Apple Pie Trails and Food Tourism: A Conversation with the CTA

food tourism apple picking

We had the chance recently to sit down with Valerie Keast of the Culinary Tourism Alliance to chat developing food tourism, the Apple Pie Trail, and more. Please enjoy the above interview, or feel free to check out the edited transcript below.

Introduce yourself and share what it is you do with the Culinary Tourism Alliance.

My name is Valerie Keast and I am with the Culinary Tourism Alliance. Our mission is to ensure that food tourism is a meaningful and sustainable contributor to local economies and destinations worldwide.

You’ve got tourism in the title. How is the Culinary Tourism Alliance positioned in the tourism industry? In terms of working with destination management, consulting locally/internationally?

The CTA was established in 2006 to implement the 2005-2015 Ontario Culinary Tourism Strategy and Action plan on behalf of the provincial ministry here. We are located in Ontario, Canada. 

At the time, there were very few people doing dedicated work around culinary tourism strategies. It was very unique and implementing it successfully really positioned us as an organization as thought leaders in the space globally. Food fits into the broader tourism strategies. We soon became go-to experts on how to do that in a lot of different ways.

That bit of history and context explains why in 2011, we dropped the O in Ontario Culinary Tourism and just became the Culinary Tourism Alliance. We began sharing our knowledge with other destinations through our professional services work and consulting work.

Through our membership, brand, and programs, we’re still very much rooted here in Ontario, Canada, but we consult with destinations across the country and internationally in places like British Columbia, on the other side of Canada, in the US, and some destinations in Europe.

In tourism, there are many different names for similar kinds of tourism. Agritourism, gastro tourism, culinary tourism, food tourism. With all of these overlapping terms, how do you find a place to start with clients/partners who are looking to get into this specific field?

For us, it’s less about which term you want to use. We often see that in different parts of the world certain terms are used more or less frequently. It is important at the DMO level or the municipality there is some sort of formal definition for what is food tourism or agritourism at the destination. 

The reason for that is it makes it challenging to develop if there isn’t a common language or understanding on what’s involved, who’s part of it, and what we’re trying to do through those activities.

Having that common definition or name – whatever you want to call it – is a good place to start for any destination that’s looking to develop food tourism or agritourism.

Along the lines of finding a common place to start, let’s talk about expectations. From people who are really established in tourism to those just getting started to welcome someone to their farm or activity, what is the CTA’s approach to bringing people into the fold, talking about what they can expect in terms of tourism’s impact?

There are two ways to talk about managing expectations for impact. One is the visitor expectation, and what they expect to get when they visit your destination. That’s the whole other side of it, making sure your marketing and your message are cohesive.

On the planning side of it, we get asked a lot how we are going to measure the return on investment to invest in food tourism development or food within our tourism strategy. It depends on the destination and the project we’re working on. We like to root things in specific project outcomes and what we’re trying to achieve with each one of them.

We view all of our destination clients as partners. They’re experts in their own right with destination management. They’ve got benchmarks that they’re trying to compare against, specific things they’re aiming for in terms of number of visitors, visitation stats, revenue, they have past years to measure that against. It might be trying to increase spending or increase length of stay within the destination, or finding ways to have a deeper impact so that when people are dining in their restaurants it’s also supporting local producers.

Promoting those restaurants that are using local food, for example. At that stage, we like to help our partners think beyond traditional economic metrics. To think of things like social and environmental impact within their strategies. That way we can take a very clear process approach. 

We manage expectations first by asking and getting a clear understanding on where we’re trying to head, then work back from there.

With projects you’re developing, what does a timeline look like? From someone who has little experience to the point they can be included in a route, do you have a rule of thumb for how they can think about their development process?

When we’re thinking of promoting someone, we often think of the term market readiness. It’s not one set thing. We do have criteria and we make recommendations on what it can look like and a checklist operators can go through to see where they are.

We like to think about it more like a spectrum. On one side you have business ready and on the other side you have market ready. At business ready, basically it means, are you open for business, do you have a visitor-facing experience you’re offering, can somebody look you up online and do you have regular posted hours and you’re actually open at those hours?

On the other side, we have the market ready. That can mean everything from being ready to be marketed through travel trade. A really unique experience, strong marketing, strong message, working closely with the DMO, and finding ways to make it easier for them to make it easier to promote you, your product, and your business.

It’s a spectrum.

When we’re thinking of a timeline, projects can get off the ground really quickly. It depends on what you’re working with. You don’t need to feel that you need to start and aim straight for being travel trade market ready. A lot of the time we encourage businesses to try new experiences and iterate. It can take only a few months to get started.

With the cycle or seasonality of your specific experience, it could take up to a year. It depends on you and your business.

With regular business hours, does that take practice to get right for those not used to having a storefront or an office?

It is something we run into a lot and like to underscore it. When visitors are planning their trips, they’re doing a lot of research online beforehand. They’ll be trying to plan their itinerary and getting a sense on when they can stop by your business. We understand, too, that it can be challenging, especially over the past couple of years through the pandemic, when they’re short-staffed or there are a lot of things going on if you’re a small owner-operator to maintain those regular hours. It is one crucial thing to help make it easier for a visitor to stop by.

A lot of times businesses could be overlooked if the visitor when they’re planning doesn’t have confidence that you’ll be open they might look to a different business.

That’s what we talk about on the spectrum. If you’re open for business or if you’re market ready. If you are advertising your hours and committed to being open to those times, maybe a year in advance, it makes it a lot easier for tour operators to include you in one of their packages.

How do you see the balance between individual projects and what they should be expected to contribute to the region and collective bodies/associations/governments/groups?

Think about it this way. When a visitor plans a trip, do they consider a destination because of one business, or are they more likely to go if there’s a cluster of businesses or experiences within a region?

Basically, it involves efforts on both sides. At business level and destination level and how they work together.

At the operator level, things that you can be doing include innovating and creating unique experiences, things that complement your neighbors. There is competition at the regional level among businesses among what they’re offering. It’s about offering a lot of types of tastes or experiences from visitors. 

We like to call it friendly coopetition.

I encourage the idea of businesses getting to know their neighbors, creating partnerships with others, cross-promoting, and that type of thing. Being authentic to themselves. Their story. Presenting their story in a dynamic light, sharing that story and that message succinctly and clearly. But also through their online presence and their marketing.

Also to find ways to tie it into the grander narrative or marketing efforts that the destination marketing organization is doing.

At the destination level, some of their responsibilities fall into making investments, capacity building, supporting businesses to create new experiences, to have that cluster of dynamic things to experience, then finding ways to fill some gaps, tie it into other tourism or other economics development, infrastructure investments, and also developing tourism products, marketing products, and things like that.

It’s a collective effort. For the businesses, the best thing they can do is get to know their local DMO, who’s in the office, become comfortable reaching out to them, letting them know what you’re doing at the operator level, and vice versa.

DMOs exist to promote businesses in their region. The best thing they can do is build community, bring stakeholders together, and really get involved. 

I know it’s not easy  when you’re a small business owner. You have a million things on your mind all the time. It can seem like one extra thing you have to do. That’s why DMO, destination management organizations or destination marketing organizations, exist. It’s to alleviate some of that work in marketing your business. Simply reaching out could save you a lot of effort in the long run.

I grew up near an area called Apple Hill in Northern California. My grandmother taught me to bake apple pies. So when I saw part of the CTA’s member network is the Apple Pie Trail, I wanted to see what was CTA’s involvement in the development.

It was originally developed as a marketing campaign. The way the CTA supported it is that after it was launched, we supported the initiative by helping them further develop the criteria for inclusion along the trail because of course it evolves over the years.

It’s nice to have a clear set of criteria for businesses to know and strive for and stick to.

We also helped with industry education and stakeholder engagement. What I mean by that is working with stakeholders who are featured on it to understand how they can make the most of it and leverage this type of opportunity and product.

Like I mentioned before, the success of these types of trails depends equally on the engagement from businesses as with the planning from the organization that did it.

It seems like this kind of trail partnership works well with food tourism, and there could be potential in countries with a great deal of agriculture, organic produce, and interesting local foods that tourists haven’t had the opportunity to try. What do you see as some of the advantages to these kinds of trails?

There are a lot of advantages to developing these kinds of trails. It’s something concrete and helpful that allows visitors to get inspired by what they’re going to find but also to practically plan their trip and to drive business directly to certain operators where they’ll be spending their money.

They’re developed in two different ways: to inspire or to drive visitation through practical products, like apps.

And in terms of struggles or risk that organizations or destinations have to manage tourism trails well?

Some of the risks associated with developing trails like this are both on the planning side and the implementation side. 

A lot of the time we think of these as simple marketing campaigns that need a bit of branding and some money behind the promotion and things like that. As I mentioned before, it’s really a collective effort. The message that’s being pushed out through the marketing campaign needs to project the experience that visitors are going to find when they arrive on-site. When we work with destinations to develop these kinds of tours, trails, products, things like that, we try to have them think a little more holistically about the visitor journey from start to finish.

It often involves more investment in time and stakeholder engagement and capacity building beyond just the marketing campaign itself, which we never encourage anyone to develop without consulting the stakeholders they’re going to be promoting.

The other thing I’d say is that they’re alive, they’re ongoing, they’re year-over-year. They change over time and businesses change over time and the experiences change over time. One of the risks is thinking about it as one project, you launch it, and the job is done. You can think of it as an ongoing project or program that needs dedicated attention or revision every year.

That creates other opportunities and advantages to keeping it fresh, dynamic, revamping it. Building those connections in that community year over year really helps strengthen the product.

In speaking to a DMO that recognized that they had these ingredients – active agriculture base, restaurants, growing tourism awareness – what would you recommend as the next steps to develop a more cohesive food tourism offering?

We always like to start with anchoring the product and stories in the destination’s unique selling propositions. These really came from the unique history, heritage, and culture of a place.

In anything we do, we start with that research, understanding the local foodways, the stories and the champions of that, and working with those assets and those strengths first.

And for you personally, what drives you to support and engage with food tourism?

It’s all about the apple pies. I am that consumer. When I travel, it’s the food stories, the experiences, that really enhance my  travels. They help me feel connected and understand the local culture and the place a lot better. From a consumer standpoint, I want to see more of these experiences being brought to life. Then it’s very much linked to my values. I love to see the potential that food tourism has in creating meaningful connections and creating a positive impact for the destination and the people that live there.

There’s a lot of power and potential in developing food tourism.

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