Earlier this winter, I paid a visit to a European city whose name I won't disclose. The city offers friendly people, and a nice food and drink scene. Another bonus is that it is relatively unknown for these positive traits, so there are not so many tourists to contend with.
Walking around the city, I came upon a Christmas market, as one might during the wintertime. I walked around the market to see all the vendor stalls. Of the dozens of stalls, I counted only about 5 vendors that sold locally-made products, two of which were alcoholic beverages and the other 3 were locally-made crafts. Of the craft producers, nothing was particularly interesting or unique. One vendor was selling handmade stained-glass figures, one of which was a butterfly for the equivalent price of about US$280. I'm all for supporting local producers of any kind, but not at that price. Today, right now, on the popular Etsy website featuring handmade items, I found another beautiful butterfly (OK, not the same one, but actually, prettier) for the equivalent price of about US$35, including postage. Which do you think I'm going to choose? And all of the other vendors were selling items that looked like they easily could have been manufactured cheaply overseas, and maybe even sourced at any of the discounted 1 dollar/1 pound/1 euro stores. No one would be impressed.
Then I began to think, for anyone who had traveled to this city for the Christmas Market, they would have been woefully disappointed. It got me thinking about motivation for travel in general, and other famous Christmas markets in the world, such as Krakow or Munich. People travel to these cities specifically to visit these world-class markets. I then began to think about food lovers and how we choose destinations. At the same Christmas market mentioned above, there were no vendors selling interesting local foods (either packaged as gifts or as takeaway to eat then), but readily available were falafels, hot dogs, bulk candy and other foodstuffs you might expect to find at a food market anywhere else in the world. Perhaps the market was not intended to appeal to tourists. If it was designed for locals, then one would have to ask, why would anyone fight local traffic and expensive, hard-to-find, holiday parking for the opportunity to buy things you can find in cheap shops anyway? The quote, "There's a sucker born every minute," comes to mind right now, attributed to P. T. Barnum, an American businessman of the mid-19th century and creator of the world-famous circus bearing his name.
I began thinking about a campaign from Visa (you know, the credit card processor) that advertised on the television during the holidays in the United Kingdom. The campaign encourages consumers to get out and spend money on the local high streets (i.e., the main shopping streets). Wanting to buy local is a sentiment that makes us feel all warm and fuzzy, but when the retailers on the high street are primarily coffee chains, discount chains and mobile phone stores, the fuzziness turns to annoying white noise.
The solution is not so simple. For example, is a market like the one described above, an initiative from the local municipality, the area tourism office, an event producer, or a real estate developer? Each of these potential stakeholders has a different motivation to produce and manage a local market. Their end results can be vastly different from each other as well. Or are business taxes (rates) so high in the city center, that no local business can afford a store of its own (at least if it wants its prices to be competitive). Take a stroll down the high street of most cities in the UK. You'll see Vodafone, next to Costa, next to Poundland, next to Card Factory, next to a Boots pharmacy, next to an EE mobile phone store, next to a charity shop, you get the idea. It's not all doom and gloom. Occasionally you might find a locally-owned cafe, pub or restaurant, or a quality attraction like the Shakespeare museum and giftshop in Stratford-Upon-Avon. The situation is similar in other cities in Europe, North America and Asia. Replace Costa with Starbucks in North America, Coffee Bean and Tea Leaf in Asia, you get the idea. Is anyone else noticing a trend?
Another factor to consider is the increasing threat of the mass homogenization of food cultures, a trend noted by the expert panelists we surveyed in our 2019 State of the Food Travel Industry report. Given the fact that authenticity is the #1 motivator for food-loving travelers, a local high street (main street) featuring Costa and Starbucks, for example, is not going to motivate any food- or drink-loving traveler to visit, despite how elated the locals might be at the offering. People travel for many different reasons, e.g. to visit friends and relatives; to attend business meetings; to attend a conference or trade show; for sightseeing; for theater and shopping; for adventure and recreation; and of course, for food and drink. What happens if the destination's authentic offerings are decimated or eliminated? Then suddenly, the destination is no longer of interest to influential food- and drink-loving travelers. In such an instance, we would say that the destination is nearing, or at the end of, its food tourism destination life cycle. Literally all of the expert panelists we surveyed in the report all agreed that “providing an authentic experience to visitors” is a critical goal of food tourism, and 97% felt that “protecting local heritage through food and drink” is also an important goal of food tourism.
Destinations seeking to attract food lovers need to look at the quality and uniqueness of what is on offer. If the items for sale in a market are mass produced trinkets and copies of touristy souvenirs, then there is little to no appeal. Similarly, if the only foods that we can find are those sold anywhere else on the planet, then there is no incentive to travel to your destination because of the food or drink. On the other hand, if those same Etsy-style local craftspeople and artisanal style food and drink producers were encouraged, and incentivized, to take a stall at the market, there would be a significant reason for locals and visitors alike to come and visit the market, at any time of year.
Food for thought.