Food Tour Operators’ 5 Most Important Strategies For Success

Grow My Business, Industry Data and Trends, Managing My Business

Foodie activities—including tours, tastings, cooking classes, and more—are the fastest-growing experiences category based on traveler spend, which increased a whopping 61% from 2016 to 2017. The trend has since continued and shows no signs of slowing down for years to come.

1. History & Culture | 2. Rockstar Tour Guides | 3. Support Family-Owned | 4. Be Unique | 5. Locals Matter

Recent Tripdvisor research has revealed that food-related experiences are dominating traveler booking growth. According to our site data, food tours are the fastest-growing experiences category based on traveler spend, which increased a whopping 61% from 2016 to 2017, a trend which looks set to continue well into the future. As travelers continue to seek fun, unique things to do when visiting a new place (or their own backyard), it’s clear that just seeing isn’t enough—they want to taste! As a food tour operator, or a supplier of any food-related experience, you have a golden opportunity in front of you. But with increased traveler demand comes increased competition. So, how do you rise above the field and truly stand out? How do you ensure that yours is the best dang food experience out there?

We solicited feedback from some of the top food tour operators—highly reviewed suppliers who list their products right on our site. We also asked leading industry experts to chime in, too, like the Culinary Tourism Alliance and the Global Food Tourism Association.

What’s emerged is the ultimate list of tips to leave your customers raving and your business soaring. And no, folks, we’re not simply talking about better tasting food (though please do not ignore this factor!). Today’s travelers are expecting so much more out of their food tour experience than just the food itself. Follow the below five best practices—commandments, so to speak—and reap the rewards in the form of amazing reviews, repeat customers, and ultimately more bookings and more sales.

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1. Food tours aren’t only about the food, but also how it’s linked to local history and culture.

Let’s get the obvious out of the way: the food you serve needs to taste good! That means choosing the right restaurants or markets, and the right dishes. But what if we told you it’s not the food itself that will make or break your customer’s experience, but the information you share about the food? It’s what your guests hear during the tour, along with what they taste. Who knew!

Popular Paris tour operator Meeting The French knows this well, saying: “Our tours are unique because they’re not just about food. While enjoying the tastings is a key part of our tours, our guides also make the effort to stress the importance of each item tasted and how it ties into the history and culture of our country.” You don’t need to take travelers to the fanciest places. Instead, consider historical spots with authentic dishes. What’s the oldest restaurant in your city? Which specific dish—years and years ago—helped shaped the cuisine your city is now known for? Is there a particular ingredient, sauce, spice, or style your area is famous for? Tantalize your customer’s minds and their taste buds.

One of our top food tour suppliers, Devour Tours, has seen this first-hand. “We have a Food and History Tour in several cities and these are our best sellers,” says Devour Tours CEO Lauren Aloise. “We started these inspired by the historic bars and taverns in Madrid’s gorgeous old-town, and the Tapas, Taverns and History Tour is still one of our guests’ favorites.”

Aloise continues: “It’s essential that at the core, you’re working to make your city better with every tour that you give. We make the effort to peel back a layer of whatever’s accepted as ‘typical’ in a certain city and really go to its roots. If there’s a traditional dish that’s fading away, or a story behind a food that people are forgetting, we want to order that dish and tell that story. Delicious food is a must—you can’t skimp there—but it’s not enough for a place just to offer yummy food. We look for the family-run bars and mom-and-pop restaurants that make up the essence of a city. We’re committed to showing off the uniqueness and soul of each city that we operate in, and that uniqueness is due to these kinds of bars and restaurants.”

It’s no surprise that, like Devour Tours, Vancouver Foodie Inc.’s most popular tour also revolves around history. “Our Gastronomic Gastown Tour is our most popular product,” says a spokesperson from Vancouver Foodie Inc. “Gastown is well known as Vancouver’s most historic neighborhood and the #1 restaurant district. It’s a condensed area of alleyways, cocktail bars, and hidden gems… perfect for a walking tour!”

Picking a historic neighborhood is a great start, but make sure your tour guides are prepared to talk about it, too. Vancouver Foodie Inc. does a lot of research and training on city history, culture, and architecture to ensure that their guides can speak to each of those topics. As they say, “Guests really enjoy getting a full city tour with a full meal.”

Another great example comes from Avital Food Tours, serving San Francisco, New York City, and Los Angeles. They utilize neighborhood history and storytelling to create a memorable experience. “We take our customers on a journey through what we call a 4-course progressive meal…” says a rep from Avital. “With each course served at a different restaurant, all while hearing quirky and revealing stories about the neighborhood from our guides—and even from some of the restaurant owners and managers themselves! Our guests see the value in both eating great food and really exploring a neighborhood, which goes beyond what many food tours do.”

What The Industry Says

“It’s all about marrying food and drink experiences with whatever place you’re in. Food is a way to make everything—architecture, history, sports, whatever—better. Unlike other tourism experiences, it uses all five senses, which means the experience is more likely to create a long-lasting memory. You want to make sure you’re telling stories through the experiences, not just eating.”

— Agatha Podgorski, Culinary Tourism Alliance

“Food tour operators are actually curating four tours in one: history, culture, architecture, and food. The food sells the experience upfront, and customers will have high expectations for the variety, quality, and quantity of food. The massive opportunity therefore is hidden in customers’ low expectations regarding anything else. It’s important to wow clients with a deep commitment to explaining what makes your community unique when viewed from historical, architectural, and cultural perspectives—and provide exceptional commentary in these areas.”

— Shane Kost, Executive Director of the Global Food Tourism Association and CEO of Chicago Food Planet

2. Your guides are the true rockstars. Pick them right, and don’t slack on training.

It’s impossible to overstate how important the right tour guide is. When was the last time you evaluated yours? You want to choose local experts, of course, but seek those who share an equal passion for the cuisine and the location. As food tour company Destination Kitchen suggests: “Attitude is more important than aptitude.” A guide’s enthusiasm sets the tone for the whole tour, and guests should be able to hear their excitement. Destination Kitchen continues: “When we select our team, we ensure they love what they do, understand that they will be providing high level of customer service, excellent quality experience (even if something arises that is out of their control), understand safety first, and deliver some fun!”

Once you’ve found rockstar tour guides, remember that your success does not solely rely on them. It’s a partnership, and how you nurture that relationship can make or break your business. Devour Tours is a perfect example of this. In many companies, there is a clear division and hierarchy between guides and staff. Not at Devour Tours. “We know that our guides are the heart of the company, and every day we strive to build a culture of inclusion that applies to every member of our team,” says Devour Tours CEO Lauren Aloise. “We love celebrating our guides, and the annual dinners we put on across our cities are just one way to do so. Our guides are consistently the number one thing that our guests rave about. They can change an experience from great to magical.”

As Aloise states, guides are often raved about—and even mentioned directly in TripAdvisor reviews. This is extremely powerful for attracting new bookers or travelers who are researching which tours to take in your destination. Our friends at Withlocals have benefited greatly from this. Here’s a review from one of their Rome tours: “Yanira is absolutely one the of best food tour hosts that I have experienced. She included unique and historical facts about not only the food, but about Rome itself, as we walked between stops. She is a delightful young lady who made sure that we had a great experience. Her selection of stops was stellar… and of course every tasting was a gastronomical delight! She rates among the best of the best of the food tour hosts that I have experienced in my past 15 years of travel. Don’t miss her tour if you are in Rome!”

The aforementioned Avital Food Tours seeks to create a more personal connection between guides and customers. In their words: “Our guides are quirky and personable, and many guests say that they feel like they have a new local best friend after a tour.” That’s the type of lasting impressions all operators should strive for—and it starts with your tour guides.

What The Industry Says

“Your tour guides are your biggest asset. If they don’t understand your messaging or share your passion, neither of those are being conveyed to your guest. It’s important to do regular staff training, team building exercises, and pass down any new discoveries. That way, you can be sure your guests are getting the information.”

— Agatha Podgorski, Culinary Tourism Alliance

“Tour guides ARE the business. They are the front lines with direct access to customers. Many food tour operators are owner-operator brands, meaning they generally are the first and only tour guide out of the gates to save on costs while reinvesting in the company for growth. In order to move from owner-operator to a more profitable and scalable model, owners need to learn how to recruit, train, and develop tour guides. If you’ve never hired your own team before, we recommend attending recruiting workshops, or leveraging an advisor to help develop your hiring skills and platform. Remember, you don’t know what you don’t know.”

— Shane Kost, Executive Director of the Global Food Tourism Association and CEO of Chicago Food Planet

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3. Support local, family-owned restaurants. Showcase dishes with a local story. Don’t just talk about the food, talk about the farmers that supply it.

There’s a case to be made about taking your customers to the “hottest” spot in your city—the restaurant that gets all the hype, and might be renowned beyond just your state or region, for example. But it’s important not to neglect the mom-and-pop establishments. While the world-famous chef’s restaurant might get the headlines, travelers care equally about the smaller, family-owned eateries that shape the culture of your city.

Raphael Tours runs food tours across European locations like Paris, Rome, Florence, and more. Raphael Tours understands the value of local eateries—even beyond just the traveler’s experience. “We truly care about dealing with small local restaurants and eateries, often first-hand producers,” says a spokesperson from Raphael Tours. “Giving them the opportunity to make money preserves local jobs, increases the supply of rare organic products, and makes our tours unique.”

They continue: “We like little and local producers, giving them the opportunity to be known so they can help farmers to enhance their niche economy. In a global world every day becoming more standardized, people want more of an authentic, local experience. Clients love us based mostly on word-of-mouth, because we use only selected local guides and try to make the menus as genuine as possible… offering products that you cannot find in mass-appeal restaurants.”

You might be asking: But how can I leave this place off the itinerary? And to that, we say, find the right balance. Whether it’s a single tour that stops at both the “most popular” and “hidden gem” restaurants—or perhaps one tour is specifically for those big names while another is focused on more off-the-beaten-path restaurants.

Regardless of how you create the experiences, one thing remains: You should talk about the story behind the individual dishes—or for some places, the restaurant itself and its owners (if it has a story worth being told). How long has the establishment been in your city? How and when did it get its start? Is one particular dish a family recipe passed down generations? Do the owners get their ingredients from a local farm or butcher—if so, who? Is this a seasonal dish because certain ingredients are only available during specific times of the year? These are the fascinating tidbits that travelers want to hear during their food tour experience.

What The Industry Says

“Very few people travel to a place to try what they can get at home. The independent, off-the-beaten-track places are what make your city or neighborhood unique. They’re also the places that are going to make your food tour different from a competitors. Those are the places people are hungry to see—and taste.”

— Agatha Podgorski, Culinary Tourism Alliance

“There’s only one thing that can make a delicious meal taste even better: understanding and appreciating where the ingredients were sourced while partnering with locally owned and operated businesses. It’s important in food tourism to leverage a system like FLOSS, which stands for Fresh, Local, Organic, Seasonal, and Sustainable. It’ll help you rethink your current supplier list in order to encourage the use of fresher and higher quality ingredients, help reduce the carbon footprint and emissions with shorter delivery distances, while growing the economies of local farmers and businesses.”

— Shane Kost, Executive Director of the Global Food Tourism Association and CEO of Chicago Food Planet

4. Do something unique that makes your company, tours, and guides stand out.

This tip is open to your own interpretation—which is what makes it fun! Being unique can come in different forms, from highly extravagant tactics (can you get a local celebrity to run a tour?) to more modest ideas (could your tour guides wear an outfit that’s relevant to your city’s history?).

Look at the competitive landscape of your food tour operation: what is everyone doing? (Yourself included). Now, change your perspective. What isn’t anyone doing? What might other tour operators—not in your space or in a completely different industry—be doing that makes them stand out? Consider that today we live in an age of social media, where the millennial traveler is more important than ever before, and even older generations are taking to Facebook and Instagram at a rapid pace. How can you have your “viral” moment?

Miami’s #1 food tour operator, Miami Culinary Tours tries hard to stand out. They told us: “We make sure to do live coverage of our tours, so people can watch on Facebook and Instagram.” Miami Culinary Tours is embracing the rise of social media, and this smart strategy helps them reach travelers where they hang out most—in the apps. Whether it’s a traveler planning a Miami visit and searching for inspiration on Instagram, or perhaps a local who’s interested in a fun tasting activity in their own backyard. The videos don’t need to be long, either. Even just a taste (pardon the pun) can be enough to entice bookers—especially if your tour guide is rocking.

For cooking class operators, your experience might include a stop at the local market to grab ingredients. Why not take it a step further? Walkabout Florence adds a unique and memorable step in their tour experience by tending their own garden. Tour goers pick their own ingredients right from the garden—seeing the vibrant colors, feeling the dirt on their hands, smelling the aromas. It’s clear that this hands-on approach resonates with guests, as one reviewer states: “The king of all cooking classes… After picking our own ingredients, we were taught how to make the Italian classics including pizza and gelato. We ate the food we prepared which was delicious! It was an unforgettable day.”

Another fun idea comes from Vallarta Food Tours out of Mexico. What do they do to make their tours unique? “We do not require our guides to wear a uniform, but our storefront has a variety of t-shirts with funny taco sayings on them. Our guides always wear one of these, and our guests love them! For example: “Live Everyday Like It’s Taco Tuesday,” “Tacos, Tequila, Naps,” Feed Me Tacos And Tell Me I’m Pretty,” or “You Had Me At Taco.”

What can you do to stand out, beyond the actual experience on the tour? Look to Frying Pan Adventures out of Dubai. “Our most recent creative endeavor is our podcast,” says Arva Saleem Ahmed, Founder and Chief Executive Muncher (yes, her real title!) at Frying Pan Tourism LLC. “Our podcast, the Frying Pan Diaries, seeks to share our content with food and culture lovers from around the world, even those who may never have put Dubai on their map. We want to show that we invest deeply in research and are committed to sharing stories far and wide—and hopefully if listeners find themselves in our city, they will join us for a walking feast!”

Food Wine Tours out of Barcelona really steps up their differentiation game in a city with plenty of competition. Instead of guests meeting at a public place like most tours—on the street or at a market for example—they opened a “gastronomic center” which now serves as the meeting point for all their tours. They explained the major benefits of doing this: “It allows us to serve our guests with great comfort, to personalize the experience, and it gives us a very differentiated proposal from competitors similar to us that just meet in the middle of the street. Travelers meet in a cozy environment with a glass of sparkling wine, and with enough time to introduce themselves to the full group and break the ice.” While not all operators can open their own center, maybe there is a more pleasant meeting point you could use, allowing guests to chat or taste something small before officially embarking.

Peruvian cooking class operator SkyKitchen adds a unique personal touch to differentiate themselves. They offer classes in four languages (English, Spanish, French, and German)—and the class can be done in multiple languages in parallel. That means travelers from different cultures are completing the class together. So what does SkyKitchen do to really create a memorable experience? “After the class completes, everyone sits together at one table, so it’s an intercultural encounter.”

Food is a great cultural equalizer, and whether you can speak your table-mate’s language or not…everyone understands the language of happiness!

What The Industry Says

“With the food and drink tour sector growing so fast, it’s important to find your niche. Are you offering transportation? Are all your guides locals? Are you zero-waste? People, millennials especially, make their decisions based on how well your offering fits with their personal brand. Figure out who your audience is and do something unique that appeals to them most.”

— Agatha Podgorski, Culinary Tourism Alliance

5. Locals are equally as important as tourists.

Traveler. Tourist. Visitor. These are all terms that likely describe your customers. They are visiting your location during their travels, and touring a particular area, restaurants, etc. But it’s imperative that you do not fall victim to the ideology that tourists must be outsiders.

A tourist can come from across the world or just down the block. Yes, locals can be tourists, too. And tour operators that capture local bookers will thrive.

Take Boston Pizza Tours. How do they know the value of locals? Reviews, of course! Martin Elliott, General Manager of Boston Pizza Tours, says: “As a business owner, my favorite reviews are the ones by locals, who take a tour and experience something new in their own city.”

Here’s one such review. Imagine the power that this review has to a visitor coming from out of town, knowing that this tour is not only traveler-approved (the top-notch review scores), but also local-approved.

“I discovered Boston Pizza Tours after passing an active tour in the North End. My boyfriend loves walking around the city, [taking in] history, and of course, pizza, so I knew this would be a perfect element to his birthday celebration. Our tour guide Jim was extremely friendly, knowledgeable and down-to-earth, and he really helped make our experience fun! As two locals, we were already familiar with the areas we walked through, but we had no idea about some of the interesting stories the North End and Charlestown had to offer. I would highly recommend this tour for anyone who loves pizza, whether you’re from out-of-town or have lived here your entire life.” — TripAdvisor Reviewer

The Culinary Tourism Alliance and the Global Food Tour Association also feel passionately about this topic.

What The Industry Says

“I cannot stress this enough: tourists aren’t just from far away. They can be from just down the road. Locals can be your biggest brand ambassadors. They’re also most likely to repeat your experience (when their next friend or family visits). It’s important to provide an experience that they would enjoy too.”

— Agatha Podgorski, Culinary Tourism Alliance

“At GFTA, we have a litmus test we use to establish the quality of a food tourism experience at its conclusion. What would a local say? Imagine a scenario where locals and tourists are on the same food tour together. Tourists are going to carefully watch how the locals respond to the food to determine how authentic and real the experience is, while locals are ready to pounce at any point if they believe the event was designed for tourists and isn’t truly authentic. So what is the solution? Don’t design your events for tourists, design them for locals. If you can ensure a local will overwhelmingly have a stellar response, then you’re building an experience of incredible quality that will stand out no matter who signs up.”

— Shane Kost, Executive Director of the Global Food Tourism Association and CEO of Chicago Food Planet

We’d like to thank Agatha Podgorski of Culinary Tourism Alliance and Shane Kost of the Global Food Tourism Association and Chicago Food Planet for their input as our industry experts.

We’d also like to thank all of the following food tour operators for their feedback in developing these five best practices: Raphael Tours, Florencetown, Native Spanish Tapas, Destination Kitchen, Devour Tours, SkyKitchen Peruvian Cooking Class, Meeting the French, Gourmet Madrid, Miami Culinary Tours, Vallarta Food Tours, Savannah Taste Experience, Boston Pizza Tours, Walkabout Florence, Vancouver Foodie Inc., Avital Tours, Food Wine Tours, Withlocals, Culinary Paths, Frying Pan Adventures.

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