When people travel, usually uppermost in their minds is what they plan to see — landmark buildings, famous attractions, perhaps well-known works of art. Food is, for many, a secondary consideration of travel. They may want to eat well, but it is not always the main focus of a trip.
That is, unless they fall into a rapidly growing category called food travel. Food travel is the concept that says no matter where you go, you need to eat and drink. So why not enjoy a unique, local food experience and make a memory of it?
That philosophy is why Erik Wolf founded the World Food Travel Association, a Portland-based organization that he leads as Executive Director.
“There are people who travel to go to museums, there are people who travel for shopping, and there are people who travel to New York and London for theater,” Wolf says. “Well, I’m one of those people that travels for food. I end up in grocery stores. I end up in restaurants. I end up on food tours. I end up in food factories.”
The Post-it Note® brainstorm that blended two passions
Wolf already knew himself to be a “foodie.” Once, after a 15-hour flight to Singapore, rather than immediately collapse on his hotel bed, he noticed a large grocery store across the street and made a beeline for it.
“Jet lag didn’t matter. I was like a kid in a new amusement park. I was going around and seeing the different brands for sale, the different fruits on offer, all the unusual beverages. It was fascinating.”
At that point, however, it wasn’t necessarily a way to make a living. Wolf was working in the tech world in San Francisco. Then in 2001, he “smelled a layoff” and decided to uproot his life and start anew. He moved to Portland, Oregon, found an apartment, and put giant Post-It Notes on the walls to write down his passions and brainstorm a new career.
“What do I like doing? Where do I have connections? What am I good at? And it always came back to food and travel.”
Wolf decided to create a non-profit organization that blended his two passions.
“I wrote a white paper about Culinary Tourism to prove the value to our emerging industry and its potential economic impact. It was a popular paper that was sent around the world more times than I can remember.”
Within two years, he had formed a non-profit association: the International Culinary Tourism Association, which was re-branded as the World Food Travel Association (WFTA) in 2012. Since its inception as an education and trade resource, WFTA has grown to become the world’s leading authority on culinary tourism. It has published culinary travel guides, research on food and beverage tourism, produced dozens of events and conducted seminars to help food-related businesses get the word out to travelers.
A different form of sightseeing
So what exactly is food travel? It is about helping travelers learn about and explore a local area’s food and beverage culture. That does not necessarily mean meals costing hundreds of dollars per person in a fancy restaurant. According to the WFTA, that kind of customer represents less than ten percent of the overall dining market. And since roughly 25 percent of any travel budget is spent on food, Wolf saw promoting local food and drink as a way to boost local economies and enhance the travelers’ experience.
It was an area of tourism promotion that was still ripe for development. The traditional focus of most tourism offices was on lodging and attractions. At best, there might be a small brochure naming a few restaurants, with no way of telling if those places had paid for the privilege of being listed. Chain restaurants were plentiful.
“When we talk to tourism offices now, often we have to reeducate them. Because they think: ‘Oh, we want the gourmet traveler’ or ‘We should be promoting our 150 cuisines!’ ”
Instead, Wolf says the best thing tourism offices can do is ‘plant the seed’ for good local dining, whether it’s the food cart/street vendor scene, or an area’s famous Key Lime pie. At first, it was an uphill battle. Then the recession of 2007 hit. Tourist offices closed, or their budgets were severely slashed. To cope, they began to look for different things to promote. The WFTA was already poised to help them discover how to package and promote local food cultures to travelers.
Not that all travelers are willing to go outside their comfort zone.
“You will not convince all people to try local food. Some people do all-inclusive packages and that’s fine for them. But then, there’s a level of consumer that does care about where things come from—how food is made and where it’s sourced.”
FoodWorx and the impact of food
Those people are the target markets for the food and beverage tourism industry. The numbers are growing each year. The WFTA expanded its services with lectures and a one-day conference called FoodWorx that explores all issues food-related.
“There are all these food and drink events. Most are great but there’s more to discuss than just sitting there and eating fancy foods and drinking expensive wines. We want to know, what did it take to get that to you? Who was involved in the production of that food? How much fuel was spent to get it to you? And help consumers realize how food impacts their everyday lives.”
FoodWorx 2016 is the fourth annual conference and is expected to attract about 450 people to hear nine speakers and two panels discuss a variety of food issues.
“We take food and combine it with another industry. Whether it’s food and industry, food and tourism, food and technology, food and music, food and health. And then we find an expert to talk about that. Local food and drink samples pepper the day’s talks.”
“It runs the gamut. You get concerned citizens, teachers, retirees, students, journalists and everyday people. You get foodies, restaurant owners, winery people. Plus, a lot of food and drink manufacturers, who come to learn about new industry trends. People travel from all over the world to attend.”
This year’s FoodWorx will be held Saturday, February 20 2016 at the Smith Memorial Union at Portland State University. Live streaming will be available for delegates who cannot attend in person. The forum has become so popular that other cities including Barcelona and Bilbao in Spain want to host their own local FoodWorx, as does Jakarta, Indonesia.
More impact, more innovation
When Wolf founded WTFA, the local food movement was truly in its infancy. Oddly enough, the tragedy of 9-11 had a big impact on people’s interest in food.
“It made people go back in and think about what’s comfortable—family and food. And the local food movement just mushroomed tremendously after 9-11. While he acknowledges that the WFTA can’t take the credit for the local food movement, he does believe that the WFTA was the early trendsetter in promoting food as attraction.”
Wolf says many people talk about the profound impact that the WFTA has had on the world’s tourism industry. “It’s fulfilling to know that we were there at the table, ushering in professionals, helping them to see the potential of promoting food and drink as attractions. And now, as our organization is 14 years old, we have to continue to reinvent ourselves, not rest on our laurels, (and) make sure we’re continuing to innovate, make sure that we’re bringing new and relevant products to market.”
Where does Wolf want this all to lead?
But in all seriousness, Wolf sees almost unlimited potential for Food Travel. The WFTA has a new annual publication coming out in 2016, titled: Food Trekking in Cascadia. It focuses on the food and drink culture of our Cascadian region. While he may have started out thinking of the overseas traveler’s food experience, Wolf is adamant you don’t have to be a world traveler to be a food tourist. For some, it may mean just heading across town to a new neighborhood to try a new café or pub or wine bar.
Wolf is a firm believer that good food is everywhere—if you know where to look. His life’s mission is to show you where.
Many thanks to KC Cowan for her help and support on this piece