Snorkeling, surfing, shopping and clubbing all sound good, but some would happily exchange those activities for a glass of Syrah or Gewürztraminer and a plate of buttered organic baby peas. This is the trade-off of a travel trend known as culinary tourism.
Kids learn a few things at Villa San Michele's Children's School of Cookery
According to Culinary Tourism: The Hidden Harvest by Erik Wolf, president and CEO of the International Culinary Tourism Association, culinary tourism is “the development and promotion of prepared food/drink as an attraction for visitors.” Studies are showing an explosive rise in culinary trips, which can mean big business for travel agents.
You can hear more from Erik Wolf about culinary travel in Nancy Harkrider's interview with him in the podcast below:
The Travel Activities and Motivation Survey (TAM) conducted by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, for example, reports that 125.7 million Americans (71 percent of all adult American travelers) participated in at least one culinary activity while on an out-of-town trip in 2004 and 2005, and pursuing such an activity was one of the most important travel experiences they sought.
The Heat Is On
Why is culinary tourism so hot? “Eating is a universal activity,” Wolf says. “Not everyone golfs or goes shopping, but everyone eats. Also, people are more attuned to food now than ever before.” The reason for this is twofold. On one hand is the desire to experience a destination in a more intimate way than the traditional tourist overview. The food and drink of a local people are a doorway into their culture.
“We think culinary travel is so popular because it connects us to the way we live, perhaps to our family history, or another country’s history and its culture,” says Lisa Goldman, vice president of Tour de Forks. “Food and culture are intertwined. You can’t have one without the other.”
“As the U.S. population grows increasingly diverse and diners’ palates grow more and more sophisticated, ethnic cuisine is reaching America’s ‘Main Street’,” says Steven C. Anderson, president and CEO of the National Restaurant Association. The desire to prepare food and—even better—to prepare it in its natural environment is bringing people to the classrooms.
By interacting with a country’s food, a traveler is delving into its history. As Wolf puts it, culinary tourism “is a subset of cultural tourism, because cuisine is a manifestation of culture. And because food and drink involve all five of the human senses, we’ll remember a meal much longer than we will a museum or stained-glass windows.”
Capannelle's Kitchen at Villa San Michele's Cookery School in Florence
The other reason for the growth of culinary tourism is the rising practice of healthful eating. The term being tossed around the culinary world is F.L.O.S.S.: fresh, local, organic, seasonal, sustainable. Farm-to-table programs, which many restaurants have adopted, are an example of the burgeoning programs accommodating travelers’ appetite for eating farm-fresh products. The desire to move away from prepackaged, microwavable “convenience” foods means learning how to prepare fresh foods and getting the freshest, most nutritious products available.
The American Booksellers Association says that cookbooks are a $400 million per year industry and have had a 5 percent annual growth since 1996. Several cookbook experts attribute this increase to people’s desire to keep track of our cultural and national progression and, as Nora Pouillon—chef, author, and restaurant owner—puts it, people want to “travel in their minds.” Furthermore, Judith Jones, senior editor and V.P. at Knopf Inc., points out that with the decrease of stay-at-home moms, a new generation has had to learn cooking from scratch. While these statistics pertain to cookbooks, they’re telling of something else as well: People are interested in preparing their own food, and because cooking is an art that has been pushed to the back burner, people need instruction.
Anna Tasca Lanza and daughter Fabrizia at the Anna Tasca Lanza Sicilian Cooking School
Who Wants to Cook on Vacation?
Plenty of people feel the desire to step into the kitchen while enjoying their vacation. And, these people can generally be easily profiled. Clients who take culinary vacations tend to be affluent and well educated. (Age, however, does not seem to be a factor. All generations have been represented on foodie trips.) Harry Dalgaard, president of Avanti Destinations, says, “Seasoned travelers are the core of any travel agency’s profit base—and these people want an authentic experience in their vacations. Cooking schools and fine dining can turn their trip into something very special and help develop long-term loyalty to the travel agency.”
It’s important to emphasize to clients that they don’t need to be gourmet cooks—they don’t even have to know how to cook! Michael Schrobat from Culinary Expeditions Tour Company identifies the ideal culinary traveler as a “foodie, adventure seeker, fun, open-minded, between 18 and 108, healthy and thirsting for experiences in life.”
Clients whom agents have sent hiking, fishing, diving, ziplining, rappelling or even just sightseeing and shopping will not shy away from cooking: The TAM report points out that culinary travelers are also explorers. “Those who exhibit an interest in vacation activities associated with wine and cuisine were considerably more likely to have sought out vacation experiences associated with exploration.” Even if your clients are the spa-treatment or roll-the-dice types, you can still sell a culinary trip: The report goes on to say that travelers who want food-related trips were also into “personal indulgences (e.g., to experience the good life, visiting a casino, experiencing nightlife) and romance and relaxation (e.g., to experience intimacy and romance, relax and recuperate).”
A guest learns how to make mozzarella at the Caseificio CAVI factory in Cisternino, Apulia, Italy
Types of Tours
There are culinary tours to satisfy anyone’s palate: Italian and French remain the most popular, but pan-Asian, Middle Eastern and Central and South American cooking tours are fast becoming sought after by travelers. A news release from the World Future Society stated that globalization will have a greater effect on the future of dining than anything else and “is the master trend that will drive the world of food.” In other words, people want to try new and interesting—sometimes exotic—new foods. In order to meet these demands, tour operators are scheduling trips to diverse parts of the world. Tour de Forks, for instance, is designing tours to Turkey, South India and Argentina. There are also vegetarian, health and wellness and medical-specific tours.
Vacationers have two basic options. One is culinary vacations wherein clients stay at a specific hotel with the intention of taking multiday cooking instruction. There are many hotels around the world that offer instructional programs. A good place to start is Culinary Vacation Travel Guide. Note: Classes are seasonal at many properties.
The other option is culinary tours that take clients to different cities to sample the various cuisines and participate in hands-on lessons. But even these vary in their designs. Stuart Newmark of Avanti Destinations says, “In Europe, the Avanti programs involve a stay at the hotel with a car rental for visits to the nearby countryside. This enables the visitor to experience the best of the region with the least amount of packing and unpacking.” Whereas, he says, “in Latin America, the culinary experiences may involve moving from one destination to another.”
One group of suppliers that has jumped on the bandwagon is cruise lines. Holland America Line, Crystal Cruises and Celebrity Cruises all have culinary programs, as do some of the smaller lines. Holland, in fact, has a Culinary Arts Center aboard each of its premium ships, where cruisers can participate in demonstrations, tastings and hands-on cooking classes. Tour operators can put together their own special program with the help of the cruise line. Clients can simultaneously cruise and cook.
You also have to determine what your clients want. Do they want to stand in a kitchen and learn cooking techniques alongside master chefs, or do they just want to go to famous restaurants and eat and sip wine? These are two distinct clients. Schrobat estimates that “80 percent [of our clients] want the added value of the education and real cultural experience.”
Guests watch a cooking demonstration at Fagiolari Bed & Breakfast in Tuscany
What to Look For
The key to a good trip, says Edward Piegza, president and founder of Classic Journeys, is to join a small tour group (a 16-guest maximum is ideal) that features a variety of activities and experiences and to look for a company with expert local guides. “They’re the ones who know their native land inside and out and who can really connect you to the artisanal producers,” he says.
Schrobat considers these to be components of a great tour: cooking classes in private studios or kitchens, restaurants, wineries or villas; meals included with all classes (after all, you want to taste your work); hands-on participation or interaction allowed between the teaching chef and attendees; free time to enjoy local attractions of the region (instead of all cooking and working); books, aprons, menu cards or other keepsakes to inspire your client and get the rebooking; and all-inclusive rates. “When the tour is finished,” Schrobat says, “clients will have gained some great knowledge.”
Tour de Forks offers “scheduled departures of small escorted luxury tours, guided by a culinary expert to ensure that our group gets the ultimate insider experience. We call it the ‘untour’ tour,” Goldman says, adding, “Putting clients in four- and five-star properties also goes a long way.”
When searching for a culinary program for your clients, look for a couple of things. First, find out what kind of cuisine they are interested in. Wolfe also recommends looking for instructors who speak English if clients do not speak the local language. And one other important thing to keep in mind is that health and safety standards vary in other countries.
One thing to avoid is any culinary tour that is a standard sightseeing tour, taking travelers to a different location each day, and taking them to “famous” restaurants. These aren’t tours but dining events, as Schrobat calls them.
Prices of tours vary widely, depending upon accommodation level, locations and other elements on the itinerary.
Students get first-rate lessons at the Ritz Escoffier School at the Ritz Paris
What’s in It for the Agent?
Tour operators jumped on this bandwagon with both feet. When asked why, the unanimous answer was that they have a passion for food, wine and travel. That is the connector between agents and their clients. But the hard fact is that tour operators are experiencing huge success with this market.
Culinary tourism gives travel agents an edge because it differentiates a tour product from others. Travelers want something new, different and educational. While other types of tourism are sure to come along, the need and desire to eat will always exist, and as the world’s food supply becomes expensive and its viability questionable, the desire to prepare one’s own food is certain to continue. Schrobat sees “unprecedented growth. We have not yet opened this venue up to its potential.” He adds, “the amount of interest is overwhelming…If you’re confident your client will enjoy this type of travel, you will be rewarded with rebooking opportunities for the same clients to the same regions.” As more Americans wish to expand their knowledge and palates, the opportunities to do that will continue to open.
“The industry benefits because it provides destinations with a new way to attract visitors and share their culture and heritage. It’s an increase in tourism,” says Goldman. Travel agents and tour operators, particularly those who specialize in culinary tourism, play a vital role in arranging these types of trips, because they have established relationships with chefs and artisanal producers. Piegza says, “At Classic Journeys, it’s not just what we know, it’s who we know that makes our tours unique.”
“This type of vacation cannot be done in a cookie-cutter manner,” Avanti’s Newmark says. “These are complex vacations—and would be almost impossible for travelers to do on their own and maintain the quality.”
Culinary travel—just like food itself—has a unifying effect on the world. “In addition to making the global community a smaller, more interesting and personal place,” Piegza says, “culinary tours are low-impact on the environment and make expert use of each region’s agricultural resources.”
The appeal particularly hits the ego of the affluent traveler. As Tour de Forks’ Goldman puts it, “When travelers return home and cook a meal for their friends that they learned how to make in Provence, that’s bragging rights!”