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How To Plan Memorable Culinary Experiences

You have to feed your travelers, so why not feed them well?

No matter where you take your group or what you do when you get there, eating will be an essential part of every trip you take. And meals aren’t just pit stops on the way to more interesting places. Today’s travelers seek authentic, delicious culinary experiences just as much as sightseeing and shopping.

For your travel group to thrive in the future, you need to upgrade the culinary components of your trips. That means spending less time at buffets and food courts and giving your groups meal experiences they’ll remember long after a trip is over.

Many group leaders are resistant to the idea of enhancing their culinary offerings because they’re afraid that adding better food experiences will make their trips too expensive. But tasty doesn’t have to mean pricey. In destinations all around the country and even around the world, locals have developed fun, affordable ways to help visitors connect with their culinary cultures.

1) Take a food tour.

In destinations large and small across America, entrepreneurs have launched tour businesses that introduce visitors to the culinary highlights of their hometowns. These tours often visit several restaurants for conversations with the chef and small samples of signature dishes. Many also visit candy shops, bakeries and other culinary businesses. These tours can take place on foot or by motorcoach, and they often make a great way to see the city in addition to sampling its flavors.

2) Plan a progressive meal.

If you don’t want to dedicate a few hours to a full-fledged food tour, you can achieve a similar experience by planning a progressive meal for your group. Work with the convention and visitors bureau in the place you’re visiting to identify three or four restaurants that are close to each other and that accommodate groups. Then plan to visit one for appetizers, another for entrees and a third for coffee and dessert. You could also divide your travelers into smaller groups and have them rotate among restaurants for a more intimate experience.

3) Take a cooking class.

One of the most engaging ways to give your travelers an upgraded culinary experience is through a cooking class. Cooking schools, restaurants and other organizations in many destinations offer opportunities for groups to meet with chefs and watch as they prepare food related to the area’s culinary traditions. Smaller groups may be able to do hands-on workshops where they prepare food themselves under the chef’s instructions. And at the end of the class, everyone enjoys eating what they have prepared.

4) Visit a farm or a factory.

All food starts on farms, and the farm-to-table movement has caused many people to become more curious about the provenance of the things they eat. By visiting farms, groups can see where their food originates, and farmers can tell them about their products and how they are raised. Food factory tours also offer behind-the-scenes looks at culinary culture. Tours at both types of places often include samples of fresh food and treats.

5) Browse a public market.

In many cities across the United States, public markets, food halls and other vendor marketplaces have become staples of the culinary community. These markets work well for groups for several reasons: They feature a wide variety of different types of food products, and they often have lots of available seating. Groups can take tours at many of these markets, then split off during free time to buy a meal or sample goods from the vendors that pique their interest.

6) Find the food trucks.

Much like public markets, food trucks offer travelers opportunities to try diverse and inventive types of food without the commitment or the overhead of a full restaurant meal. Many larger destinations have special food-truck parks where groups can find a dozen or more trucks during lunchtime. Taking your group to a food truck park makes a great alternative to an “on your own” meal at a food court.

7) Visit an ethnic restaurant.

For a lively alternative to bland chicken and forgettable buffets, why not work with the local CVB to find a great ethnic restaurant? International populations and immigrant heritage have brought a world of dining options to cities large and small. Groups can enjoy excellent Thai, Chinese, Mexican and African food while traveling in America, often at prices lower than an those at an upscale American restaurant.

8) Try coffee and (ice) cream.

Culinary experiences don’t always need to entail full meals. Stopping for a surprise treat during a day of touring is a great way to excite your travelers. There are wonderful local coffee shops everywhere you go, and many cities now have artisanal local ice cream shops, too. An unannounced visit to one of these places could give your group a needed pick-me-up in the middle of the afternoon.

9) Dine in someone’s home.

There’s no better way to experience the unique aspects of life in a faraway place than to visit someone’s home. In many destinations, the CVB or a receptive operator can connect groups with locals who can host them for in-home meals. In addition to exposing your travelers to authentic local food, these experiences foster genuine interpersonal encounters and lay the groundwork for cultural insights that no restaurant meal can match.

10) Hit a hot spot.

If you have real food aficionados in your group, they’re going to crave high-end meals at well-known restaurants in the places you visit. Most tour pricing doesn’t allow for fine dining every night, but a farewell meal at a hot local restaurant is a fantastic way to celebrate the end of a successful trip. And if it’s difficult to secure space for dozens of people for dinner, consider visiting for lunch or on a night when the restaurant is usually closed to the public — many restaurants will open at special hours to accommodate groups.

Brian Jewell

Brian Jewell is the executive editor of The Group Travel Leader. In more than a decade of travel journalism he has visited 48 states and 25 foreign countries.