Food Tourism: Plenty on the Plate for Travel Sellers
by Robin Amster

This is the second in a series.

The surge of interest in all things food-related, coupled with travelers’ desires for “experiential” travel, is driving the growing food tourism market.

“Everyone has to eat,” said Erik Wolf, president and CEO of the World Food Travel Association. Wolf founded the organization in 2003 to promote food, drink and culinary culture though travel.

Food tourism presents travel sellers with tremendous opportunities to offer existing clients something different, attract new clients and carve out a specialty to differentiate themselves from the pack, according to Wolf.

Erik Wolf
wolf

He talked with Travel Market Report about food tourism, the food tourist profile and ways for agents to break into the market.

Are you seeing more interest in culinary or food tourism recently?
Wolf: The notion of food tourism has been growing over the past 10 years and there’s been tremendous growth in the industry. We’re doing more and more work [as an organization] in terms of speaking and consulting.

What exactly is food tourism?
Wolf:  Food tourism is the pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both near and far. We originally called ourselves the International Culinary Tourism Association but we rebranded last year as the World Food Travel Association because, given the word “culinary,” we didn’t want to be thought of as an elitist organization.

Food tourism is inclusive and encompasses anything from food carts and street vendors to one-of-a-kind restaurants.  Our research also shows that only 8% of foodies self-identify as “gourmets” so that’s a sub-set of food tourism. It’s those 8% that go for the more exclusive experience; the more stars, the more expensive and the harder-to-get access-to restaurants.

Who are food tourists?
Wolf: There are three kinds of food tourists: the “deliberate” who specifically travel just for food, the “opportunistic” who go on trips where they seek out food and drink but that is not a factor in choosing a destination and the “accidental” who participate in food and drink just because it’s there.

We’ve found that food travelers tend to skew towards middle age and younger although most people think they are older, wealthier people. Food travelers are better educated and their incomes are average to slightly higher than the average. However, it’s hard to peg people. One hundred percent of travelers have the potential to be food tourists.

Are there opportunities for travel agents in this market?
Wolf:  There’s tremendous opportunity for agents to tap this market. Everyone eats and drinks and most people are interested in food and drink. However, the ability to successfully package and sell food travel can very easily be done wrong.

Agents might think it’s just a question of booking clients into an expensive restaurant, but they need to understand the nuances and depth of the food travel experience. For example, what is the client’s profile? The experience has to be skewed towards the client’s expectations. Some clients are authentic and localist. Others are gourmet and trendy.
 
Is there a difference between major tour operators’ culinary programs and those offered by special interest operators?
Wolf:  Yes. A lot of times the mass tour operators have heard about and think about, folding food tourism into their tours. But they don’t understand the industry. Food tourism can be everything from a wine shop and a local grocery store to an ice cream factory or a cookbook store.

Mass tour operators think it means visiting a winery or a brewery; that qualifies but if that’s one thing that a tour operator includes on a 10-day program, I wouldn’t call it a culinary tour.

A real culinary program depends on the makeup of the clients but at its most basic level it includes a focus on unique and memorable food and drink experiences throughout the program.

How can agents specialize in food tourism?
Wolf:  Our association offers a certification program giving agents an opportunity to become—and to prove to clients that they are—an expert in this niche. Agents need any kind of help they can get to differentiate themselves, prove they are more talented or experienced and also help food travelers understand that they don’t have to do it all themselves. That’s why you go to an agent.

The Certified Culinary Travel Professional (CCTP) program is described under the education tab on our website. The program is about four years and old and we have so far certified about 200 professionals.

How can agents capitalize on the certification?
Wolf:  We provide them with marketing support. We give them a jpeg CCTP logo customized with their name that they can use in email signatures and social media profiles. We announce their graduation on our own social media sites. They will also be able to showcase their certification in a new SavorSearch.com website we’re launching. This is a new business-to-business sales and marketing tool for the food, travel and hospitality industries. It will help agents find industry partners to help market their businesses.

Next: Insights from a travel agent who specializes in culinary tourism and operates his own culinary tours. 

Part One: Tour Ops Embracing Growing Interest in Culinary Travel

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