Foodie travel started off as a trend and then became mainstream. Now, many sources hold this to be amongst the most popular reasons for travel, both domestically and internationally.
The word “foodie” generally refers to travelers who wish to eat, not for the sake of satisfying hunger pangs, but for the sheer pleasure of experiencing the food itself. That includes the taste (capturing the umami in every bite), the “nose” (flavor scents and aromas that affect not only the taste buds, but also the salivary glands), the texture, preparation, presentation, and even some interaction with the chef and the serving staff. Foodies are after the gestalt — the holistic eating experience — as opposed to the quick grab-and-bite.
But, as with many travel labels (“adventure” is a great example), the word means something different to every traveler. Therefore, the travel advisor needs to qualify exactly what their client means when they say, “I’m a big foodie,” or “I’m looking for foodie experiences.”
And foodie travel tends to be a great equalizer. The message that reality TV delivers through cooking shows, traveling gourmet adventures, pastry cooking competitions, and such, is that anyone can savor a dish or enjoy a glass of wine, or gasp and reflect on a single prong full of chocolate cheesecake (most forks have three or four prongs full). No special training is required. It’s an exercise for the six senses, including the exciting, and often serendipitous, sense of discovery.
Here are four ways for travel advisors to (forgive me) “talk turkey” with their clients about foodie travel.
1. Munch like a local.
Travel marketers promote “travel like a local” and “live like a local,” but it’s surprising how many western travelers assume they will still have their bacon, eggs, and toast for breakfast. I bit the bullet (so to speak) in 1990, when I was on a Borneo adventure and my guide asked me to join him for breakfast. We went to a rustic neighborhood restaurant, where he ordered a big bowl of chicken soup filled with noodles, shrimp and vegetables. I cautiously said, “Me, too.” And, as dogs and kids ran in and out of the kitchen, playing tag between the dusty, cracked plastic chairs, we had an incredibly tasty breakfast that I can still relish today.
Lesson #1: You’re on holiday, so throw caution to the wind (somewhat) and eat locally. Since that trip, I’ve enjoyed these local specialties, amongst other foods:
- Crickets in Mexico (they go well with Raicilla, an agava-based spirit)
- Fugu (the poisonous puffer fish in Japan that is overblown — excuse the pun — in scaring tourists away from trying it. In some places, you can buy fried fugu and eat it as a snack. It’s good!)
- Guinea pig and clay in Peru (you can eat both together or separately)
- Marmot in Mongolia (my guide assured me that this marmot did not carry Bubonic plague, as some apparently do)
- Eel (another popular dish in Japan. After reading “The Tin Drum” by Günter Grass while I was in high school, I vowed never to eat eel. But I tried it a few times and it’s OK — as opposed to me suggesting that “it’s amoré” — get it?)
- Rooster in Thailand (the crowing kept us up for three nights in a row, so the village chef dealt with the situation)
- Crocodile in Cuba (the taste was not as snappy as we expected)
2. Quaff like a local.
Visits to local pubs often lead to conversations with counter chefs, bartenders, servers, and patrons. It’s a great way to pick up some local flavor (literally) of the destination — along with rewards that you won’t find listed on internet sites: personal connections, eye contact, smiles, handshakes, laughter, and memories.
And, consider the fact that struggling with the local language is actually a great way to launch a conversation, as people who know a smattering of English offer assistance in helping you order a dish or a drink, or correcting a word you are trying to pronounce.
Lesson #2: Relax and enjoy the ambiance. You’re on holiday. There are no rules. Even in Japan, where guidebooks love to intimidate travelers with strict rules of etiquette, just take it easy. As long as you remove your shoes before entering a room (but not every room), and you don’t stick your chopsticks in your rice like fence posts, you’ll be fine!
3. Say ‘cheese!’
Factor in the foodie photo phenomenon. It’s here to stay. On a travel media trip to Israel, there were eight photographers with all sorts of camera equipment. We never had a hot meal, as we always had to wait for each person to take their photos before we could dig in. Most restaurants are OK with travelers photographing their dishes, as long as it doesn’t bother other patrons or disrupt the service.
Cell phone cameras are very sophisticated these days and take excellent close-ups of food (I use an iPhone 8). And travelers are taking photos for various purposes: to boast (“See what I had for dinner?”) to post (Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, etc.); to roast (“Here’s the state of our hotel room when we checked in.); and to get engrossed (by capturing the moment, the flavor, and the atmosphere).
It has a lot to do with the presentation: the color and variety of the vegetables, the steam rising from the fresh rice or potatoes, the creative and artistic way the meat or fish is placed on the dish. It’s like a contemporary piece of art right in front of you.
I once complimented a Japanese sushi chef on his presentation, and he revealed that he had studied Ikebana (flower arranging) so that his dishes would be symmetrical, pleasing to the eye, and therefore send a signal to the brain that this will be a great eating experience.
4. A taste of things to come.
Part of the personal, customized, bespoke travel sales process, is the experiential component. You tantalize clients with photos, videos, and enthusiastic recollections of your own experiences at the destination.
But you can go one step further in offering a taste of the place. Depending on where the client is traveling, a sip of wine, a taste of Tequila, a morsel of maple, a thimble-full of Ouzo, a drop of Pisco, etc., can go a long way in having the client sample the foodie culture while still in your virtual office. And by doing so, the client fixes you in their mind as a like-minded (and creative) foodie aficionado who they will inevitably want to look after their travel needs in the future.
Encouraging clients to either unleash their hidden foodie personality or further indulge their passion for taste-bud adventure can not only lead to the sale, but also pave the way for future culinary-based travels, and open the door to upselling (food and wine festivals, town markets, chef classes, brewery and distillery tours, Michelin restaurants, truffle hunts, and more). Sounds kind of appetizing!