Why Hotels Need to Focus More on Marketing Local Cuisine

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Hospitality & Leisure

I give hotels and resorts practical tips for marketing cuisine, and explain why food is so important for higher return rates.

Introduction

If you’re reading this, you probably live in Australia, so I want you to try something: think of a completely different country, preferably one you haven’t visited.  Somewhere like China, Morocco, or Peru.

Start imagining yourself on holiday there.

You visit some attractions – the Great Wall, some palaces, some historical sites.  You go on a tour or a hike through a natural park or wilderness zone.  You shop at local cultural markets.  And you eat local cuisine.

Collectively, the perception of these tourism offerings is known as ‘destination image’ or DI (this is important – we’ll talk more about it in a minute).

Here’s the thing: unless you’ve been to the country you were just imagining, none of those experiences are properly visualised in your mind.  We know that these are things that we can do, but we struggle to create a connection between that cerebral understanding and an emotional awareness of what the experience will actually feel like.

“But I have eaten Chinese food.” you’re thinking.  “In fact, I love it – I eat it all the time.”

And that’s exactly why local cuisine is so important.  It’s the one aspect of DI we can experience without ever actually visiting.  Would-be travellers already have a direct awareness of local cuisine, which can then feed into a given destination’s perceived attractiveness.

In the age of content marketing, hoteliers can’t just focus on promoting accommodation – they also need to actively endorse their destinations.

Many hotel brands are already aware of this, but haven’t taken the step from occasionally promoting their property destinations to embracing all aspects of DI.  And that brings us back to food.

A pre-existing association makes it easier for people to create a more tangible DI; the more tangible the DI, the easier it is for them to imagine themselves in that destination.

Food tourism versus food and tourism

Before we go any further, it’s important to distinguish between food tourism and food as a tourism experience.

‘Food tourism’ (also known as culinary or gastronomic tourism) is closely linked to related types of travel, like agricultural and wine tourism.  This is where food is the focus of the trip.

You’ll probably encounter travel blogs and food writers saying things like this: “Food tourism (or ‘culinary tourism’) is simply a matter of traveling beyond your immediate neighborhood to find great food.”

The standard academic definition from Hall and Mitchell is more accurate: “Food tourism can be defined as visitation to primary and secondary food producers, food festivals, restaurants and specific locations for which food tasting and/or experiencing the attributes of specialist food production regions are the primary motivating factor for travel” [1].

Compare someone who travels like that to your average holidaymaker – families and couples, not particularly obsessed with food or wine, seeking a holistic destination experience.  For them, food is not the primary reason for travelling, but rather a single component – a destination’s other tourism offerings are equally important.

Many hotels seem to dismiss the culinary dimension of a destination because they associate it with the relatively niche food tourism sub-sector.  Food tourists aren’t their target market, so they make the mistake of throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

In reality, food is a vital component of everyone’s holiday experience, and hotel marketing efforts need to better reflect that.

The theory behind why food matters to travellers

You can skip this part if you’re short on time or you don’t care about the ‘why’.

There are a few different ideas involved in why food is so important to travellers:

  • Place attachment
  • Destination image (DI)
  • Food-related personality traits (FRPT)

Place Attachment

Place attachment is a psychological connection between a person and a given place.  Williams et al define it as “…often associated with an emotional or affective bond between an individual and a particular place; this bond may vary in intensity from immediate sensory delight to long-lasting and deeply rooted attachment” [2].

The more experiences a person has in a certain place, the deeper their level of attachment.  Because attachment is deepened by sensory involvement, food is particularly important – it engages sight, smell, touch and taste, and also carries symbolic/ritualistic weight [3].  Deeper place attachment has been proven to result in revisitation, positive word-of-mouth and overall holiday satisfaction, which are all beneficial for hotels [4].

Destination Image

We’ve already talked a little bit about DI.  It’s basically how people perceive a certain place, generally in relation to tourism offerings.

DI “has significant value in explaining behaviour such as destination selection, revisit intention and satisfaction” [5].  DI is also fluid, shaped by experiences and new information.

Ultimately, it’s the driving force behind why people holiday where they do, and is particularly relevant for travellers seeking new destinations.

Simply put, food-related personality traits (FRPTs) are the attitudes people have towards food.

For hoteliers, the two most relevant FRPTs are food neophobia and food involvement.

Food neophobia is a fear of new food – like all phobias, it can range from hesitancy to outright avoidance.

Food involvement (FI) is “the level of importance of food in a person’s life” [6].  It’s directly linked to the difference between food tourism and food as a holiday component; people with high FI will probably engage in food tourism, while people with average FI will only view food as one factor of DI.

You can already see how these two FRPTs might influence destination marketing.  Targeting an audience with high FI using food-focused marketing will result in better outcomes; pushing the same messaging at an audience with food neophobia will probably backfire.

Some good ways to minimise food neophobia are through education about nutritional benefits, promotion of fusion food, linkage of culture and cuisine, and emphasis of gastronomic traits valued by neophobic target markets.  I’ll go into more detail about this in the next section.

Practical Marketing Recommendations

Before we dive into some practical marketing recommendations, let’s review what we now know.

  1. Food involvement is a spectrum – unless you’ve got properties in regions famous for their food and wine, you’re probably going to be targeting audiences with average food involvement.
  2. Place attachment has a significant impact on word-of-mouth and revisitation.
  3. DI has a significant impact on destination choice and revisitation.
  4. Both place attachment and DI are heavily impacted by food.
  5. Therefore, marketing a destination’s food has a very real impact on guests’ behaviour.

It’s obvious that food plays a critical role in both attracting and retaining guests, so hotels need to embrace it as a pillar of their marketing strategy.  Here’s how you can do it.

Integrating food-related imagery into campaigns and ads is an excellent place to start.

Sceptical?  Think about what happened the last time you saw a high-quality photo or video featuring fresh, hot food – you started to feel hungry.  This is due to the release of the protein hormone ghrelin, which helped early humans eat more when food was available.

You can leverage the effects of ghrelin to boost your marketing efforts; in the same way fast food commercials use beautiful videos to create hunger and subsequently draw customers, imagery of destination-specific food can help build a desire to visit that particular location.

On your social media, break up shots of scenery, activities and hotel facilities with pictures of traditional dishes.  You can save money and time by collaborating with local restaurants to source authentic, high-quality images.

Write ‘where to eat’ listicles

Listicles are the go-to format for quick, affordable blogs – they don’t require in-depth analysis of the topic which saves on time and money, are easily consumed thanks to lots of subheadings, and have good SEO potential.

The obvious route to take is to answer the question a lot of guests will be asking: where are the best places to eat?

If you’re based in a city and your brand’s website doesn’t have a host of high-quality backlinks, you probably won’t be able to rank for general queries like ‘best restaurants gold coast’, because much bigger sites have already covered that topic.

Instead, narrow your focus, both in terms of location and topic.

Pick an audience segment like, for instance, middle-class families, and focus on the best Broadbeach restaurants, or the best Burleigh restaurants – you’ll end up with a target keyword like ‘best family restaurants Broadbeach’.  These terms will still have relatively high traffic, but will be less competitive and draw more engaged audiences.

Create pillar content & cluster content

Once you’ve answered the ‘where to eat’ question with a few different blogs, create pillar content surrounded by cluster content (this includes the ‘where to eat’ listicles).

Your pillar content should provide a broad overview of the topic, and your cluster content delves deeper into specific facets of that topic.  As an example, a Gold Coast hotel might produce a piece of pillar content that includes:

  • What is Australian food
  • Traditional Australian food
  • Australian food pricing compared to other countries
  • Australian dining best practices (tipping, table manners, etc)
  • Food the Gold Coast is famous for
  • Best Gold Coast dining precincts
  • Best Gold Coast restaurants

Once your pillar piece has been created, produce different cluster content covering every niche aspect of it – interviews with famous Aussie chefs, best Aussie foods, romantic restaurants on the Gold Coast, and so on.  Remember, your ‘where to eat’ listicles should be linked to under the ‘Best [your region] restaurants’ section.

Creating content like this is great for SEO, helpful for users and means you’ll have a constant stream of topics to choose from when writing blogs.

Collaborate with local restaurants

Every practical recommendation we’ve talked about so far has been digitally focused.  We’ve been targeting guests who are in the process of deciding where they want to holiday, because that’s generally when most people book accommodation – and, of course, the ultimate goal of all your marketing is to generate more bookings.

Conversely, building relationships with local restaurants benefits existing guests, which leads to better stays, higher revisitation rates and more positive reviews.

In the same way you put together activity packages with local experience providers, think about creating discounted activity/meal combos.  You could also work with restaurants to offer expedited delivery services for your guests.

The purpose of doing this is to forge a direct link between local cuisine and your hotel.  When guests perceive your hotel brand as being part of a given place’s DI, they’re more likely to book with you next time they visit that location.

Promote your hotel’s restaurant

Collaborating with nearby restaurants is a great idea, but not if your hotel has an on-site restaurant.  All those friendly locals?  They’re now your competitors.

You can still reach out to restaurants who don’t occupy the same niche, but, ideally, you should focus on the great local cuisine your eatery is creating.  Interview your chefs, post recipes on social media, take mouth-watering photos, and host cooking/eating competitions.

Remember place attachment?  The more experiences people have in your hotel, the stronger the bond, which results in higher revisitation rates and better reviews.  Of course, it’s up to you to make sure that those experiences are positive ones.

To counter food neophobia, have your chefs create a menu that features both local dishes and dishes similar to those from your top three international markets.  For the majority of Australian hotels, those markets will be China, New Zealand and the United States [7].

Make use of influencer marketing

You’ve probably shelled out a bunch of nights at one point or another to Instagram influencers and their families.  Maybe it worked well for you.  Maybe it didn’t.  But if your brand is successfully weaponising influencers, make sure they’re doing more than just posting pics of themselves beside your rooftop pool.

Why?  Because rooftop pools aren’t unique, nor are luxury room trimmings or balcony spas or any other property feature.  That isn’t to say you should stop your influencers from posing with these things – after all, they showcase how nice your hotel is, which can definitely help bookings.

But you should also connect your hotel with the destination by getting some images of your influencers eating local cuisine (maybe while swimming in that beautiful rooftop pool).  A popular style of photograph features a meal in the foreground, and a beautiful or iconic view in the background.

 

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Hungry? Pic by @melissa

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Moderate food neophobia

The biggest risk associated with promoting food as part of DI is that certain travellers have food neophobia, which means your marketing efforts could actually deter them from visiting.

According to Lai et al, “the mass Chinese tourist market is more neophobic than the independent travel market” [8].  That’s bad news, considering China is far and away Australia’s biggest international market.

So how do you combat food neophobia?  The same way you get people comfortable with any new idea – by drawing parallels with things they know.

If your hotel features an on-site eatery, offer both local and international cuisines as previously discussed.

Specifically in relation to Chinese tourists, Lai et al recommend “incorporat[ing] the familiar with the unfamiliar by offering iconic Australian local produce with a Chinese style of cooking, like native Australian barramundi steamed with ginger and shallots, kangaroo meat stir-fried and wrapped in lettuce, or homegrown Australian wagyu beef stir-fried with rice noodles” [8].

If you don’t have an on-site restaurant, fighting food neophobia becomes more difficult.

Use content like blogs to highlight similarities to your international target markets’ food, and then make sure that content is readily available to hotel guests.  If you rely heavily on neophobic markets, consider creating small pamphlets with food parallels and recommendations, to be placed in rooms or made available in your lobby.

Relevance During COVID-19

By now, you’re probably thinking: “This is all very interesting, but we’re probably facing a couple of years without much international travel.  What’s the point of marketing local cuisine to people who already eat food just like it?”

Here’s the thing: COVID hasn’t changed DI, or how we form it – it’s just changed the type of guests you’ll be receiving.  Food is still an inextricable part of the holiday experience, and marketing local cuisines will still work, particularly if you operate in places which are renowned intranationally as ‘food destinations’.

Promote local specialities, and focus on the practical tips mentioned earlier.  Domestic travellers are still Googling ‘best restaurants Gold Coast’.  Couples are still looking for romantic nights out.  Your content will still rank and spread brand awareness, and maybe even generate some bookings.

In a time when the future of the hotel industry looks increasingly bleak, marketing your properties differently might be the key to surviving the economic fallout of COVID-19.

So throw some kangaroo steaks on the barbie, crack open a stubby, and post it all on your hotel’s Instagram, because it’s time to start marketing your destination’s best local cuisine.

References

[1] Hall, C. M., Mitchell, R. (2005) Chapter 16: Gastronomy, Food and Wine Tourism. In Costa, C., Buhalis, D. (Ed.), Tourism Business Frontiers: Consumers, Products and Industry.  Butterworth-Heinemann.

[2] Williams, D. R.,  Patterson, M. E.,  Roggenbuck, J. W., Watson, A. E. (1992) Beyond the commodity metaphor: Examining emotional and symbolic attachment to place. Leisure Sciences. 14(1), 29-46. doi: 10.1080/01490409209513155

[3] Mitchell, R., Hall, C. M. (2003) Consuming tourists: Food tourism consumer behaviour.  In Hall (Ed.), Food tourism around the world: Development management, and markets (pp. 60-80). Oxford, Taylor & Francis Ltd.

[4] Brown, G. Smith, A. Assaker, G. (2016) Revisiting the host city: An empirical examination of sport involvement, place attachment, event satisfaction and spectator intentions at the London Olympics.  Tourism Management.  55, 160-172.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.tourman.2016.02.010

[5] Hsu, C. F.  Scott, N.  (2020) Food experience, place attachment, destination image and the role of food-related personality traits.  Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Management.  44, 79-87.  https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jhtm.2020.05.010

[6] Bell, R. Marshall, D. (2003) The construct of food involvement in behavioural research: Scale development and validation.  Appetite.  40(3), 235-244.  https://doi.org/10.1016/S0195-6663(03)00009-6

[7] Tourism and Events Queensland (2020, March) International Tourism Snapshot.  Retrieved from: https://cdn2-teq.queensland.com/~/media/b686a8c925364227ad0cd820d7667746.ashx?vs=1&d=20200720T105553

[8] Lai, M. Y. Wang, Y. Khoo-Lattimore, C. (2019) Do Food Image and Food Neophobia Affect Tourist Intention to Visit a Destination? The Case of Australia.  Journal of Travel Research.  59(5), 928-949.  https://doi.org/10.1177/0047287519867144

By Duncan Croker

Duncan is a copywriter with a background in editing and storytelling. He loves collaborating with brands big and small, and thrives on the challenges of hard marketing.

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