November 02, 2007

Smith brings culinary tourism expertise to table

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — Build a better mousse frappe, and the world will eat a path to your door.

At least, that's the idea behind culinary tourism, a new combination of the food and hospitality industries that's drawing restaurant and travel dollars like flies to a three-layer cake.

"Culinary tourism is travel for the taste and enjoyment of prepared food and beverages," said Sylvia Smith, a newly hired assistant professor in Southern Illinois University Carbondale's Department of Animal Science, Food and Nutrition, part of the College of Agricultural Sciences.

"It's different from agritourism, which emphasizes raw food, and not everybody who eats when traveling is a culinary tourist. Culinary tourists travel to particular destinations because of the food or because of food-related activities."

Folks with money have always had a taste for this kind of travel.

"People have been going to places in France and Italy for the food and wine forever," Smith said, adding that California's Napa Valley in California also has a long tradition of attracting such visitors.

What's new is a sort of trickle-down effect, bringing more people to the table. A survey released earlier this year by the Travel Industry Association reported that 17 percent of leisure travelers — some 27 million people — include food and/or wine-related activities in their trips.

"I'm not sure if all the cooking shows are pushing this interest or if the cooking shows exist because the interest is there, but something is turning food into a popular part of our culture these days," Smith said.

"People are cooking less at home, but they've become more interested in their food. Maybe it's the entertainment interest, maybe it's because of the reports in the news about lower food standards in countries that export their food to us."

Becoming known as a culinary destination requires more than just having some restaurants.

"You have to have something truly local or indigenous or novel you can promote," Smith said.

When you find that thing — and market it — it can benefit not just the restaurant or winery that serves it but the local area as well.

"People who enjoy culinary tourism have money to spend, and they spend more than average," Smith said.

"They will stay the night, sometimes even the weekend. They'll also be looking for local food and local markets — anything food related to enhance their experience."

As an example of the spillover effect, Smith pointed to the recent designation by the national food magazine Bon Appetit of Mike Mills' Murphysboro restaurant, 17th Street Bar & Grill, as home of the nation's best ribs.

"Once he got the recognition from Bon Appetit, he was swamped," she noted.

"People were dropping what they were doing and coming here for the weekend to eat barbecue. They were seeking it out. That's going to generate a lot of tourism for this area. I've heard there was somebody from Europe visiting Chicago who found out about it and made a trip down here to have barbecue."

Smith, herself a certified pastry chef and experienced culinary tourist (ask her about Belgian chocolate), said academics began paying attention to culinary tourism shortly before she began her doctoral work at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville.

"It pretty much fit my interests, and I found that research on motivation — why do people do this — had not been done in this area." she said. "In fact, most of the research on culinary tourism has been done on wine.

"Since the point of a dissertation is to conduct new research, I focused on the culinary tourist's motivation to travel. I found that the food interest was the No. 1 reason in why culinary tourists travel to particular places. There's also some socializing involved, and the novelty of it, but for the culinary tourist, food is the main factor."

The "Journal of Event Management" and the "Journal of Hospitality Marketing and Management" soon will be publishing articles she wrote that came out of that research, and Smith has another in process.

Now that she's at SIUC, she will be looking at motivation again, trying to tease out the reasons Mills' barbecue has proved such a draw. She also hopes to investigate ways of bringing Southern Illinois foods to the attention of Chicago restaurateurs as "locally produced."

"Illinois ranked seventh on that survey list of top culinary destinations, probably because of Chicago," Smith said.

"If they use our products and promote them on their menus, culinary tourists will notice and may even make the trip down. It's a win-win situation."