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Mon 1 Jan 2007 12:00 AM

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Food for thought…?

Segmentation of the holiday product to suit niche tastes is well developed in markets such as the US and Europe, and one area pitched as a potential winner is gourmet travel. Kathi Everden looks at opportunities to book and cook

While the well-heeled traveller might opt for back-to-nature luxury in terms of accommodation, compromises are rarely made when it comes to life’s basic commodity, food.

Gourmet cuisine is a natural complement to the upmarket resort and, increasingly, both food and wine play an important role in the marketing and sale of top-notch travel.

Whether it’s specific culinary festivals, celebrity chef guest attractions, wine tastings, cookery classes or market visits, cuisine is now motivating timings of holidays, choice of destination, and actual bookings.

It’s a trend that has been underpinned by niche operators worldwide, but one that has raised barely a ripple in the Middle East where the relative immaturity of the market means most wholesale and agent packages are aimed firmly at mainstream demands.

However, the launch of new wholesaler products by companies such as Tempo, and specialist packages from airlines like Alitalia, are slowly starting to offer opportunities to provide a focus for incipient demand from potential gourmet travellers.

Australian carrier Qantas, for instance, is currently running a Qantas Holidays Gourmet Touring Campaign that highlights the possibilities of combining gourmet food and wine with a driving holiday experience.

And destinations from Singapore to South Africa are using food as a pull to market themselves – again providing the travel trade with more ammunition in their arsenal of much-needed sales weapons.

The former was in fact a pioneer in the gourmet market, premiering the Singapore Food Festival in 1994 as an initiative by the tourist board to establish an ‘event’ to capitalise on the island’s fame for street dining.

Thirteen years on, the FutureBrand global survey of travellers and hospitality professionals ranks Singapore second worldwide for nightlife/dining (gastronomically-focused Italy came top).

According to the company’s Dominic Mason, Singapore’s effort to promote and define its destination has paid dividends, demonstrated by its impressive rankings in the 2006 survey.

“Branding is a tremendous opportunity for both developed and developing countries to build preference and loyalty, and Singapore continues to reinforce its brand image and deliver on its brand promise,” he says.

In the Middle East, area director for the Singapore Tourist Board, Peh Ke-Wei is equally confident of the appeal of food, running a local two-week Singapore Food Festival with Shangri-La in Dubai last May as a platform to promote the destination.

“To achieve Tourism 2015 targets of 17 million visitors a year, STB has been bolstering Singapore’s position as a vibrant lifestyle destination and a food paradise with a uniquely diverse and distinct food culture,” he says.

“Alongside world-class dining events such as the exclusive World Gourmet Summit in April and the summer Singapore Food Festival, the city boasts an extensive range of dining experiences all-year-round, from indulgent gourmet meals to affordable hawker fare … dining will continue to be a key tourist magnet.”

The food festival itself, now co-organised with Reed Exhibitions and taking place throughout July, comprises around 50 events ranging from cooking workshops, food tours and food-related record-breaking feats, to unique dining experiences, and also acting as a platform for local restaurants, products and culinary personalities.

In addition, Ke-Wei says there are a growing number of culinary tours making their way to Singapore, such as ‘The Globetrotting Gourmets’, while more culinary schools have opened their doors – including Palate Sensations and Bentfork.

It’s a trend that is spreading across Asia and farther afield. Malaysia, for instance, recently hosted a conference on the influence of culture and local gastronomy on the development of global tourism to coincide with the fifth annual Malaysian International Gourmet Festival.

Delegates heard that the UN World Tourism Organisation has ranked culinary tourism as one of the fastest growing segments in the global tourism industry, averaging an annual growth rate of five per cent – a view echoed by the International Culinary Tourism Association which stated that culinary tourism was the ‘hottest niche to emerge in the travel industry in recent years – similar to the growth of ecotourism a decade ago’.

Certainly, more and more festivals are on the global event calendar, from summer oyster festivals at English ports such as Falmouth and Whitstable or South Africa’s Cape Gourmet in May with its hands-on workshops, wine tastings and celebrity chef dinners, to Bangkok’s Chinatown Food Festival in September and Australia’s plethora of gourmet showcases – in Melbourne in March and September, in Adelaide in October and in Perth in March.

Bangkok is also the location of the US $25,000-a-head Epicurean Masters of the World dinner next month with three Michelin star chefs in the kitchen at The Dome and a 30-minute firework show among the attractions.

But, while Asia is sizzling with gastronomic potential – Vietnam is tipped for as a hot spot, with hotels such as the Sofitel Metropole in Hanoi and the Ana Mandara in Nha Trang featuring cookery classes and market tours as prime attractions – there are other established specialities that have confirmed appeal.

Chocolate, for instance, opens up numerous possibilities – from the Chocolate World at Hershey’s in Pennsylvania, with hotel and spa (attractions include lip-smacking spa treatments) to four-day chocolate cooking courses with Valrhona or a chocolate sculpture festival in France; tours of Cadbury World in the UK; a Swiss train tour, also chocolate related, or the original Sachertorte or chocolate scrubs, masks and lotions in the new spa at the Hotel Sacher in Vienna.

Five star dining

Premium hotels catering to demanding guests are often at the forefront of gourmet travel developments, adding in culinary attractions to complement other six-star essentials such as spa and exemplary service.

Food figures heavily in the Luxury Escapes in France, Italy, the UK and Ireland marketed by Small Luxury Hotels, for instance, and the group flags up its properties with Michelin star restaurants, while Rocco Forte Hotels has inaugurated specific packages aimed at foodies at its properties in Beaujolais and Florence.

These range from one-day cookery classes to a three-day programme staying at the Chateau de Bagnols near Lyon, including a visit to the indoor market, wine tasting and cookery classes.

Asia-based Six Senses offers a range of food-related activities at its resorts, according to group executive chef, Remon Alphenaar, who says that events where food is paired with wine are particularly popular.

“Most resorts offer tastings, market trips and cookery classes and we have the option of private classes or wine tastings with a sommelier. We always include matching and non-matching snacks with the wine so there is a talking point on how to combine (or not combine) wines with food,” he explains.

Interestingly, Alphenaar says that while interest in food was universal, the trend to experiment and learn while on holiday showed great variations between nationalities.

“Cuisine is a hot topic in Europe, where every TV channel has a cookery programme,” he says. “But, Mediterranean nationals have a high general knowledge of food and would rather relax during their holidays than sign up to visit a market at four in the morning.

“Those from Northern Europe – where food has never really played a huge role in daily life – are the perfect group of people who are interested in learning something new,” he adds.

He also stresses that Asian travellers who are accustomed to food playing a central role in daily life are also disinterested in culinary activities on holiday. It is mainly the young Japanese who are interested to sign up for cooking classes and learn traditional cuisines that are worth targeting.

Alphenaar points out that food related activities can be used as a sales tool, differentiating those resorts that focus on cuisine from others that are more facility oriented.

“Each Six Senses resort has its own wine cellar, vegetable garden, speciality restaurants and often chefs with Michelin star experience,” he says.

“It is relatively easy with a lot of money to build a nice resort, but it is more complicated to get the food and beverage sorted out and this makes a huge difference for guests.”

Pushing out the boat

Another sector where cuisine is increasingly featuring as a key selling point is cruise, with many of the top lines securing the services of ‘named’ chefs to headline their gastronomic offerings.

Regent Seven Seas has led the way with the only ‘floating’ restaurant operated by the renowned French cooking school Le Cordon Bleu, while workshops are also run on a regular basis to offer passengers hands-on experience of the fine art of cuisine, shopping, chopping and all, and chefs such as Ken Hom and Albert Roux are frequents guests, holding culinary demonstrations and hosting cocktail parties.

Onboard cellars with more than 3000 estate-bottled wines are a feature on SeaDream’s two ships while Silversea has Relais & Chateaux restaurants with 30 signature dishes created especially for the company.

For passengers sailing with the Yachts of Seabourn, award-winning chef Charlie Palmer has created more than 200 signature dishes, while Crystal hosts annual wine and food festivals; Celebrity can claim culinary notable, Michel Roux, as its consultant, and Cunard is to add a Todd English restaurant to its new Queen Victoria ship following the success of the first outlet from the acclaimed restaurateur aboard the QM2.

And, P&O is doubling up on its celebrity status with a new Gary Rhodes restaurant added to the Oriana during its current refurbishment, following his debut venture at sea on the Arcadia.

Closer to home, Rhodes is also making his Middle East foray by opening a new restaurant at the Grosvenor House hotel on Dubai Marina.

It’s part of a trend to upgrade the culinary offering in the region by bringing in ‘names’ with a reputation that conveys instant recognition and affirmation of quality to the gourmet diner.

Jumeirah has dipped in to the waters with a food festival last year that saw a dozen celebrity chefs cook up a storm in Dubai for a week, including a headline-grabbing gastro evening with a star-studded cocktail party, helicopter transfers, and a dine around Burj Al Arab, Jumeirah Beach and Madinat – and now offers gourmet Catch’n’Cook fishing experience.

Hyatt too has used the pull of celebrity chefs by hosting its Grand Gourmet Summit in November, initially launched to fill a void in the Middle East event calendar where no dedicated food festival existed.

Master classes, gourmet dinners and chefs from Australia, Italy, India, France, Canada, Switzerland and Japan have contributed to the event’s recognition as the regional affiliate of the World Gourmet Club, raising hopes that food fans might include the Gulf in their travel plans in the future.

Meanwhile, outbound travellers too have a new menu to peruse, following the decision by Australian wholesaler, Tempo Holidays, to appoint Gulf Reps to market its brand of products to the travel trade through the region.

Key account director, John Flower, is a former Tempo man, and says there is absolutely nothing like the product range it offers in the market here, creating a big opportunity for the trade.

“When Tempo set up it catered to independent travellers who did not want off-the-shelf packages, offering tailor-made itineraries for every client,” he explains. “There is a similar environment here in the Middle East, but now we have the advantage of the web site and online booking.”

The company is known for its culinary connections, featuring food on each of its country brochures, while each of these contains food related tours and courses.

“There is some conscious branding with ‘Taste of …’ tours, but we also offer cookery courses in Italy and France, Champagne tours, wine routes, gourmet travel, a truffle itinerary, pub tours in Ireland and castles in Scotland,” says Flower.

“We follow a geographical approach since most people chose their destination first and then want options that might include spas, a cruise or a culinary tour – this way, the agent can present a choice and there are a selection of add-ons for them to sell.”

Flower acknowledges that few people in the region will go to a travel agent and specifically ask for a gourmet tour, but might be tempted if they see what’s on offer: “In the Gulf, I think there will be a natural progression to niche products, following the trend in other markets.”

And, aiming to be a trailblazer where niche specialist products are concerned, Flower says Gulf Reps will soon start training on the Tempo product range, initiating programmes that could result in several Tempo specialists springing up around the region.

The sales pitch

Top selling tips:

• Research the market: log in to
www.worldgourmetclub.com

for information on top gourmet events around the world, or try
www.worldeventsguide.com

for general information on festivals and food-related shows.

• Keep updated on airline promotions - they are often key sponsors of food festivals and offer special packages.

• Luxury hotels and good food go hand in hand - keep updated on the culinary promotions at top-end properties.

• Gastronomic experiences at sea are another plus point for cruise sales - daily fine dining offsets the relatively high price of premium cruise itineraries and standards are supremely high and consistent.

• Tie up with local operators to pre-sell gourmet tours - DMCs in destinations such as South Africa and Australia are savvy on inbound opportunities and provide information on niche products that is hard to access from the Gulf.

"Cuisine is a hot topic in Europe, where every TV channel has a cookery programme."
"In the Gulf, there will be a natural progression to niche products, following the trend in other markets."

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