News & Views

What Destinations Need To Know About the Changing Tastes of Culinary Travelers


If you’re a food fanatic and also a destination marketing expert, you’ll be pleased to hear your time has finally come!

Nearly half of travelers responding to a Brand USA survey cited a food- or drink-related travel experience as the main purpose of their trip. Diversity in dining options is key, the survey found, with most travelers seeking a mix of unique local cuisine and familiar foods they enjoy at home.

The respondents who named food or drink as their primary trip goal identified a variety of target experiences:

  • 52 percent had gone for a wine tasting.
  • 43 percent traveled to dine in a restaurant featuring local cuisine.
  • 41 percent had gone for a local food retailer, including shops and markets.
  • 21 percent had traveled to visit a factory, local food manufacturer, farm or other food producer.
  • 19 percent had traveled for a farmer’s market.
  • 15 percent sought out a cooking class.

Interestingly, just 2 percent reported traveling for the primary purpose of a wine festival, which destination marketers and wine alliances nationwide seem to be rolling out by the barrel.

So who are these “food tourists” that travel marketers should be targeting? Skift data reveal that 51 percent of so called “food tourists” are between the ages of 25 and 44. They seek experiences that are enhanced by food and drink, rather than hyper-niche gastronomy. Among the experiences they find most appealing are markets, festivals and specialty grocers (46 percent); gastropubs, burgers and beer (38 percent); trendy, creative and experimental dining (29 percent); wine and/or cheese tours (28 percent); gourmet, upscale or classic experiences (24 percent); and of course, those travelers we love to hate on… vegetarian or vegan dining seekers (5 percent).

Skift also notes that traveler food and drink spending is on the rise, from $44 per person in 2012 to $58 in 2017, and now takes up almost a full quarter of the total share of spending by U.S. travelers (24.4 percent in 2017). That’s a useful statistic for destination organizations who are constantly trying to justify to their culinary partners why they should invest in marketing to travelers.

Locally Sourced Is Part of the Lexicon

Transparency in sourcing is increasingly important, with diners in every type of establishment, from luxury steakhouses to casual cafes, leaning toward experiences that include food source information. Naming the local farms that supply a restaurant’s food has become a significant hook to draw in discerning consumers.

A whopping 96 percent of survey respondents reported participating in food experiences where sourcing was key. These respondents had dined at restaurants serving local cuisine, visited local food retailers, done wine tastings, participated in farmers markets, visited farms or other producers, visited food factories or manufacturing facilities, and taken cooking classes or local food tours.

Destination Marketing Tip: Blog about your best locally sourced culinary immersion experiences, do a restaurant week takeover of your Instagram handle to spotlight local fare on your restaurant week menus, or craft a website itinerary that calls out culinary influencers visitors can meet in your community.

Food Tours Keep on Trucking

Another culinary travel trend to keep an eye on in 2019, according to Travel US News Report, is food tours. In these events, local guides lead small groups of diners on walking tours of about three hours for a fixed price that includes small tastings at multiple restaurants. Lonely Planet notes a growing interest in travel meals that involve a one-of-a-kind cultural experience, where tourists can interact with locals while sharing in distinctly local cuisines.

Supporting TripAdvisor data showed that food tours and cooking classes were among the five fastest-growing tour categories in 2017, each with 57 percent bookings growth through the popular travel platform. (Food tours also achieved the most growth by booking value that year.) Food- and drink-related travel activities accounted for approximately 29 percent of the platform’s total bookings in February of 2018.

Destination Marketing Tip: Instagram-story your local food tours, YouTube an actual “meal of the day” segment throughout your community, inventory your culinary tours and ensure they can be searched and found on your website.

Intimate Meals Are Making Headlines

While walking tours may appeal to those counting calories, sometimes you just want to sit down to a relaxing and elegant meal. Smaller-format, intimate dining experiences are also trending. With many restaurants creating high-tech, multisensory experiences, elevated bars and lounges are becoming the place to be, according to Delish. Experimental food and drink establishments with creative small formats and focused, knowledgeable wait staff are also on the move. Examples include Kaido in Miami and NYC’s The Aviary.

Destination Marketing Tip: Maintain the allure of the intimate dining experience by keeping tips off photo platforms and Tweeting out your community’s insider secrets on these delectable gems.

Social Media Is Changing Expectations

Driving these and other trends in culinary experiences is travelers’ growing dependency on social media. According to Skift, today’s travelers are as likely to post pictures of food as they are to post shots of major historical sites in an area. Similarly, more travelers are turning to social media to find out where to go to dine, so the “experience” of dining is becoming increasingly significant. The growing popularity of food delivery apps such as Uber Eats and Postmates is changing customers’ expectations, making speed in dining service more important than ever before. As a result, consumers are turning away from traditional, hours-long fine dining in exchange for quick service and experiential design with their food.

Destination Marketing Tip: Leverage a platform like CrowdRiff to curate actual social media culinary content created by visitors and locals alike.

CBD Is Upping the Happiness Quotient

With the growing popularity of CBD oils and the increasing pace of everyday life, we can anticipate an explosion in the use of CBD in food and drinks. With this cannabis extract endorsed by a growing cadre of celebrities and even athletes, we’re likely to see CBD-infused options in everything from coffee to sparkling water in the near future.

Destination Marketing Tip: Start with a brownie and let your imagination go from there…

Culinary tourism is about far more than food. It gives travelers experiences that emphasize the stories behind the food, stories that show what makes a destination special. It promotes exploration beyond main areas and popular attractions. It captures the uniqueness of local cultures, traditions and trends.

The focus for travel marketers should always be on what makes your destination unique, and thoughtful discussions should be had about what “authentic” means in your community. Finally, remember that existing food resources need to be nurtured to become a part of your destination’s food tourism plan, and the best plan reaches beyond tourism to create something communal and collaborative that even the locals will embrace.

Has your destination marketing organization monitored culinary travel trends and made magic with a breakthrough idea? We’d love to hear about it!

Written By

Karyl Leigh Barnes

Karyl Leigh Barnes is President of DCI’s Tourism Practice. Since joining the firm in 1998, Karyl Leigh has led destination strategy and created marketing communication programs for destinations on every continent except Antarctica.

More Articles by Karyl Leigh Barnes

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