Why close down your world-class restaurant and opt instead to open a series of global pop-ups in a diverse series of destinations? Because dining has become a crucial part of the experience for travelers, and food tourism has truly entered the mainstream for a wide swath of destinations.
Famed Danish restaurant Noma opened a pop-up restaurant in Australia last year, following an experiment in Tokyo in 2015, and is set to soon open another in Tulum, Mexico. This move away from the traditional paradigm in dining speaks to the power of building a global community around a restaurant, and the risks some of the world’s boldest restaurateurs are taking to reinvent the global dining experience.
“The most overused word in TV is the ‘journey,’ but there are people who want to follow the experience of [head chef Rene Redzepi] and 60 other chefs coming from Copenhagen,” said Ben Liebmann, chief operating officer of Noma, at Skift Forum Europe. “[They want to] see and experience a country through the eyes and hands of a Danish restaurant and chef, and learn what he has experienced. We are a business, but we would do [the pop-up restaurants] differently if they were driven by commercial outcome. It is about building a culture and community of the restaurant, and a community of the guests that dine with us.”
A shift in traveler behavior led to this experimentation in dining. According to Liebmann, Noma’s research shows that more international travelers are choosing destinations based on food, restaurants, and access to fresh produce. They expect 95 percent of their Tulum customers to hail from outside of Mexico.
“One thing we found in Australia is [that travelers] used our home base of Sydney as a jump-off point,” said Liebmann. “Guests were coming to dine at Noma and using that as an opportunity to explore the city. Tulum is such a small town; we’ll see a large number of guests using it as a reason to come to Mexico… millennials are now viewing food as important to define their character as the clothes they wear. We are seeing something that is a fundamental shift in people’s food and dining.”
Another emerging trend is the desire of travelers to dine in the homes of locals while they are visiting a destination.
“We are launching a Chinese app in two weeks and did a lot of research into the expectations of the Chinese traveler,” said Camille Rumani, co-founder and chief operating officer of VizEat, which lets travelers book food experiences in destinations around the world. “Eighty percent of Chinese travelers would like to book a meal in a stranger’s house, because they want to see how people live and want to meet people. Food is sometimes the excuse for the journey, of the whole experience.”
While dining experiences represent a nascent opportunity right now, VizEat is partnering with destinations around the world to offer new experiences for travelers looking for a more intimate dining experience. It also represents a way for destinations to showcase culinary culture in new and exciting ways.
“For destinations, it’s a way to promote the city and country as a food destination and also to show different aspects of tourism and innovation,” said Rumani. “We have a feeling that if you travel to Paris, it’s difficult to meet Parisians. [Our experiences] are a completely different asset they can showcase.
“It’s already a chicken and egg problem, since growth is growing the community in key cities, there is more and more demand from partners. We need to grow and maintain the quality. It’s also a way to make people travel in a different way, and make sure if they have a great first experience, they will do it again.”