Tour Ops Embracing Growing Interest in Culinary Travel

by Robin Amster
Tour Ops Embracing Growing Interest in Culinary Travel

This is the first in a series on culinary travel.

Tour operators are embracing culinary-focused programs as a way of satisfying clients’ hunger for experiential travel with an emphasis on authentic encounters with local culture.

Both large tour operators and smaller specialist firms are offering a growing number of tours that include everything from a standard wine tasting in California’s Napa Valley to a hands-on cooking class in Hoi An, Vietnam.

The programs offer travel agents opportunities to introduce culinary tourism to clients who have not yet tried it as well as serving the needs of experienced culinary travelers looking for something new and different.

“People want authentic experiences and a key way to access the culture is through food,” said Scott Nisbet, CEO, Globus Family of Brands.

Major tour operators have incorporated more and more food experiences into their tours but their itineraries also lean heavily on traditional sightseeing, shopping and other activities.

Specialty operators are offering more tightly-focused culinary programs although these programs also include sightseeing.

Culinary forerunner
Travel Indochina counts itself as one of the forerunners of the culinary tour, said Mark Yacker, director, North America, for the company. The company specializes in small group tours and FIT’s to Asia.

“All of our tours place some emphasis on food. It’s certainly part of travel and travel to this region,” Yacker said. “But for clients who want to take that a step further, our Culinary Journeys offer expert local guidance and instruction in cooking ingredients and techniques.”

The company’s Culinary Journeys to Vietnam, Cambodia and China center on these countries’ cuisine with shopping trips to local village markets where clients buy the ingredients they’ll use in hands-on cooking classes, visits to specialty food stores, food tastings and talks by local food experts.

Yacker sees tremendous opportunities for agents to sell culinary tourism. Agents can capitalize on individual clients’ desires for more specialized programs and they can also work with local restaurants on promoting and putting together group tours.

Engaging the senses
At Toronto-based GoWay Travel, Moira Smith said, “Travelers today are more discerning than they were 20 years ago and they don’t want standard tours; it’s definitely about the experience and engaging all the senses.” Smith is general manager for Africa & the Middle East.

GoWay offers escorted and custom group tours and FIT’s. Its Morocco Foodie Tour is heavy on culinary features including visits to cous cous, oil, saffron and goat cheese cooperatives; shopping in local souks and cooking classes.

Azzedine Bennouna, the Moroccan chef of the Mamaroneck, N.Y. restaurant Zitoune, originally led all the tours and is now available to do so on request.

GoWay also offers culinary-focused extensions on programs in South Africa and Jordan and plans to launch a Turkey culinary program in the next few months, said Belinda Combrink, product manager for Africa & Middle East.

While the large tour operators can offer “dining experiences,” they can’t take large groups, for instance, shopping in a Moroccan souk, Combrink said.

Slow Food itineraries
Some large operators, however, also offer small group programs as well as FIT’s and many have introduced programs specifically aimed at culinary clients.

Brendan Vacations this year partnered with the Slow Food Organization to make Slow Food experiences part of the tour operator’s new small group Boutique Journeys. The journeys are open to a maximum of 24 guests.

The Slow Food Travel program, sold exclusively in the U.S. by Brendan, is part of a global grassroots movement linking food with a commitment to community and the environment.

Brendan’s six Slow Food itineraries feature destinations in Italy and France and include wine, cheese and pastry tastings; farmhouse visits, cooking classes and dining that showcases Slow Food sustainable foods.

“When surveys ask people what they’re interested in, food is consistently No. 1,” said Nico Zenner, Brendan’s president. “The whole concept of enjoying another culture is fascinating and a subset of that is enjoying the food.

“For a lot of clients it’s not just about enjoying a glass of wine but seeing where that wine comes from and what is involved in producing it.”

Zenner said the Slow Food itineraries are not targeted to novice clients but to experienced, repeat travelers. “They’re for agents that have those loyal customers looking for something quite different and sophisticated.”

More ‘hands-on’ experiences
Trafalgar offers a few culinary programs. Among them is its Flavors of Italy, which has been revised for 2013 to include “more hands-on and behind the scenes culinary experiences,” said Gavin Tollman, Trafalgar’s CEO.

Last year the company introduced a New York Zest and New England’s Best tour. It features visits to the Cabot Creamery, producers of cheese; a local cidery and Ben & Jerry’s headquarters, all in Vermont; a cranberry bog in Upstate New York, and a meadery (where mead or honey wine is produced) in New Hampshire.

“Food is an element of all of our tours, even those not exclusively focused on food,” Tollman said. “People are fascinated with food; chefs today are the new rock stars.”

Globus’ Local Favorites
Globus, however, has found that tightly-focused culinary tours “are too narrow for us,” said Nisbet. “We haven’t found a market for it yet. At the end of the day clients want to see the traditional sites.”

The company, however, has introduced a “Local Favorites” feature in tour itineraries. Many of these special, behind-the-scenes experiences relate to food, said Nisbet.

 “We feel that what works best are culinary programs led by agents,” Nisbet added. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in special interest programs and many agents have some creative ideas in terms of partnering with people in their community.

“An agent might partner with a local restaurant and then come to us,” he said. “We’ll take it from there.”

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