Based in Lyon, France, Delice is a global network of 22 “Good Food Cities” collaboratively focused on best practices for gastronomy, including leveraging food tourism for economic development and destination branding.
“Not every city has a food strategy,” stated the organization in a 2014 report. “They should.”
What goes for tourism often goes for the meetings industry, where F&B has risen from an afterthought to the frontline. Here, too, is some lag in culinary marketing.
“Many destinations have overlooked the potential for leveraging food and beverage as a way to woo convention business,” said Erik Wolf, founder and executive director of the Portland, Ore.-based World Food Travel Association and a leading authority on food tourism.
Whether making a strong first impression, providing authentic connections to local culture, or boosting health, concentration and productivity, gastronomy is the proverbial way to the delegate’s heart—especially in the increasingly important area of experience creation. As Wolfgang Puck told Meetings Today two years ago, the key to ultimate success for F&B-driven events is creating an irresistible experience that generates repeat business.
Case in point—the culinary scene in Las Vegas, which Puck transformed in 1991 by daringly throwing his toque in the ring and igniting a celebrity chef revolution.
Other success stories include the Toronto-based Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, which connects Ontario’s agricultural, tourism and hospitality industries in one economic development value chain. Additionally, according to Wolf, the convention centers in Ontario, Calif., Ottawa and Vancouver “mean business with food and drink” via inclusion of their executive chefs and culinary teams in the bidding process for group business.
Meanwhile, having established culinary tourism as “a cornerstone of its marketing efforts” over a decade ago, Providence, R.I., offers a case study in group gains from culinary marketing (see sidebar, page 28).
Awareness is building in other destinations around adding the menu to the marketing mix. With its culinary stars rising, here are five North American destinations offering planners serious food for thought.
After its extraordinary eco-transformation into one of the world’s greenest urban centers, “Steel City” has added culinary champion to its credentials. In 2015, Zagat named Pittsburgh the nation’s top Food City, citing “an abundance of more refined food glories” and proclaiming that “this town is poised for even more exciting things in 2016.”
Meeting planners are taking notice.
“The Zagat rating, as well as continuing coverage of our culinary scene by other major outlets, have raised national and international awareness of what we already know— you will eat very well when visiting Pittsburgh,” said Karl Pietrzak, vice president of sales for Visit Pittsburgh. “Most planners ask about the Zagat recognition and whether we are hosting FAM tours, press tours or individual planners. Everyone is interested in our food scene.”
With Pittsburgh’s affordability encouraging talented chefs and restaurateurs to launch establishments, notable options include Church Brew Works, housed in a restored Roman Catholic church, and seafood icon Grand Concourse, located in the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad Station, a national landmark.
The city is home to several other dining standouts. Lidia’s Pittsburgh, from star chef Lidia Bastianich, is a David Rockwell-designed Strip District haunt. Two-time James Beard semifinalist for Outstanding Bar Program, The Butcher and the Rye is a two-story Cultural District treat offering an extensive whiskey and cocktail program along with rustic American fare. Sustainability-focused Dinette is an award-winning choice in the East End.
Doubling as event space, Smallman Galley is a 200-seat incubator for chefs, featuring two bars and evolving restaurant concepts. Notable newcomers include Station and Monterey Bay, and Primanti Brothers sandwiches are an enduring Pittsburgh must. Meanwhile, Burg Bits and Bites tours offer a locally-infused foodie experience.
In April 2016, Town & Country named Montreal the “New Food Capital of North America.” One of Delice’s three North American “Good Food Cities” (along with Chicago and Puebla, Mexico), Montreal had 23 restaurants on the 2016 “Canada’s 100 Best Restaurants” list. Montreal took three of the top five spots, led by top-ranked Toque! (directly across from the Montreal Convention Centre) plus world-renowned Joe Beef and Le Vin Papillon at fourth and fifth, respectively.
Boasting myriad international and regional cuisine at 5,000-plus restaurants—the most per capita in North America—plus major culinary events, open-air markets, gourmet stores, food trucks and more, Montreal is a culinary beacon to leisure and business travelers alike.
“Simply put, our vast, diverse and dynamic food scene adds a layer to the meetings experience that both planners and attendees look forward to when holding their events in Montreal,” said Yves Lalumiere, president and CEO of Tourisme Montreal.
To help attract business, the bureau’s sales department created Tastes of Montreal, a recipe book in collaboration with 42 top Montreal chefs. Designed for “the most discerning planning professional,” this “tailor-made catalog of our culinary landscape” includes information on group accommodations at each restaurant. As the book says, “Think of it as your very own gourmet Montreal guide, from us to you.”
Along with recognition for its Food Truck Festival and ice cream, 2016 culinary accolades for Ohio’s capital city include its emerging coffee and distillery scenes. Capitalizing on this popularity, Experience Columbus created Cocktails and Coffee, a 24-hour FAM that includes afternoon cocktails and morning coffee tied to a themed event, including fashion in October and food in November.
With Middle West Spirits and Watershed Distillery attracting national attention for its award-winning libations, the 13-member Columbus Coffee Trail, launched in 2014, is an effective visitor draw.
“We encourage attendees to explore and get a taste of the city,” said Lexi Sweet, public relations coordinator for Experience Columbus. “Nearly half of the Coffee Trail redemptions—visit four members and get a Columbus Coffee T-shirt—come from visitors.”
Housed in a restored 19th century brick warehouse, North Market, steps from the Greater Columbus Convention Center, is another appetizing attendance-builder. Filled with local food vendors, the venue hosted the closing celebration for the 17th annual American Association of School Librarians (AASL) National Conference & Exhibition last year.
“The organizers called it their best closing event anywhere,” Sweet said.
At the Hilton Columbus Downtown, connected by skywalk to the convention center and featuring Gallerie Bar & Bistro, Chef Bill Glover champions local sourcing—including honey from his rooftop bees. Glover also represented Columbus at a James Beard dinner in New York last year.
Greater Columbus CVB
The “Gateway City,” where the ice cream cone, iced tea and hot dog were introduced at the 1904 World’s Fair, has an interesting challenge. While globally renowned for its barbecue and historic Anheuser-Busch, St. Louis, true to its Midwest character, shies away from boasting about its culinary bonanza. With local icons including Pi Pizzeria’s deep dish and thin cornmeal crust pizza and Gooey Butter Cake, an accidental creation from the 1930s, the magic is in the discovery.
“Planners seek destinations offering attractive off-agenda options, including F&B, which is often not included in the program,” said John Bettag, vice president of sales for the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission. “With developments like MX, the mixed-use, high-amenity downtown district that includes diverse dining concepts, we have advanced our ability to highlight our culinary offerings and create positive stories that get sold up the food chain to the decision-makers.”
With Pi and local treasure Snarf’s Sandwiches among the venues in MX, abundant options beckon in all directions. From high-quality sushi to authentic Peruvian, St. Louis first surprises then delights the palate. Knowledgeable delegates make a beeline for the Memphis-style St. Louis barbecue at top-rated Pappy’s Smokehouse.
Barbecue also speaks for St. Louis abroad.
In 2015, award-winning Sugarfire Smoke House was invited by Kevin O’Malley, U.S. ambassador to Ireland and St. Louis native, to join a trade mission to Dublin. With Kitty Ratcliffe, president of the St. Louis Convention and Visitors Commission, among the delegates, Sugarfire’s fare, plus Anheuser-Busch beverages, were a hit. One of only two non-Australian competitors, Sugarfire placed 12th out of 47 in the A&E Sydney Barbecue Wars this February.
St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission
The food accolades keep coming for Virginia’s capital city. Crowned “The Next Great American Food City” by Departures in 2014, Richmond has now made National Geographic Traveler’s elite “Where to Travel for Food in 2016” list. Plus, an unprecedented three James Beard semifinalists for “Best Chef: Mid-Atlantic in 2015 (Lee Gregory, The Roosevelt; Dale Reitzer, Acacia Mid-Town; Peter Chang, Peter Chang China Cafe), and another this year for David Shannon, whose L’Opossum is giddy culinary theater.
Richmond Region Tourism reports that attendees of last year’s International Particle Accelerator Conference, representing 40-plus countries, said Richmond’s dining scene “reminded them of, if not surpassed, European culinary experiences.”
The culinary prowess of “River City” was influential in securing the Food Protection Conference for 2018.
“The explosion of craft brewers combined with a burgeoning food scene that is winning national acclaim in Richmond and throughout Virginia is driving interest in holding meetings and events here,” said Eric Terry, president of the Virginia Restaurant, Lodging & Travel Association, who actively supported the bid process. “Meeting planners and attendees want to stay where they can get local flavor.”
Star chef Jason Alley of rave-reviewed Pasture and Comfort restaurants partners with Richmond Region Tourism on client dinners and guest engagements. His signature pimento cheese has proven so popular on site visits that the bureau’s sales team handed out measuring spoons and the recipe as tradeshow booth giveaways last year.
Meanwhile, each November, the four-day Fire, Flour & Fork food festival is its own marketing engine, attracting hungry crowds from as far away as California and Canada.
Richmond Region Tourism