Cashing in on Culinary Travel

How often have your most memorable trips been defined by the charming experience you've had after accidentally stumbling upon a tiny restaurant in a foreign land, as your head was deep into your Zagat Guide, squinting to read the address of that "27"-rated eatery that you didn't want to miss?

Then there was that Relais & Châaux gem in the south of France that you most purposefully sought out and loved, as you sat head to head with your significant other, sampling the chef's specialty and sipping a local vintage.

If dining well while traveling is your passion and your priority, you may be able to cash in on one of the most rapidly growing trends around—culinary travel.

The numbers say it all: 27 million travelers—or 17 percent of American leisure travelers—engaged in culinary or wine-related activities while traveling within the past three years, according to a new report from the Travel Industry Association (TIA), developed in partnership with Gourmet and the International Culinary Tourism Association. Of that group, 46 percent are "deliberate" culinary travelers; for them, the availability of culinary activities was a key reason for choosing their trip or destination. Another 28 percent are "opportunistic" culinary travelers—they sought out culinary activities on their travels, but these activities were not a factor when making their travel decisions. The remaining 26 percent were "accidental" culinary travelers, those who happened upon food and wine activities during their trip, but did not plan an itinerary around them.

Of the three groups, the one you should focus on to grow your business are the "deliberate" travelers. Why? Because these folks spend more money. According to the study, on average, they spend $1,271 per trip; of that, $593, or 50 percent, was spent on food-related activities. (Note: The study also looked at "deliberate" wine travelers. Their average trip cost is $950; of that, $339, or 36 percent, is spent on wine-related activities.)

The other good news is that these travelers tend to be younger, more affluent and better educated than non-culinary travelers, and they prefer to enjoy unique experiences.

This is clearly a group that is ripe for a customized itinerary, created by you—or perhaps by a member of your staff who is a "foodie" and loves to scout out new dining options when they travel. This group is also likely willing to pay a decent fee for your trip-planning services. They might want reservations in the best restaurants, but they'll also want to tap into your knowledge of the local markets, to enjoy that hidden treasure you unearthed while you were in Hong Kong, Paris or Buenos Aires. They may also want a local guide to take them to the food markets, or a car and driver to lead them to a private home where a chef prepares a delectable meal for them.

So, how do you find these people? Team up for an event with your local wine merchant who can post flyers in her shop; you can do an e-mail blast to her and to your clients to invite them for an evening of socializing and imbibing. Perhaps you can hook up with a nearby cooking school to jointly promote a cuisine-oriented itinerary you've created on your own or with a tour operator. The options for these travelers are immeasurable, and so are your potential profits if you tap into them.

Stayed tuned: The International Culinary Tourism Association (www.culinarytourism.org) is seeking to launch a certified culinary travel agent program within the year to expand the potential for this market. Bon appétit!

Ruthanne Terrero, CTC Editorial Director rterrero@questex.com