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The Group Travel Leader Small Market Meetings Going on Faith

What’s cooking?

My friend Lily hasn’t used her stove since the day her youngest daughter left for college. She claims her oven has come in very handy for storage purposes.

Lily has been to our house a dozen times for dinner, and she has made it no secret that the only way she’ll ever feed us is to pick up the tab at a restaurant. “Only a good restaurant,” she said.

“I do love good food,” she added.

Lily has also made it no secret that she isn’t a fan of group travel. This independent boomer has always looked down upon the whole idea, despite my enthusiastic descriptions about my group travel experiences.

So imagine my surprise when Lily told me about her upcoming trip to the Viking Cooking School in Greenwood, Mississippi, just a few hours from our home near Memphis, Tennessee.

“I’m so excited. Someone at the tennis club put the whole trip together, and a bunch of us will be doing a demo class and staying at the Alluvian Hotel. And they even have a motorcoach, so none of us have to drive or even touch our luggage,” she said.

I secretly smiled and not just because Lily wouldn’t know the difference between a garlic press and a potato masher. No, my friend Lily had just become a group travel fan and she didn’t even know it.

Go leafy green

Bank travel directors who know that food is possibly the major star, whether they are in Indianapolis or Shanghai, might want to take note of Lily’s sudden interest in group travel, thanks to that culinary twist.

Although we have always known that food is an important component on any itinerary, whether plans are to visit a nearby city or the other side of the globe, the exploding interest in culinary tourism has taken that component way beyond a good meal.

Today’s travelers are visiting food producers, farms, farmers markets, wineries and cooking classes like those at Viking. The Specialty Travel Agents Association (STAA), an alliance of travel and marketing professionals, lists culinary travel as the No. 1 choice for travel picks for 2009.

The STAA Web site states, “People love to talk about food, but more importantly they love to eat it and even learn about it. This is where the growing demand for travel that includes delicious food and wine itineraries comes in. Traveling for an authentic culinary experience gives travelers a unique perspective into a destination by experiencing the local cuisine.”

Melody Johnson, community manager for the International Culinary Tourism Association, a group that provides information to the travel industry, agrees with this growing trend.

“We are no longer a niche industry. Today we are in demand because the consumer is demanding us. Tour operators are really gearing up, not necessarily with tours that are strictly culinary, but with tours that build in a culinary aspect — from Costa Rica to Newfoundland to cruise ships,” she said.

Johnson gives a nod to the media, including the Food Network, for at least part of the reason we are so obsessed with food these days. In addition to talking to tour operators and cruise ships about adding a culinary element to an itinerary, bank directors can now ask to include a personal visit with one of a handful of celebrity chefs, like Paula Deen and Alton Brown, whose live cooking demonstrations are on the marquis at resorts all over the country.

“Guy Fieri is also launching a tour throughout the country. And for those folks who really want to reach out and touch the Food Network, I would suggest visiting one of our annual food festivals like the Food Network New York City Food and Wine Festival and the Food Network South Beach Wine and Food Festival in Miami, where nearly every favorite from FN is on the agenda,” said Lisa Krueger, public relations director for the Food Network.

A yummy option

From a Tauck Tours visit to beef-loving Argentina to a trek to the grand Detroit Eastern Market, which represents dozens of countries in the world, to a behind-the-scenes tour of the belly of Nashville’s Gaylord Opryland Hotel, there are many options for building in a culinary aspect.

A popular choice is also a group visit to a cooking school, such as the Viking Cooking School, the premier facility where Lily observed a demonstration that included orange-glazed chicken, cauliflower couscous and fine wine.

“It was so much fun watching this cute chef prepare food, and it was absolutely delicious. It is also such a neat town — loved the antique store and the artsy kinds of places,” Lily said.

Steffany Ward, communications manager for the Viking-owned Alluvian Hotel, expounded on the joys of a cooking class. “We have 15 Viking schools in the United States. Our Greenwood location, home of the Viking Range and located in the heart of the Mississippi Delta, is where tours can also watch these ranges being made, from a flat piece of steel to the finished product.

“The Alluvian is a cosmopolitan boutique hotel that is a major part of the tour experience. Even the vibrant and poignant artwork throughout the hotel has all been done by Mississippi artists.”

Viking also offers four culinary weekends each year that feature the talents of notable Southern chefs. These weekends consist of two demonstration classes with guest chefs and spa treatments.

One of the most appealing reasons groups of so many ages and backgrounds visit the Viking Cooking School and other interactive culinary venues that are hosting bank groups from coast to coast is the ability to customize a visit specifically for the group, even for uninterested cooks like Lily.

Typically, groups of at least eight and up to 44 can customize their menus. Cooking classes are as wide-ranging as basic technique classes, cocktail party classes and ethnic cuisine.

As with Lily’s group, a popular option is to have a demonstration class and not only learn expert skills but also enjoy a heavenly meal.

Forget the burger

Johnson, representing the industry internationally, listed the following destinations as hotspots for culinary tours in 2010: Belgium, Korea, Louisiana, New Zealand, Ontario, Peru, Scotland, Singapore and South Africa.

“We are unbiased in our lists, and these are nine destinations that are simmering and bubbling over the top, offering fresh, new ideas and offering things that have never been offered before,” she said.

Johnson added that is the place to find free listings of anything to do with food, from farmers markets to group tours. “This site allows you to put your whole tour together and add anything you’d like when it comes to food,” she said.