Food connects a traveler to a place in a way that's arguably closer and more engaging than anything else they could encounter. Confining a food tourist's dining experience to the walls of a restaurant isn't enough to make them feel like they got what they came for.
“Dining will be the last form of live entertainment.”
This affirmation by Reserve’s CEO Greg Hong last week at Skift Global Forum in Brooklyn represents the trend of experiential travelers engrossed with food and wanting to learn more about how their meals are prepared and where they come from. Visiting a winery and doing a tasting no longer whets travelers’ appetites the way it once did. Now they want to meet with the wine grower and be personally shown around the vineyards, for example.
It’s become a challenge to find a city, state, or region that hasn’t branded itself as a food destination to some extent, and some studies have found one in two millennials consider themselves foodies, for example, according to Bob Williams, a marketing professor at Susquehanna University who studies food tourism and his wife Helena, co-founder of gastrogatherings.com, citing a journal paper he and Helena co-authored. There are, however, differences between travelers calling themselves fair-weather foodies and those who visit destinations specifically to revel in exclusive and even one-on-one experiences with chefs, farmers or craft brewers.
Tourism boards caught in between realize that regardless of a traveler’s passion point for food, they need to double down on the number of culinary experiences they offer to remain competitive with both types of food tourists. These travelers spend about 18-20% more in destinations for every age group and country of origin, says Helena.
“It’s important for destinations to offer a critical mass of six different experiences because some travelers want variety and others want several experiences grouped around a certain food,” said Williams, citing a white paper she and Robert co-authored. “It’s important for all the wineries, for example, in a certain region to work together because wine and food trails are appealing to food tourists.”
“There’s a reason why Napa Valley is more popular as a wine destination than New York State even though New York produces a lot of wine and has beautiful wineries. Napa clusters its wineries together so when you visit the region you’re probably going to several wineries rather than only one. New York hasn’t gotten that cluster reputation yet. If state and local governments could just do a few simple things they could really jumpstart this process of co-branding.”
Future of Restaurant Dining
If dining is the last form of live entertainment, than the restaurant is a stage where travel brands can approach brand-building from a fresher angle.
Some brands like Easton Porter Group already consider Hong’s thinking as a best practice, making the kitchen the first thing guests see when they first arrive. Walking into the 1804 Kitchen House at the Zero George Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina, guests immediately smell what’s cooking for that evening’s dinner and get a handshake from the chef at the check-in desk located among the pots, pans, stove tops, and spices. This room is the reason guests stay at Zero George and serves as the hotel’s community space where the chefs share their stories and lead customized cooking classes.
“Hotel restaurant staff are also the concierge and have an incredible responsibility to make sure expectations are met,” said Curry Uflakcer, marketing director for Easton Porter Group, which owns boutique hotels and restaurants in Charleston and Virginia. “Dining is entertainment but we think of it more as a contemporary dance than a ballet. Our restaurants are less tasting driven and more experience driven, where guests have a lot of access to the chef.”
Zero George’s restaurant offers five and nine course tasting menus, albeit “not tapas,” for guests to try a variety of dishes and is considering moving toward a tasting-only menu. Williams said she’s observed sampling sessions, where travelers taste as they learn, grow more popular during the past year but also feels the future of restaurants encompasses much more than the brick and mortar building itself.
“Although food tourists do and will eat in restaurants, simple dining is not a food tourist’s goal,” said Williams. “Learning about a particular food, or even better a regional food culture is the big draw. Vacations and trips revolve around distinct foods and flavors, not restaurants. For a restaurant to enter into the experience realm that food tourists seek, it needs to do more than just prepare and serve great food.”
“Restaurateurs and executive chefs who incorporate the tourist into the food preparation process will be the first to tempt the food tourists. It is all about being part of the kitchen culture of a destination. Cooking in chefs’ homes where an intimate group of diners, or even a couple, interact with a regional chef or authentic home cook and watch as off-menu courses are prepared and served are the kinds of restaurant experiences food tourists crave.”
Bringing Food to a Mobile Audience
Travel media helps expose food tourists to where they should fill their stomachs with local ingredients and find the most charismatic chefs. Given food tourism is more hands on than other types of travel, putting food in travelers’ hands–on smartphone screens, that is–is an ongoing challenge for brands to adapt content like cooking demonstrations for mobile audiences.
“A lot of the food and travel TV programming today is built for a much older audience and we’re focused on millennials,” said Steven Kydd, co-founder of Tastemade, a food and travel video network created for mobile. “The type of content on TV tends to not be as helpful to younger people.”
Tastemade, which claims to reach 88 million people each month, is also part of Snapchat’s Discover section and this week featured videos of tastemakers, or what the company calls its social media food personalities, taking viewers into the Santa Monica, California farmers market and a pig slaughter and feast in Nicaragua, for example. Kydd said keeping the camera close to the food is important for mobile and that there’s a “massive move” towards shooting vertically rather than in landscape.
While the length of Tastemade’s videos does vary on different social networks, with Snapchat videos running shorter than its Facebook videos on average, length isn’t a priority.
“You need to tell the story you need to tell and sometimes that takes 5, 10 or 20 minutes, but that said we do optimize our videos for different platforms,” said Kydd. “Tastemade is about tastemakers and everything we do is about seeing things through taste, curation and quality. The tastemakers we feature may not be household names but on Snapchat and Facebook these people are very well-known and have large followings.
“We’re looking to tell really unique stories. One of our most popular tastemakers talks about raw and vegan food. She’s almost like a gateway drug and introduces larger audiences to raw and vegan cooking but does it in an approachable way and she’s indicative to how we identify our talent. Our tastemakers aren’t performers, they’re living their authentic life and we’re trying to capture those lives.”
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Photo credit: A cooking class led by chefs at the Zero George Hotel in Charleston, South Carolina. Eric Kelley / Easton Porter Group