There were 100 million visitors to Ontario in 2010, or, as Rebecca LeHeup likes to think of them, 300 million opportunities for local growers and producers, chefs and restaurateurs and retailers to create a memorable experience for an individual that they are going to want to recreate.
“Whether you’re 74 or 24, travelling to a destination for adventure or you’re a history buff, the reality is that you are likely to eat more than once a day, usually three times a day,” said the executive director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance, during a morning presentation at the fifth annual Culinary Tourism and Local Food Summit.
“Eating is one of the few travel activities that engage all five of the senses. It leaves a lasting impression,” she added.
Held Monday inside the University of Waterloo Stratford Campus, the summit drew close to 100 agri-tourism stakeholders to network and learn about product development and best practices to grow culinary tourism in the region.
At a time when both agriculture and tourism sectors are struggling with funding, partnerships and collaboration are more important than ever, said LeHeup, who suggested working in Ontario’s favour is the fact we are already a food obsessed culture, with countless food programs on the television, celebrity chefs, food-related blogs and apps for your smartphone.
And, thanks to social media photo sharing sites like Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, people’s culinary experiences can instantly become food fodder for a wider audience.
LeHeup, whose group works with 29 member destinations across the province, including our own Savour Stratford Perth County Culinary Festival, said culinary tourism is no longer a niche industry but a powerful economic driver, noting when a visitor eats local food there is a 3:1 impact on the local economy, while consuming Ontario wine has a 12:1 economic impact.
Culinary tourists, who have a higher than average household income, tend to spend double that of a generic tourist and spend 40 per cent more on accommodations.
And while their focus may be “seeking the authenticity of a place they visit through food,” they are also likely to want to experience other cultural activities during their visit, like the theatre, golf or a music festival, noted LeHeup.
She said culinary tourists are highly loyal and will revisit a destination that leaves a lasting impression on them. They will also often take home with them food, wine and recipes to share with friends and family, which she suggested is an opportunity for the region to grow its export business.
“If we’re really smart, we take those products and brands that leave lasting and memorable experiences for those visitors and get those products into those visitors’ countries so they can buy a taste of our place in their own home.”
Ontario’s culinary feats and its value as a tourism contributor are beginning to get the recognition they deserve, said LeHeup, noting the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance earlier this year organized a “taste of Ontario” reception for members of parliament at Queen’s Park and participated in the premier’s agri-food summit. The alliance also has representation on two leading tourism marketing advisory committees.
“It’s not just about discovering what’s on our table, it’s making sure we’re at all the right tables talking about what culinary tourism is doing for both our provincial and national tourism initiatives,” she said.
The alliance recently hosted groups from Atlantic Canada and Ireland who wanted to learn about Ontario’s best practices and how businesses small and large are leveraging the culinary industry to their benefit. The group also spoke at a food, drink and travel conference in Spain where a promotional video was shown featuring clips from food events including Savour Stratford.
“The rest of the world is recognizing what wonderful tastes Ontario has,” said LeHeup.