Landing the Hungry Tourist

9/29/2012 7:00 AM
By Shannon Sollinger Virginia Correspondent

Twilight Tour and Dinner in Ashburn, Va., Touts Culinary Tourism



ASHBURN, Va. — Culinary tourism, a niche within agritourism, is now a standard term in a regional tourism or marketing director’s lexicon.

It’s simple: Get tourists to visit your farms, markets and wineries for your fantastic foods and the creative ways you serve and package them.

Winemakers, farmers and shopkeepers can collaborate to create everything from a fresh and local lunch at the farm to the overnight trip and the culinary trail.

The Forum for Rural Innovation Twilight Dinner at Clyde’s Willow Creek Farm in Ashburn Sept. 19 did just that for upward of a hundred farmers, foodies and agri-entrepreneurs from the northern Virginia and West Virginia region.

Speaker Mary Kay Vrba, of Dutchess County (N.Y.) Tourism, shared her experience in getting more visitors to come to her area and to spend more money.

Tim MacLean, Clyde’s Willow Creek farmer, gave a tour of the 1!-W-acre gardens and their 21 raised beds of vegetables, greens, herbs and fruits. Clyde’s staff topped the evening off with a four-course meal featuring fresh and local components, many from Farmer Tim’s garden, served with wines from local vintners.

“Farmer Tim” has been tending the Willow Creek Farm — it really was a farm before Loudoun County’s rush to suburbanize — since 2008. He stresses “sustainable farming-to-restaurant” production of heirloom and specialty vegetables, herbs and fruits, he told his guests on the farm tour.

Vrba stressed the importance of culinary and agricultural components in an overall destination plan for a region’s tourism. In New York, Vrba created and expanded marketing campaigns like “Simple and Sophisticated: You Deserve Dutchess” and the “Farm Fresh One-Day Getaway” program — credited with enticing an additional 4,000 visitors who spent, on average, $80 apiece per visit, to Dutchess County since 2007.

As an adjunct instructor at New York University’s hospitality program, Vrba put together the “Creating Culinary Adventures” curriculum.

“Culinary tourism,” Vrba said, “is about creating a memorable experience for the customer/visitor with all types of food, venues and people.”

The advantages: It’s hot — just note the proliferation of cooking and travel shows on television to be convinced. It’s weatherproof. It’s year-round. It’s hands-on and up to your personal choice. Anyone who is creative can incorporate it into his or her marketing strategy.

And best of all: Customers want to buy it at least three times a day.

She offered some tips to get started, including serving and selling local wines; purchasing and using locally grown products in recipes and promoting that on the menu; partnering with local attractions, restaurants and shops to create an overnight package with a culinary theme to draw in more visitors (customers).

Develop a signature dish: What do you cook that the customers can’t get anywhere else.

Work in partnership with other growers/rural entrepreneurs to develop a culinary trail and a themed itinerary.

Offer a culinary event.

Clyde’s, of course, was offering just that, starting with hors d’oeuvre of local apples and figs. Doug Fabbioli introduced the local wine that complemented each course. Butter head lettuce, red vein sorrel and goat cheese with raspberries and figs with a Willow Creek Farm vinaigrette started things off for the diners.

Next came a vegetable Napoleon of squash, eggplant, peppers, onions, tomato and basil. Roasted pork loin with a honey mustard glaze on a bed of sweet potato greens took center stage for the main course, and dessert featured handmade pies of caramel apple and pear with merlot ice cream.

Twilight dinners and tours pick up where the eighth annual Forum for Rural Innovation, held every year since 2005 in Winchester, left off. The theme in March was direct marketing for farms, and culinary tourism is just one more way to accomplish that.

The forums are a joint educational venture of the offices of economic development and Extension in Loudoun, Clarke and Fauquier counties in Virginia, and Jefferson and Berkeley counties in West Virginia; the town of Berryville; and the Small Business Development Center of the Eastern Panhandle.

The ninth annual Forum for Rural Innovation is set for March 8, 2013. Visit for updates on the agenda and registration information.

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