PHOTO: Hoi An, Vietnam, a locale in which Collette is emphasizing food experiences. (photo courtesy of Thinkstock)
Once upon a time in America, lunch was a break during the day when you grabbed a bite to eat and then went back to work. Dinner was maybe a little more formal, (but not by much). Food was no big deal to Americans; It was all about fast, easy and convenient.
But no more.
Cuisine has become a major fascination of Americans in recent years. Today, a vast number are openly foodies and tour operators have adjusted their offerings to accommodate the wave of culinary consciousness that has swept the country.
Collette, the Pawtucket, R.I.-based global tour operator, for example, just released its special brochure for 2017, highlighting a selection of some of its most cuisine-intensive experiences in Italy, France, Ireland, Asia, Africa and South America.
The brochure is entitled “Eat, Drink, Travel,” with the word “eat” about twice the size of the other two, leaving no mystery about who it is targeting.
However, the brochure does not present a separate product line.
“We’re not releasing a new series,” said Jaclyn Leibl-Cote, Collette’s executive vice president of product development and tour management. “It’s not epicurean travel. Instead, it highlights programs in which we have wine or food immersion in different destinations where they really get to capture the flavor of the areas they are traveling to.”
In response to the growing trend, Collette has also increased the culinary focus on its tours across the board. “We are trying to get the travelers involved,” said Leibl-Cote. “So it might be going to a market, then going back and cooking their meal, learning different recipes and different cultures."
The foodie boom can be seen as part of the movement toward cultural immersion and authenticity, but the rising wave of interest in food has been so powerful as to practically overwhelm all other aspects of culture. After all, eating is something people do every few hours, and this applies to touring no less to other times.
“Starting in 2015, we really listened to guests and a lot of the feedback we got from our travelers was that they didn’t really want to eat in hotels if they were in cities,” said Leibl-Cote. “So we made a big effort in the travel year of 2015 across the product line to move a lot of those meals out of hotels and into local restaurants.”
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In some cases, however, the hotel restaurant may well be the best restaurant in the area.
“There are some great hotels that you do want to dine in,” said Leibl-Cote, “especially, say, a castle, or a Fairmont hotel in Canada. The Alex Hotel in Zermatt has a beautiful dining room. So there are times where it works and you still get the local flavors. But there was a very large push to move to more local restaurants.”
In some cases, the best place to eat may not be a restaurant at all. It may be a place that doesn’t even have walls.
“When you look at our Southeast Asia programs, the brochure talks about the street food in Vietnam,” said Leibl-Cote. “Our tour manager, Mark Goden, helped design this, and it is raved about by our guests. You really go and taste the foods in the street.”
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Although the brochure features programs from Collette’s various product lines, it tends to focus more on Collette’s Explorations line, whose trips carry a maximum of 24 people.
“You can do more intimate experiences, go into smaller restaurants and have more opportunities when you have no more than 24 people on a tour versus when you have 44 on a tour,” said Leibl-Cote.
“There are different things you can do. We still incorporate a lot of these food experiences and cooking classes on the Classic programs as well. So you do get that. But on the small group tour on the Explorations brand, it is really getting into the countryside of Tuscany and Umbria. So it’s not driving by villages, it’s going into the villages and learning different things from a food and wine standpoint, or from a cultural standpoint. With the small groups, you can really get creative and dive into some wonderful experiences for food and wine.”
Collette realized that you eat first with your eyes, so it hired some first-rate food stylists to create mouthwatering images of food, wine glasses and dining settings.
“I won’t lie to you,” said Leibl-Cote. “This brochure makes me hungry every time I look at it. The last one did too. Every time I picked it up, I wanted to go get Italian food.”