There are some guests who are happy to eat at their favorite restaurant chain when they’re on vacation. However, as the millennial segment continues its quest to make every trip an experience, it is becoming clearer than ever that, in many cases, a Big Mac simply won’t do. Increasingly, guests want to meet the chef who created the menu, talk coffee brewing techniques with a hotel’s barista, and get a taste of the best wine the area has to offer. According to Resonance Consultancy’s 2015 Tourism & Travel Trends Report, millennials—making up 1.8 billion of the world’s population—are most motivated to travel by a desire to experience everyday life in another country or to increase their knowledge of a new destination.
Travelers with a millenial mindset seek moments of authenticity, leaving the responsibility of providing memorable experiences squarely on hoteliers’ shoulders. And in the case of food tourists, this starts with their stomachs.
“If travelers are coming to a market for the food, they want to be engaged with the best products from the area,” says Bill Kohl, principal of Greenwood Hospitality. “If you don’t have that option, they are not going to pick you.”
Hoteliers should not take this to mean that a food tourist is specifically looking for a fanciful gourmet meal. In fact, they’re not even looking for a great meal. Food tourists are actually looking for storytellers. Whether it be from a funny server or a show-off bartender, guests want a master class about the locale that speaks directly to their taste buds. Such travelers are growing in number; Mandala Research’s American Culinary Travel Report states that the number of individuals who travel to learn about and enjoy new dining experiences jumped from 40 percent to 51 percent of U.S. leisure travelers between 2006 and 2013.
This is a form of guest entertainment that destinations big and small can partake in, so long as they have the means to feed guests local eats. And this isn’t just in big cities boasting a variety of culinary options. The Global Report on Food Tourism, published by the World Tourism Organization in 2012, notes the particular importance of food tourism to rural communities, many of which have struggled in the face of rapid urbanization. “With their proximity to food-producing lands, rural communities often enjoy a comparative advantage when it comes to serving up traditional fare,” writes Taleb Rifai, the organization’s secretary-general. “Food tourism allows these communities to generate income and employment opportunities locally, providing jobs for vineyard tour guides or local chefs, while fueling other sectors of the local economy, such as agriculture.”
Engaging in food tourism allows hotels to market themselves as serving unique food and beverage options. But in order to create a location guests will flock to when visiting a food and drink hotspot, a sophisticated plan needs to be put in place.
“Hotels really need to craft a strategy,” explains Erik Wolf, executive director of the World Food Travel Association. “They need to take a look at the overall experience of the visitor and hire a chef to really craft a menu, making sure ingredients can be locally sourced and that there are suppliers who can provide large quantities.” Wolf founded the Portland-based organization in 2003 to help grow economies and businesses through food tourism. The association defines food tourism simply as the “pursuit and enjoyment of unique and memorable food and drink experiences, both far and near.” It also stresses that while anyone can build a hotel restaurant with standard hotel food, the key to a food tourist’s heart is tapping into her interests. For the millennial generation, which is clearly leading the charge on food tourism, this especially means healthy and organic food and beverage options.
“People really seem to want to know more about what they are putting into their bodies and where it comes from,” Wolf explains. “While there are a number of underlying layers driving the younger generation’s interest, health is definitely a top priority.”
Brands tapping into local, authentic, and organic food experiences include Le Meridien, which places a master barista at each property to provide an authentic coffee culture, and Canopy by Hilton, a new brand that focuses on the “neighborhoods” in which they’re built and showcases local craft beers, holds wine tastings from nearby vineyards, and provides free artisanal breakfasts featuring fresh, local ingredients. By harnessing this trend in-house, hoteliers are able to hold on to extra revenue that would otherwise be going to local eateries. When guests believe the truthful food experiences they seek in the area are housed right within their hotel, they will not be as quick to rush out the door for coffee, nightcaps, and everything in between.
“If you have a destination food location like Napa Valley, it’s on you to be relevant and cutting edge, because with so many choices in the market to go outside of the hotel, you need to attract and hold guests,” Greenwood’s Kohl says.
Once a food and beverage establishment has captured guests’ attention, Wolf says the most important part of catering to food tourists is to remain true to the location—that’s what the guests are there for, after all.
“Know your strengths, and decide how to celebrate those things and spotlight your own culture,” he advises, adding, “Do your own thing. Don’t try to be the next Portland.”