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Food has always been a major part of travel, but a growing demand for authenticity and unique experiences is broadening the scope of culinary travel, prompting travel advisors and tour organizers to search for new and different food-focused destinations and activities.
Culinary travel is no longer just about cooking classes, wine tastings, or dinner at a Michelin-starred restaurant. The audience for more intensive food-related experiences is growing as well. It’s no longer the primary domain of chefs and others in the food and wine industry.
“When we first started people didn’t really think of culinary travel, they thought of cooking school travel,” said Tamar Lowell, CEO of Access Culinary Trips, a travel planning service that focuses solely on culinary trips.
The company, which was founded in 2001 as an adventure tour operator, decided to switch its focus to culinary travel in 2015 due to demand from clients who wanted something beyond the cooking classes that were often a part of their initial trip offerings.
“The notion of traveling with food as the primary focus is definitely catching on and is a new category,” Lowell said. “Some travel advisors and consumers aren’t really aware of it yet, but what it really is is for people who want to experience a culture through a lens. In our case, it’s through food.”
Authenticity through the lens of food and culinary experiences has evolved from group cooking classes to visits to organic farms and even into the homes of local residents for a traditional family meal.
Challenges of New Destinations
Gary Portuesi, the managing director of Authentic Italy, said food has always been a major part of his company’s Italy-focused travel planning. But, as clients become more and more knowledgable of Italian cooking, specifically regional cuisines, he and his team of five have had to dig deeper into more obscure regions of the country to provide the types of experiences guests are craving.
“It means really going local, finding those mom-and-pop restaurants. In Italy my customers want those very local types of experiences. They want to make pasta with nonna, the grandma,” Portuesi said. “Michelin stars have rained down on Italy quite a bit, but it’s not the bellwether for Italy in my opinion. The best meals are the ones you find in people’s homes.”
Planning some of those off-the-beaten-path trips to places such as Sicily, Puglia, and Calabria has been getting more difficult as customers become more knowledgable, Portuesi said.
Because it has been a popular destination for so long, Europe in general poses challenges for finding new and unfamiliar culinary destinations, according to travel advisors and tour planners. Another challenge is that many of the destinations that are being “discovered” don’t have the same level of accommodations that luxury travelers are accustomed to.
“You gladly sell it to people who are interested in very unique experiences, but it has to be for the right customer,” Portuesi said. “For the customer who is expecting the Four Seasons and all the bells and whistles that come with it, this is not the best experience.”
Demand for Authentic Italy’s trips has led the 18-year-old company to expand into other markets including Spain, France, and Portugal under the name Authentic Explorations, which will launch in 2020.
“We are seeing a lot more people who are exploring,” Portuesi said. “We have a combination of clients who come to us and want really deep experiences in some of the more traveled places, and there are others who are a little more daring and want to explore these incredible destinations that aren’t as well known.”
Instagram, Cooking Shows Driving Demand
The demand for this type of intensive culinary experience started about five years ago and has grown in complexity ever since, said Kari Hansen, a travel advisor and food and wine specialist with Travel Leaders.
“The internet and all of these travel shows out there, all the food shows, really piqued everybody’s interest,” Hansen said. “Everybody wants to be a chef or a mixologist. Everybody is a wine sommelier. That’s really picked up.”
Instagram is also driving the desire for unique experiences that travelers can show off to their followers, Lowell said.
She also noted that culinary experiences are of particular interest to the growing number of solo travelers. About 25 percent of Access Culinary Trips clients are solo travelers, the majority them women.
“We’ve made a big push over the past few months to reach out to solo travelers so they know they are welcome,” Lowell said.
She added that most solo travelers will request not to be put in a group of all couples, and due to the recent influx of this type of traveler, they have been able to accommodate with trips that are full of solo travelers.
“Fifteen, 20 years ago, I think a lot fewer Americans were traveling out of the country at all,” Lowell said. “It keeps growing. It becomes way more than just going to Florence and looking at the Duomo and taking your pictures and leaving. It’s about how am I connecting with my location? This isn’t just for foodies, it’s not just for chefs. It’s for anybody who wants to have that authentic experience when they travel.”