The Chunk Missing out of Food Tourism Strategy

by | Apr 13, 2022 | Opinion

Co-founder Tash McGill has spent years working and consulting in the tourism sector. She offers some insight into why our food tourism strategy is disintegrated and lagging behind the rest of the world. Agree or disagree? Either way, she’s offering to buy you a flight of beer if you can find one celebrating NZ hops. Read on.

In 2021, the Nelson Tasman Regional Development board released its Food & Beverage Tourism Strategy. It’s an insightful document that sums up much of what you’ll read in any of the food & beverage tourism strategies urgently being worked on by destinations up and down the country. The one thing missing? While our hops are making international splash overseas, those craft beer aficionados who want to see the birthplace of Nelson, Motueka and Tuatara hops are well out of luck. You won’t find any tourism activity related to one of our fastest growing exports other than a trip to Sprig & Fern and a few other local breweries. On my last trip, I couldn’t even find a beer flight celebrating NZ hops in any Nelson pub let alone in craft beer bars up and down the country.

Seems like yet one more food tourism storytelling opportunity we’re missing – integrating our producers into everyday tourism experiences by way of food and drink. Of course, if I’m wrong and there is a great NZ hops beer flight being served anywhere in the country – tell me and I’ll fly us both there for a drink. The last one I had was in Alpine, California. 

Photo by Markus Spiske on Unsplash

I’ve read through a number of these strategies now and they are full of great insight. However, insight is only as good as the action that it generates and we’re already slow off the mark. Unlike the Minister for Tourism, I don’t lay blame for that at the feet of the tourism sector. An industry requires leadership and guidance from an overarching strategy that is paving the way into the future – rather than relying on operators and business owners to lead all innovation and development themselves. 

Why the urgency around food tourism? The research has been in the bank for years showing time and time again how much of an impact food and beverage experiences can have on the traveller’s experience. Covid-19 created demand for new leverage points for food and beverage tourism because frankly, the enormous tap of international tourists was turned off.

People have to eat, so if you’re getting them here – that’s more than 90% of the job done. In fact, Tourism New Zealand have previously managed food and beverage as a barrier to travel in markets like mainland China, where access to familiar culinary experiences rates very highly in travel preferences. Prior to the pandemic, a piece of AUT masters research suggested that Chinese tourists spend only 7% of their total travel expenditure on restaurants and up to 12% on groceries and supermarkets

The challenges in content marketing New Zealand food & beverage to meet individual market demands is one of budget prioritisation. Tourism New Zealand have taken a broad brushstrokes overview and focused their marketing spend on the big hitters – unique landscapes and experiences, culture and adventure. When people aren’t travelling here from offshore, all of a sudden the demands of a more local audience have mattered. Meanwhile the behaviour of the endemic traveller has changed – increasingly digital, increasingly interested in the whole experience including local food and drink. 

There is an enormous body of research and commentary on the importance of a food & beverage tourism strategy for New Zealand but surprisingly little activity and for one significant reason – no one has put their hand up to carry the mandate for developing a New Zealand food and drink story that is bigger than just our pantry of ingredients.

Essentially it might be summed up as “We make great food and drink, people like great food and drink, we should work harder at connecting tourists to food and drink experiences throughout New Zealand.” The room unanimously agrees.

It’s fallen to the regional tourism organisations under the Ministry’s guidelines for Destination Management plans to develop those strategies and execute a food and beverage tourism plan by region. Which is difficult for Waikato who it turns out have dairy and well, berries but only for a few short weeks a year.

There are only so many dairy factories you can visit (short answer: none) and besides the occasional farmside stall, there are no tourism attractions along State Highway 1 inviting you to milk ol’Betsy. If only it weren’t for the rough time our farmers get in the press, the odds of anyone opening a Waikato dairy experience might be more credible. 

Our dairy industry gets pillaged in press but we’ve been happy for international tourists to take home suitcases of milk powder, infant formula and butter. Do you remember what the airport stores look like? That’s the disintegration of our food and tourism industries, when we ought to be working cohesively together, for richer and more high-value offerings.

The “how-to, could we do” ideas factory is relatively straightforward with suggestions of trails, pop-up food pods, marketplaces, festivals and events. So why has it been so challenging to see significant food and beverage tourism strategy executed well and in meaningful commercial ways across the country?

  • We’re missing a mandate for a national Food & Drink tourism strategy that can take care of regional alignment, inter-regional offerings and a national commercial framework to measure and demonstrate the value of this sector
  • We’re missing crucial digital skills and infrastructure to make customer experience seamless and straightforward – yet we’ve done really well in integrating offshore payment options such as UnionPay for international tourists
  • We’re working in the constraints of seasonality rather than across seasonality – a fruit picking trail that only operates 6 weeks of the year hasn’t yet become a sustainable tourism business model, but integrating tourism activity into a future-forward business planning for producers and growers could be a real opportunity
  • We need integration between food and tourism industries – thinking holistically rather than imperially about how each can benefit the other
  • New Zealand is still thinking in short-term horizons and quick wins, rather than strategic long-term investment for new food and tourism futures

At risk of contributing to the challenge, we need a little less talky-talky and a little more doey-doey. As with most things, the commercials speak for themselves. Regions can do a great job of regional and local connection with food producers because it operates at a local scale of network and relationship.

To realise the national commercial opportunities and really measure the contribution of food and beverage to the Tourism GDP take, we need to be able to see food and drink at the core of the tourism experience, rather than merely attached to it by way of season, festival or cycleway. The Feed has some ideas about that and you’ll see them soon – a customer facing national product championing our food and drink experiences at the heart of every region and type of travel experience. It’s about time someone took some action, after all. 

Anyone for beers?

About the Author

Tash McGill

Tash McGill works as a strategy consultant in tourism, hospitality and digital transformation. She is co-founder of The Feed, President of Food Writers NZ, Chair of the New Zealand Whisky Association.

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