One of the ways that our destination, Providence, Rhode Island, distinguishes itself from other cities is through the promotion of our excellent and abundant culinary assets. Providence is home to the world’s largest culinary educator, Johnson & Wales University, and has become a hotbed for creative young chefs who find smaller competitive field and the camaraderie of our food scene enticing.
Culinary tourism has been a cornerstone of our marketing efforts for nearly a decade, culminating in being named the #1 Food City in the United States by the readers of Travel + Leisure in their 2012 “America’s Favorite Cities” poll. With that in mind, we were thrilled to host “Taste Trekkers,” billed as the nation’s first food tourism conference. Conference organizer Seth Resler was familiar with Providence, having graduated from Brown University, and had kept tabs on our growing culinary reputation.
The Providence Warwick CVB worked closely with Resler and his team, as they developed a three-day schedule that mixed culinary tourism experts from around the country with local chefs, tour operators and food media. The event also featured dine-arounds at local restaurants, a Grand Tasting of local and regional foods and a Sunday-morning “Food Truck Brunch.”
The session that was most vital to destination marketers was the panel discussion “Food Tripping: Culinary Tourism Today and Tomorrow.” The session, moderated by the Providence Journal’s respected Food Editor Gail Ciampa, featured: Jose Duarte, chef and owner of Taranta Restaurant in Boston’s North End; Cindy Salvato, president and owner of Savoring Rhode Island, which hosts culinary tours of Providence’s Federal Hill and other foodie-friendly destinations in Rhode Island; Danielle Brodhagen, director of product development for the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, which works with destinations to develop their culinary tourism product; Meghan Sheradin, executive director of the Vermont Fresh Network, an online clearinghouse of culinary travel opportunities that promote local food product; Sai Viswanath, James Beard-nominated chef at Bristol, Rhode Island’s DeWolf Tavern; and Joyce Weinberg, owner of City Food Tours New York. As the group discussed the evolution – and explosion – of food tourism, a few best practices emerged:
- Develop an “Authentic Taste of Place.” While Brodhagen is the one who actually coined the term, the rest of the panelists heartily agreed with her assertion that destinations must look at all of the culinary assets that are unique to their communities and combine them together in a meaningful way. Duarte, who leads guided trips to his native Peru, has developed culinary tourism packages that may focus on one ingredient – such as potatoes – and follows that ingredient from farm to table. Along the way, he introduces travelers to the customs and rituals that surround the planting, harvesting and serving of these particular ingredients.
- Give travelers plenty of options. Panelists agreed that travelers like culinary offerings that are diverse and that are not time consuming. “I look for accessibility. When I go somewhere, I want to experience multiple things and have a game plan,” said Viswanath, a seasoned culinary traveler who frequently visits his native India. Weinberg agreed, adding, “I don’t have the patience to sit through all three courses and it is rare that a restaurant excels at all three courses.” Weinberg prefers to split her meal among two, or even, three different restaurants.
- Let the traveler set his or her own course. Likewise, many culinary travelers are looking to craft their own tour that appeals to their particular interests. Sheradin, whose website www.DigInVt.com, includes a comprehensive database and mapping functionality, said “We are putting the information right out there so the visitor can set their own navigation. It’s really about the information and making sure the mapping is right and the data is right.”
- Acquire local buy-in by demonstrating economic impact. “If done right, food-related tourism can be a huge economic driver to any community,” said Brodhagen. “It drives down from the tour operator to the farmer.” Brodhagen cited a recent study that stated the eating local food had a 3:1 impact on the local economy.
Providence’s own Salvato summed up the power of culinary tourism succinctly, saying, “It’s all about the food. Everybody has got to eat. Culinary tourism has taken off, even in places that are small, as long as they are unique.”