April 24, 2008

Grant fuels development of culinary tourism effort

by K.C. Jaehnig

CARBONDALE, Ill. — They're calling their new Web site foodfunfolks.org, which could be the most concise definition of culinary tourism ever.

"There's a niche for travelers who absolutely love to eat, though it's more than just enjoying the wining and dining," said Carbondale Convention and Tourism Bureau Executive Director Deborah "Debbie" L. Moore.

"They're interested in things related to the culture and heritage of a region. The foundation of that culture is often agriculture. That's certainly true in Southern Illinois, and we have all the pieces — vineyards, orchards, specialty growers, some manufacturers — to offer that 'farm to the table' experience."

Moore is working with Nicole L. Davis, instructor and outreach coordinator for Southern Illinois University Carbondale's hospitality and tourism administration program, on a $100,000, two-year grant from the Illinois Bureau of Tourism to draw culinary tourists to the region.

After surveying growers, restaurateurs, winery operators, vineyard owners and other likely culinary purveyors in the region's 22 counties as to what might jumpstart this kind of tourism , the pair has put into action a preliminary plan.

"The first thing we realized was that we needed to start building awareness of what culinary tourism is all about," Davis said.

"That led us to begin to develop a newsletter and a Web site (still under construction) and to do some PR types of things."

Responses also indicated a need for all kinds of training — everything from customer service and telephone etiquette to food safety, marketing and basic computer skills.

"The training needs were probably 10 to 20 times more than I thought they would be," Moore said.

"We could quickly address the communication needs, but the training was a bigger issue. We are working on training models now, and by the end of the summer, we should have them put together."

Davis and Moore also are working on a second survey, this one aimed at 2,000 households full of potential tourists from the St. Louis area, as well as parts of Indiana, Kentucky and Arkansas. This new survey will help Davis and Moore get a handle on what attractions appeal to these folks, what activities they enjoy and where they like to stay when traveling.

Based on her experience promoting tourism in general, Moore thinks the Mid-south will provide fertile ground in which to dig for tourists.

"We already draw a huge number of travelers from there," she said. "When I place ads, I always do better with the ones from Southern Living (magazine)."

The survey will help identify existing culinary draws and, with luck, suggest new ones, Davis said, giving them the rudiments for developing a marketing plan.

"I also hope it will allow us to estimate how much of an economic impact this is likely to have on the region. If we can demonstrate impact, it will be easier to get funds (to support the development of the new industry)."

In addition to those who like good food and fine wines, culinary tourism might lure those to whom locally grown foods matter as well as those with an interest in regional cooking.

"Niki and I are writing a self-published cookbook as part of this project filled with recipes using Southern Illinois products and with Southern Illinois lore," said Moore, whose family ties to the area date back to 1815.

"People in this region have always fed their families with wild game — it was more than just a sport. You'd be amazed at some of the recipes that exist."

Moore is encouraging Southern Illinois residents to send their family recipes to the Carbondale Convention & Tourism Bureau at 1185 E. Main St., Suite 1046, Carbondale, Ill. 62901 or email them to cctb3@neondsl.com. Recipes must reach her by May 30 to be included in the cookbook, tentatively scheduled for publication in time for Christmas gift sales.

Moore is particularly keen on strawberry recipes.

"We want all we can get our hands on," she said. "And your stories — we also want your stories."