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For The New Traveler It's The Chow As Much As The Show

by Alf Nucifora

As America has emerged from the culinary Dark Ages, the growing ranks of discriminating diners, gourmands and meat-and-potato types alike, are embarking on a quest for the succulent taste that has long been lost from the supermarket shelf and the memorable, yet affordable dining experience that has fallen victim to the chain restaurant. Erik Wolf, President and CEO of the International Culinary Tourism Association (http://www.culinarytourism.org), an enterprising visionary who has been quick to identify and promote the burgeoning, yet unheralded explosion in culinary tourism, addresses the shifts quietly taking place as America's appreciation of good food and dining becomes more pronounced.

NUCIFORA: A little bit about the organization. What is it?

WOLF: We're a trade association that's been in existence for almost 2 years. We have approximately 500 members in 19 countries…a wide cross-section of the food, beverage and travel industries. We are really catching on like wildfire with organizations like convention and visitor bureaus (CVB's) and destination marketing organizations (DMO's). They're the ones that are really embracing this concept because they understand the development potential.

NUCIFORA: Why the interest?

WOLF: Because culinary tourism is a new way to position a destination and create a competitive advantage.

NUCIFORA: Let me editorialize for a moment. With respect to my former home town Atlanta, I've said for some time now that I see culinary tourism as being a point of difference and a marketable feature of the city, now that the restaurant scene has become so dynamic and interesting…that it's part of the cultural heritage of the town and today's visitors want to "taste the town" above all else. Respond to that!

WOLF: I would agree. I think that the most interesting thing we're realizing these days is that food is an attraction, just like a museum or a roller coaster. And, it has a similar power to attract visitors to a destination.

NUCIFORA: Examples please?

WOLF: Las Vegas is now known throughout the world as a culinary destination and it's that reputation that has attracted world-famous chefs including Wolfgang Puck, Todd English, Michael Mina, Charley Palmer, Thomas Keller, Emeril Lagasse, Nobu Matsuhisa and Bradley Ogden.

NUCIFORA: What other cities are up-and-coming on the culinary map.

WOLF: You have destinations that actively market culinary tourism such as Oregon in the U.S., and destinations in Canada, Ottawa, Vancouver, Montreal, for example. Rhode Island is looking in to it…laying the foundation, as is Hawaii. And then you have the destinations that are doing it passively such as San Francisco, New Orleans, New York and Miami. They have great food but they don't focus on it as an attraction.

NUCIFORA: Why not… because people already know that?

WOLF: I think cities like that know they are a popular destination and they may not see the benefit in spending marketing dollars developing a niche they already own. But they need to. Take San Francisco for example. Its convention business nose-dived after 9/11 and they're still trying to get it back. They've actually stopped their culinary marketing, yet other cities are quickly surpassing San Francisco's culinary delights and rising to the top.

NUCIFORA: Talk to me about the consumer mind set. Are we seeing more interest in food and culinary tourism?

WOLF: The interest has surged dramatically in the past several years. That's documented in cable programming such as the Food Network. Even the Travel Channel has food shows such as Rachel Ray's "$40 a Day" which is an outstanding example of culinary tourism because it combines the food and travel experience. People are looking for a more experiential, hands-on, interactive tourism experience. They want to learn, experience, taste, touch, smell, feel…all of that. While there is still a group of people who like to visit churches and museums, that type of tourism is just not increasing at the same rate as is culinary tourism.

NUCIFORA: I also assume that there's better food out there…the product itself is better than it was 10 years ago?

WOLF: That's a very good point. Yes, the quality of the food is improving. You will notice a trend now to utilize locally-raised and grown products. There is a real pride and sense of place, e.g., Nieman Ranch meats or Oregon Painted Hills Beef. And the smaller producers are providing a higher quality product because they take an artisan's approach… better quality control, smaller manufacturing runs, etc.

NUCIFORA: What do you see for the future of culinary tourism?

WOLF: I see it coming out of the niche arena and being accepted as a mainstream special interest category, just like eco-tourism. We're still educating people about culinary tourism. While it is catching on like wildfire, there is still a learning curve because eating is something people take for granted. After all, we all eat three times a day. It's helping to educate people that this is a something new that needs to be developed. So, you'll see continuing culinary tourism development programs, marketing programs, product development, etc.

NUCIFORA: Let's go back for a moment…is there an essential demographic element driving this trend? Is this Boomer driven?

WOLF: The demographic that's driving this is very broad. I wouldn't say it's the Boomers and I wouldn't say it's just the high-end. One of the attributes or distinguishing elements of culinary tourism is that it's not pretentious or exclusive and you don't have to spend a lot of money to have a great meal. You're going to have people who eat to live, and people who live to eat. And, people who just don't care about food are going to end up in some non-descript dime-a-dozen restaurant. Even for people on lower incomes, if they're food people, they're going to go out and explore. A $1 pretzel from a cart in New York City is still culinary tourism.

NUCIFORA: What motivated you to get involved?

WOLF: I moved to Oregon in 2001. Did some soul searching as far as the direction in which I wanted to take my career. And it all came down to food and travel. I had spent 20 years in the travel business. I came up with the concept of "culinary tourism". I realized that the tourism industry really had an opportunity to use this as a business and financial tool. But, at the same time, what really validated the potential for me was the quality of the product in Oregon. It's just amazing. I grew up in Nebraska where fresh produce, apart from corn, was a rarity. You can go to the regular grocery store here in Oregon and get beautiful produce all the time. The wines are great. The beers are great. People here take it for granted because they're used to it. But if you grew up in Nebraska, for instance, and you couldn't get fresh tomatoes in the winter time, food like this is a real treat. And people here simply take it for granted. There are tens of thousands of people around the country, or even around the world, who would like to come here to try the food because they're not getting it this good at home.

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