When we talk about destination growth from a tourism perspective, it boils down a few things: economic, product, and experience development. It’s these that drive marketing, which drives visitation and visitor spend, which drives destination growth (and, ultimately, further economic development). It’s a big, gorgeous circle, but at the crux of it all is product and experience development; if you don’t have anything to market to visitors or anything for them to do when they’re in town (let alone anything that’ll bring them to town), you won’t really have anything, now will you?
We often cite food trails as a proven product and experience for destinations to consider developing, but food trails often hog the spotlight, leaving little room for their just-as-fun, just-as-lucrative, just-as-interesting cousin: food tours. In particular, guided food tours. (For this purpose, we consider self-guided food tours to be in a very similar camp to food trails).
We wanted to share some of our thoughts on guided food tours and their value in driving destination growth, in particular, destination spend, as well as suggestions for how destinations can encourage and support the emergence of food tours in their own region.
In general, guided food tours last a few hours and include food and / or beverage samples from at least three, but ideally five, different establishments. The best food tours visit only local establishments and weave a narrative between the stops, telling the history and current story of the destination, within the context of its food and beverage offerings.
As such, food tours tend to pull tourists off the trodden tourist path and into a world more occupied by locals than tourists, into a world that’s home to a variety of locally-owned businesses many tourists wouldn’t find on their own.
What’s so great about this?
Firstly, the very nature of food tours is that they incorporate visits to several different businesses, meaning tourists are exposed to a number of high quality local businesses at once. Then, with each business providing small plates, bites, or samples, tourists literally get a taste of each business, which often prompts return visits later in their stay. Tourists are more likely to return for a complete meal or experience if they’ve had a positive sample experience, especially because the business has instantly become familiar, and has been vetted by their guide.
Some of the best food tours visit a variety of businesses (ie. a beverage producer, a retail store, a restaurant, a bar), and in doing so, food tours seamlessly showcase a destination’s varied offerings. This is appealing to visitors looking for well-rounded experiences, and that is favourable for your destination’s overall visitor experience and reputation. And, as we said earlier, a good food tour will have a strong destination narrative interwoven with the food stops – whether it’s historical, cultural, or a bit of both – providing local context and understanding, which are key to creating a sense of place, a taste of place, and, by extension, a more relatable destination experience.
And finally, because food tours are such rich, multi-faceted cultural experiences, they tend to be one of the stories people tell their friends and family when they get home. Visitors return home not only with stories of food they ate, but also the local businesses they discovered, the stories they heard, the people they met. In effect, they’re returning home as advertisers for your destination’s story.
So, as a destination, what can you do to nurture guided food tours?
You want to ensure you’re providing economic and infrastructure support to food tour operators, most of whom are going to be small businesses, or even solo ventures.
Don’t make it difficult or expensive to become a licensed tour guide in your city or region. In fact, don’t even make it an issue. Many cities and countries in Europe require tour guides to jump through hoop after hoop after hoop (and pay through the nose) in order to become a licensed tour guide. In doing this, you risk frightening guides away from the structured process or limiting access due to minimal financial resources, which could end up costing you your best guides.
Offer small business incentives, grants, or loans for tourism businesses. This can help enable scrappy, independent guides or operators to get something started from nothing.
Facilitate food tourism value chain networking events, whereby tour operators and guides can meet restaurants, breweries, or accommodations, and build relationships and potential business partnerships.
Level the playing field. It varies city by city, but we see it more often than not that larger businesses own the majority of the city’s concierge desks and visitor kiosks (ahem, you know who you are), meaning the little guys – a group that usually includes the local-business-focused food tours we’re talking about – don’t get a slice of the pie. Destinations – do us all a favour and let them sit at the table, because the more market share food tours have, the more tourists are being pulled into the food tour ecosystem and spreading their dollars to locally-owned businesses. That’s when the economic development piece comes in. That’s when food tourism really starts to benefit locals.