Tourism is Tasty
This year my brother shipped me a pricey birthday basket full of food from Zabar’s, our favorite New York City marketplace.
And when my mom and I recently flew to L.A. to spend Christmas with him, mom brought pizza from our beloved Miami pizza parlor ” a Frankie’s large with pepperoni and onion. Delicious.
If we’re willing to travel with pizza boxes on airplanes, and willing to pay 300 percent retail price just to have a taste of home sent to us packed in dry ice, it’s no wonder that people are planning their vacations with food in mind.
“Food is definitely a priority,” says Pam Budman, who travels to the valley from New York with her family several times per year.
Food tourism in Vail doesn’t involve touring factories like Jelly Belly or Hershey’s. Those kinds of activities are for tourists wearing Hawaiian shirts, visors and cameras strapped around their necks.
This is the kind of tourism that involves fine dining or eating at local dives that are famous for something, be it a truffle burger or a $2 taco. It involves wine trails and farmer’s markets, food festivals and local delicacies.
“Perhaps the most common way to experience Colorado’s (agricultural tourism) is through Colorado’s 10,000 restaurants,” said Roland Alonzi, spokesman for the Colorado Tourism Office, via e-mail. “Many restaurants across the state work with local farms for their food products.”
In the valley, vacationers might come here for the mountains, but food is no afterthought. Hotel guests call their concierges weeks in advance to make sure they get reservations at the valley’s hottest restaurants.
Budman and her family always call for restaurant reservations before arriving in the valley. They might come to ski, but the restaurants they eat in top off their vacation experience.
“In the winter season we do the same with lunch ” make a lunch reservation ahead of time for after the mountain,” she says.
At the Ritz-Carlton, Bachelor Gulch, chief concierge Luke O’Bryan said it isn’t uncommon for dining to be more important to guests than skiing. Some guests call and tell the concierge they’ll be in town for seven nights and want dinner reservations at the best restaurants every night. Others have heard of a restaurant here and want to make sure they get a reservation while in town.
Steven Holt, a Ritz-Carlton spokesman, said the hotel sets up restaurant reservations for guests weeks before they arrive. For the Ritz, the recent opening of Wolfgang Puck’s Spago has created a lot of hype, Holt said. The restaurant is located in the Ritz, and it’s the valley’s first major restaurant associated with such a well known celebrity chef.
To book a dinner table at Spago right now, people need to call at least 30 days out, Holt said.
“The Spago name really does have a brand in the name that resonates with people. We think it’s a huge draw for our guests,” he said.
Word of mouth is huge, too, said Lee Lovelace, chief concierge of the Sonnenalp Resort and the vice president of the Vail Valley Concierge Association. People will show up at the hotel and ask to be booked at Sweet Basil first thing, he said.
“People are definitely coming to town and making sure to go to the hot spots,” Lovelace said. Terra Bistro, Larkspur, Sweet Basil, La Tour, La Bottega and the Swiss Chalet are some of Vail’s most requested restaurants, he says.
Agricultural tourism, or agritourism, differs slightly from culinary tourism in that agritourists visit the actual farms where food is produced. Wine trails are popular among such tourists, with wineries in the Western Slope becoming an increasingly desirable agritourism destination, according to the Colorado Tourism Office.
The correlation between agritourism and culinary tourism is especially pertinent in the valley, since the majority of local chefs boast their use of local, seasonal ingredients on their menus.
More direct agritourism experiences, Alonzi said, include things like Carbondale’s Sustainable Settings ” a farm that offers “working vacations” where visitors work on the farm and learn the ropes from the pros. Farmer’s markets are more common examples.
Food and wine festivals are also popular in the state. The Aspen Food and Wine Classic receives national attention ” a guest appearance is the grand prize of Bravo television’s hit show “Top Chef.” Big-name chefs just made appearances at Beaver Creek’s Bon Appetit Culinary and Wine Focus earlier this month.
It’s important that big-city dwellers know they can dine in fine restaurants while they’re in the valley, said Monica McCafferty, spokeswoman for the Vail Valley Partnership. People used to high-quality restaurants in places like New York and Chicago don’t have to give them up when they go on ski trips, she said.
“People really are amazed at the cultural offerings (in the valley),” she said. “You can enjoy a nice restaurant and that mountain alpine charm.”
The Colorado Tourism Office sees culinary tourism as a marketing strategy. While dining out and going to local farms or wineries isn’t new, advertising those places has become a hot trend, said Pete Meersman, president of the Colorado Restaurant Association and a Colorado Tourism Office board member.
“Once you get to the destination, food is the first or second most important thing for someone new to the area,” he said.
McCafferty said the Vail Valley Chamber also promotes the area’s restaurants. The group pitches stories about the valley’s dining to national journalists in New York City every year.
Meersman said the Colorado Restaurant Association, a lobbying group, is trying to get money from the state treasury to attract more tourists.
“Part of the people we want to attract are culinary tourists. Every dollar invested (in tourism promotion) generates almost $300 in sales from tourists that wouldn’t have come without having seen our promotions,” Meersman said.
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Vail’s updated plans regarding the state guidelines and isolation housing requirements is one of several pieces of information guests are waiting on heading into the 2020-21 season.