For some destinations, food is integral to the visitor offer. For others, it’s an after-thought.

Why is more effort not made by businesses who supply food and beverage directly into the visitor economy to source and sell what is local when we know that enjoying good produce and local food is increasingly key to reasons why holidaymakers choose destinations in England? Perhaps this is true the world over?  Why is there also scant recognition that a robust local food and drink offer is integral to a memorable visitor experience? And I’m not talking about customer service. 

Stating the bleedin’ obvious: we all need to eat on our way to and from our holiday destination and whilst there; why then, despite the fact that up to a quarter of all holiday spend is on food and beverages, is there such a void in distinctive destination food offers?

What about local culinary traditions and dishes that could so easily reflect a destinations unique offer and experiences? Where are those artisan food producers who put so much love and attention to detail into what they make? Why don’t we know who they are and why aren’t they more visible?

Tastebuds are impared at 35,000 feet and a recent Skift article revealed how British Airways is brewing the new science of Sonic Seasoning; which broadly means that using the art of sound to enhance in-flight dining and what’s on their customers’ plates. So does it work? Well, inspired by the Fat Duck restaurant, and playing an assortment of musical combinations, the experiment revealed that cooks can dial certain ingredients down a notch while still ramping up flavour. Sounds like a gimmick to me!

Turning to companies closer to home, my straw pole had this to say about the state of my local food tourism industry:

“Beetroot and apple salad with snail caviar canapés flew off the plates when we prepared tasters at the Artisan Market weekend.”

“If you happen to hear a few whizzes & bangs, don’t be alarmed, we’re getting our nervous (Christmas) turkeys ready for Bonfire Night.”

“Local food? That has nothing to do with our offer” said a museum,

and this is my favourite; “We love to share inspirational stories about the people and places who produce the food we sell.”

A mixed bag of responses from quite different businesses but with one thing in common; they are selling directly to leisure consumers who will consume for different reasons – apart from hunger.

I was a guest recently at a food tasting event that was delivered in partnership by a local food deli and a lovely pub with more local history than you could shake a cocktail stick at – evident, but quietly understated. The event saw the launch of a new autumn tasting menu that was enjoyed with a thoughtful and carefully chosen affordable wine list that made for a memorable evening for which of number of things stood out for me; meeting two local food heroes – one was passionate about meat and the other wine and together they made beautiful food music by expanding my culinary repertoire and bringing new experiences to me in a delightful setting. I haven’t stopped talking about it.

Russell Arms Butlers Cross, Chilterns.
Russell Arms Butlers Cross, Chilterns.

Does it really matter if visitors eat ‘anywhere’ food? What are the economic impacts if visitors and locals bought their lunch from a food outlet stocking locally-sourced food vs a high street outlet stocking ingredients sourced from other countries? What benefits for the businesses and the visitor economy? That answer should be obvious, but not so, as I discovered whilst researching content for a food tourism workshop.

I recently ran a food tourism workshop for a destination looking at what their current offer is and what opportunities there are to make the offer more memorable and sustainable. Establishing a feel for a national picture was difficult; some pockets do stand out; Ludlow, Cornwall (too many websites to include a link), Kent, London and Scotland – who has been doing the food tourism thing for years and puts a worth of £17 billion against this sector. If I have missed out your food destination, please let me and the world know.

With the help of a medieval text, an Essex farmer has revived a tradition in what was once the heartland of production in Tudor times; saffron from Saffron Waldon is a wonderful example of place-making through food. Read the full story here.

And when it came to statistics for the volume and value of the UK offer; I might as well have been looking for cheese on the moon, so have no idea how this sector matches up to transport or accommodation; two key sectors well supplied by international companies with well established business models, expertise and resources. Perhaps therein lies the problem; where are the food producers? Why don’t we know about them or they us? One clue is that the majority of food producers are micro businesses (employing fewer than 10 people), who are typically located in hard-to-find premises making the very products that they also have to then market and sell.

Another clue is that the traditional grocery sector in the UK is undergoing fundamental change as consumers no longer flock to faceless out-of-town superstores, but instead are doing more (but not enough) shopping locally, perhaps two or three times a week and buying food from a variety of suppliers. Witness too, the rise and rise of the street food phenomena. The appetite is there, so  could this pattern be repeated in the visitor economy? Not quite so simple as there a number of  obstacles that need to be overcome first including;

A sustainable and reliable supply chain
B2b and b2c communication
Connections and harnessing the power of local networks
Brand building
Establishing volume and value
Knowledge
Product mix and of course that old chestnut, time!

Food tourism is bigger than just cafes and restaurants, it is also the relationship to local suppliers and producers and benefits the entire visitor economy. A holy grail for all destination marketeers and a rich  seam to be mined that will add so much depth and experiential offers to a destination that can go beyond simply dishing up an anywhere plate of food in an anywhere destination.  I have work to do!

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