About 27% of the U.S. population exhibits either frequent or occasional interest in culinary travel, according to the International Culinary Tourism Assocation (ICTA).
“Keep in mind that 100% of travelers have the potential to become culinary travelers, if only they are introduced to the culinary travel experience in an appropriate way,” a spokesperson said.
Harold D. Partain, CTC, CCTP, founder of Epicopia: A Collection of Food & Wine Travel Experiences, agreed. “The thing that’s so amazing is that many of us have failed to realize that the culinary client is probably the client we already have.”
He added, “The fact is that every single person we book on a trip, no matter where they’re going, is going to be eating. So, why not make that part of the emphasis and be able to earn a commission based on that larger piece of the pie?”
The travel sellers Travel Market Report interviewed for this article are seeking the coveted “foodie” client, that special customer so enamored with food they will go to the ends of the earth for unique food-centric experiences. But few have yet managed to fully penetrate the market.
Partain, who is also vice chairman of the ICTA Board of Directors, has perhaps come the closest as his client base is quite varied, ranging in age from 35 and under to baby boomers and older.
“There’s a real movement among people under 35 to understand and experience food and drink in a different way,” he said. “There’s a very strong market there.”
Though Partain said his clients run the gamut in terms of demographics, most travel sellers TMR spoke with felt their culinary clients fell into fairly specific groupings.
Elaine Johnston of Glade Explorers Travel said her culinary clients are mostly baby boomers, aged 40-60 and include both men and women.
Lynn Lee, of Grab Your Bag Travel, and Carolina Murillo, district manager for Garber Travel’s leisure offices, also said most of their culinary clients are boomer-aged, though Garber Travel sees mostly women, while Lee has a handful of men interested in beer-focused tours as well.
Jane Gregg, owner of Epicurean Ways, a tour operator that offers Spain culinary packages, said her clients range from 45 to 65 years old and are comprised of couples or girlfriend-getaway groups. Every year she also sees a handful of singles clients, most of who are looking for cooking school packages.
Beyond basic demographics, Gregg said culinary clients tend to be fairly well-traveled, and have been to Europe at least once.
Partain added they also tend to be more educated.
And though he added that he believes the culinary client can come from all spectrums of income, because of the higher expense of many of the trips, clients tend to more affluent. But this is not always the case.
The 35-and-unders, for instance, usually can not spend $10,000 for a trip, but, Partain said they can do two or three shorter trips at $1,500 to $2,500.
Repeat travel is common among his clients, Partain told Travel Market Report. He has many clients who travel on his guided tours every year, and often call him to find out where he’s going next or where he can send them next.
Finding Culinary Clients
The obvious answer to where to start looking for culinary clients is an agent’s own database. Chances are travel sellers already have dozens of clients who would be interested in either value-added culinary experiences tacked on to general trips or culinary-focused packages.
“Start with your clients because most of these people are traveled and this is a new way for people who have been to Europe and done the museums to see Europe,” said Epicurean Ways’ Gregg.
This is particularly true for destination specialists. A tour that focuses solely on the food and drink of that destination creates a new experience.
Once agents have converted some current clients to culinary travel, it is imperative to ask for referrals, interviewees agreed.
“What is great is that most of these people know other people who have the same interest. It’s the best referral niche market area I’ve ever had,” Partain said.
When seeking new clients, there are many avenues for travel sellers to try. Food- and beverage-focused groups and clubs are best bets.
Partain said agents should ask their clients: ‘Are you in a dinner club?’ If the answer is yes, agents should offer to speak to the group about travel opportunities.
Specialty food stores, wine bars and restaurants are also good places to prospect and the place to start networking is with the owners.
“Go into shops and ask questions,” Partain said. “If you go in and express your interest in what they’re doing, they’re going to be more willing to work with you and share their client base with you. If you go in and say I just want to get all your client info, that’s not going to work.”
Grab Your Bag Travel’s Lee said she got a local wine bar to allow her to leave culinary travel surveys at the bar for clients to fill out. This allowed her to gauge the interests of potential clients and grow her contact database.
Working with Chefs
Another way to reach an entire group of prospects is to work with local chefs who already have a following. Lee told Travel Market Report that every year she approaches the winners of regional “Best of” contests (i.e. Best Chef, Best Restaurant) to see if they’d like to partner in the creation of a culinary itinerary that they will lead. This fall Lee and a local chef from her area will host a culinary cruise to Bermuda that has attracted many of his followers.
Gregg said she has worked with several travel agents in the past year that have done the same thing.
“They’re in New York or Chicago and they’re establishing the contact with the restaurant owner or the chef and he or she is getting the clients.”