As the director of the alumni travel program at the University of California, Los Angeles, Christel Pailet organizes 42 trips per year for the school's alumni association. Her groups traditionally travel throughout the world on a variety of sightseeing tours and cruises. This year, however, she decided to try something new. With the help of David Iverson, owner of Sammamish, WA-based culinary tour company A Cook's Tour, Pailet built a trip to Italy around local food and wine, and she billed it as "a food, wine, and cultural adventure in the hills of Tuscany."
The eight-day itinerary included day trips to cooking demonstra-
tions, local food markets, and vineyards throughout the region, as well as guided city tours and hands-on cooking lessons. "I had never offered a [culinary tour] before, and I had no idea how successful it would be," says Pailet. The trip sold out immediately. "Based on that brochure, we offered a second trip [departing four months later], which also quickly sold out."
Culinary tourism is a fairly self-explanatory term: It encompasses any travel in which culinary experiences are highlighted. It's a travel category that capitalizes on the soaring public interest in both food and travel, the evidence of which is as nearby as a television set. The Food Network's lineup is peppered with famous food personalities hitting the road, from Anthony Bourdain's A Cook's Tour to Rachel Ray's $40 a Day to Alton Brown's Feasting on Asphalt. Over on the Travel Channel, several food-based series, including Travel Cafe and No Reservations, another Anthony Bourdain traveling- foodie extravaganza, invite viewers to explore the culinary adventures that await them in every corner of the world. "Interest in culinary tourism has really mushroomed, as people learn a lot more about dining and food as experiences, and not just eating for eating's sake," says Erik Wolf, president of the Portland, OR-based International Culinary Tourism Association (ICTA). "Dining is now looked at more as an attraction."
Many contend that culinary tourism today is where ecotourism was 10 years ago, and as such it's well on its way to becoming a staple of incentive travel. This is particularly true given the wide range of destinations and activities to which it's suited. "Incentive-based food experiences are no longer limited to a five-star resort," says Wolf. "It's not necessarily pretentious and exclusive, so long as it's unique and memorable. And that includes the pretzel guys on the street in New York, or the cheese steaks in Philadelphia." As a result, more and more incentive planners are creating incentive programs that are either built around culinary tourism or that incorporate the pursuit in one or more components.
GUIDED BY GASTRONOMY
The growing number of culinary tour operators speaks to the level of consumer demand. "We've seen the number of these operators increase substantially, and they are operating all over the world," says ICTA's Wolf. For a first-time planner of a culinary-tour itinerary, these operators can be an excellent resource. They are often more aware of what's possible and available than a planner new to the field, and they almost always have existing itineraries to suggest.
However, Wolf warns, the explosion of interest in culinary tourism has attracted a lot of enthusiasts who call themselves operators, but don't really have the necessary experience. "In Europe, being a tour operator requires training and a license," says Wolf. "But there are very few states in the U.S. that require that." As a result, he says, "There are a lot of new entrants into the field, some of whom will call themselves culinary operators but who are really just people with a passion for travel but little actual knowledge about food." He recommends asking for liability insurance and professional travel trade organization membership to "separate the wheat from the chaff."
Among the operators Wolf recommends is Karen Herbst, president of Chicago-based The International Kitchen, a culinary tour operator with more than 70 itineraries in Italy, France, and Spain. Herbst says she often works with incentive planners. "Interest in this is absolutely growing among incentive planners," she says. "This isn't an easy thing to put together on your own, and they're usually very happy to find someone who could do this for them, get all the elements together, and make sure it's done right." Herbst's highly customizable itineraries range in length from three nights to two weeks, in size from two to "as many as they want," and in cost, start at $1,800 per person for a three-night tour (to include everything from start to finish except airfare). Groups stay either in farmhouses ("Not very deluxe, but authentic," says Herbst) or in five-star, luxury properties, such as Italy's Villa d'Este on Lake Como. Programs can be as hands-on as wanted and, in addition to eating and wine tasting, can include activities from walking and biking to painting and Pilates.
At A Cook's Tour (no relation to the Anthony Bourdain television show), "We can do groups as large as 80, depending on the time of year and the desired location," says owner Iverson. "We generally stay in villas, private farmhouses, or chateaus that may date back as far as the 18th century." Typical itineraries combine cooking lessons with restaurant visits, sightseeing, and local activities in Italy, France, South Africa (including safaris), and Mexico.
BACK TO SCHOOL
Most of the best-known cooking schools, including Le Cordon Bleu and the Culinary Institute of America (CIA), offer programs perfectly suited to the incentive market. Le Cordon Bleu offers weekend culinary packages in France and in Canada, which include interactive cooking demonstrations with Le Cordon Bleu chefs, hands-on workshops, local excursions, some meals, and luxury accommodations. The CIA, in partnership with Viking Range, offers a program called Worlds of Flavor, which currently runs culinary tours sampling the Mississippi Delta, Spain, Italy, the Napa Valley, Thailand, Vietnam, India, and Mexico. These itineraries include intensive hands-on cooking lessons at local culinary institutions with local touring. International Travel Program Director Michael Coon says that while Worlds of Flavor tours are fully customizable, he has yet to build one specifically for an incentive group. "Mostly, companies pay for their employees to join our tours on an individual basis," he says. And while those employees often find that fellow tour members are professional chefs continuing their own culinary education, Coon says the trips are "fine for foodies or anyone who has an interest in cooking." Itineraries range from five to 12 days, and include most food and beverage, lodging, and all transportation within the host country (excluding international airfare). Cost ranges from $2,500 to $5,400 per person, and trips can accommodate groups from 14 to 22.
For less extravagant programs, ICTA's Wolf recommends smaller schools. "The smaller, independent, locally owned schools can offer shorter programs, better value, and perhaps even more personalized training," he says. "It's usually easier for people to travel to those facilities, and the facilities have all the necessary equipment on site."
JUST A HINT OF FLAVOR
Finally, incentive planners may simply opt to build in a culinary component to their standard programs. "The best advice for that is to go to the destination management company or CVB, who could provide all the local resources and would know who the players are and the under-the-radar unique experiences," says ICTA's Wolf. In addition, a growing number of properties already popular with incentive groups are now offering culinary programs in addition to their regular stable of attractions. The Greenbrier, in White Sulfur Springs, WV, for example, offers a variety of cooking school packages for adults and children. The Red Mountain Spa, in St. George, UT, offers a School for Adventure Cuisine, which gives small groups the basics of developing nutritious meals, together with healthy lifestyle strategies and unlimited fitness classes. Other properties offer special packages in conjunction with local annual food festivals, such as the Food & Wine Classic, in Aspen, CO; the South Beach Wine & Food Festival, in Florida; the International Banff Festival for Food & Wine, in Alberta, Canada; and the Bermuda Culinary Arts Festival.
Indeed, gastronomic enthusiasts maintain, culinary tourism is possible everywhere. "Culinary tourists are explorers," says ICTA's Wolf. "They like to get out and seek. They may go for a gourmet meal somewhere, but they are just as happy to go to the local's place."
Ingredients for a Tasty Tour
International Culinary Tourism Association
The International Kitchen
A Cook's Tour
Le Cordon Bleu
The Culinary Institute of America
Hyde Park, NY
Worlds of Flavor