For six years, I worked as a food and drink writer at various New England newspapers, and sometimes wondered how towns, states, and regions with similar food scenes could be in such varying stages of culinary marketing. Vermont, for example, has a powerful food brand that many producers adopt to promote their products and that the state uses to attract tourists. Just across the border in New Hampshire, however, there is no such cohesive culinary identity, despite geographic similarities—and as a result, no distinctive New Hampshire brand on which chefs and producers can hang their hats.
This observation has carried over to some of the cities I’ve visited for Convene. I was surprised when, while driving around a quasi-depressed East Coast city with a hotel executive, he remarked that a dive-y looking place we passed “had the best subs I’ve ever eaten.” That’s the kind of gold that food-focused people go to great pains to seek out—yet I hadn’t seen a mention of it in the city’s marketing, which was focused on splashier spots.
From my experience, there are three things that can help destinations up their culinary marketing game:
› Look beyond the obvious. The restaurant row in your historic district might be an ideal place for a dine-around or a pub crawl—and it might seem safer to direct delegates there rather than to slightly grubbier neighborhoods. But as individuals and groups seek ever-more-authentic experiences, don’t overlook lesser-known streets, neighborhoods, and restaurants. Who makes your city’s best sub, or pupusa, or lassi, and how are you getting that message out? I will sometimes stay an extra day in a place just to explore more obscure eateries and proverbial holes in the wall.
› Create food- and drink- focused trails. Vermont is a sparsely populated, off-the-beaten-path state of mountains and challenging roads. Yet every year, thousands of people traverse those byways to follow Vermont craft beer trails (or the statewide Vermont Brewery Challenge, at right) by car or by bike. Ditto for the Kentucky Bourbon Trail—created in 1999, it now attracts 2.5 million visitors each year—and Columbus, Ohio’s downtown coffee and ale trails. The time spent on putting together a map has big payoffs when it comes to travelers.
› Share your chefs’ secrets. Whenever you see a recipe in print or on a video, you might try and make it yourself — and then you may very well seek out the original. The Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Kristen Adamo realized this when she partnered with the Providence Journal on “Small Bites: Easy-to-Digest Recipes,” a series of short videos featuring local chefs. It’s a win-win for everyone: the city, the chefs, and the newspaper “We cross-promote each other,” Adamo said.