with the everyday leisure traveler and social media user—posting mouthwatering images and envy-inducing food experiences that inspire others to seek out the exact same dish or activity.

The Chocolate Line, Antwerp, Belgium

The Chocolate Line, Antwerp, Belgium

And this trend is expected to continue in the coming years. Expedia Group Media Solutions and Skift wrote in their article, “Five Trends That Will Shape Experiential Travel in 2019,” that Instagram will continue to help gain exposure for food and beverage experiences and will play a role in the kinds of culinary activities travelers plan their trips around. This is consistent with the findings from the WFTA’s survey, which says that 34 percent of respondents were motivated to take a culinary-based trip because of postings/photos about food or drink on social media. Tour operators need to be active on platforms like Instagram, where they can promote their culinary experiences through colorful, rich content.Videos are a particularly powerful promotion tool, especially if companies include footage from real-life clients. In addition, more businesses are turning to virtual reality to transport people to these different places and give them a visual that they can really sink their teeth into.

Who is the Culinary Traveler?

As people’s interest in food and beverage experiences increases, more and more travelers are immersing themselves in appetizing activities on the road. But who are the diehard foodies? The WFTA defines culinary travelers as “leisure travelers who have both participated in a unique or memorable food or drink experience on a recent trip and for whom food or drink experiences are a prime motivator in choosing a destination.” Even though not every respondent from the study was classified as a culinary traveler, most of them still said they participated in gastronomic adventures while traveling, indicating potential for even more people to convert to full-fledge culinary traveler status.

London’s Borough Market

London’s Borough Market

Those who were identified as culinary travelers (49 percent) were more likely to spend on and engage with food and drink than other leisure travelers, according to the survey. The study analyzed the “average” leisure trip and found that the daily expenditures for culinary travelers were highest among all leisure travelers.

Culinary travelers also tend to participate in other travel activities more than average leisure travelers, such as tours, sightseeing, visiting cultural attractions and shopping. These travelers are also more likely to share their experiences by taking pictures of food while traveling, posting those images to their social media channels, and recommending destinations to friends and family when they return.

What’s on the Menu?

There’s a range of culinary options people look for and participate in when traveling. And often, they tend to take part in more than one food- or beverage-focused activity. According to the WFTA survey, 45 percent of respondents participated in at least five different types of culinary activities, including going to a restaurant for a memorable experience (63 percent) and eating at a fine dining/gourmet restaurant (44 percent). What’s important to note is that travelers are not just selecting any old restaurant or bar to visit, they’re specifically looking for authentic, regional cuisine and innovative, off-the-beaten path adventures. They want a variety of activities that will give them insight into the destination and connect them with the culture.

Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans

Willie Mae’s Scotch House, New Orleans

Tour operators need to showcase unique culinary experiences that highlight a destination’s traditions, culture and people. For example, Trafalgar’s “Treasures of Thailand” itinerary offers travelers the chance to join a “local specialist” in Bangkok for a traditional cooking class at a colonial-style house. They get to visit a market to purchase fresh ingredients, and then learn how to incorporate the items into flavorful Thai cuisine. People are eager to try these hyperlocal activities because they feel genuine, special and exclusive. Travelers are also drawn to wineries and craft breweries and distilleries. These may be more mainstream, but the appeal is that they are supporting small businesses and the local economy by sampling beverages created by people in the community.

Incorporating gastronomic activities into tour packages and itineraries will enrich the cultural experience for customers. But it’s also beneficial to give travelers options, so they can select which epicurean adventure they want to take based on their tastes. Avanti Destinations offers travelers a wide selection of tour options they can add to their itinerary, such as a private classic wine tasting at La Cava del Querandi wine cellar in the heart of Buenos Aires or a gastronomic tour of the city’s San Telmo neighborhood.

Food tourism has shifted from niche to normal. It’s not a rarity to see travelers actively looking for food and beverage experiences.  In fact, they may make these the main focus of their trips. Tour operators and agents who can creatively incorporate cuisine into travel experiences—and enthusiastically showcase it through social media and other channels—will win over the everyday leisure traveler as well as staunch culinary travelers.

By Vanessa Day