CTP Director of Education Sue Baldassano has been organizing culinary tours to Sicily, Oaxaca, and Turkey for more than 16 years. Here she offers some sage advice for those of us who dream of a glamorous career in culinary touring . . .
Do you dream of an exciting life of culinary travel to exotic locations meeting interesting people and tasting fabulous food? And getting paid big bucks to do so?
Well, you should seriously consider the job of culinary tour guide. Or should you?
As a 20-year veteran of leading culinary tours, I can tell you that aside from the ability to appreciate exotic locations and fabulous food, you will need a few other skills.
To be a successful culinary tour guide, you will need to be:
- Passionate (or, better yet: slightly insane). Planning a tour is very hard work; it takes months of work to iron out every detail and many promising leads fizzle.
- A detective. Investigating on the internet, through contacts, things you’ve read, people you know, etc.
- Willing and able to do leg work. Visiting places first, checking out every potential hotel and all cooking sites. I’ve been fooled at least once by a great looking website. A website doesn’t smell moldy, or inform you that 25 college kids are staying at the B&B the week you are planning to be there. A website doesn’t feed you corn flakes for breakfast or provide tepid bath water. You need to do a mini version of the tour you will be offering to others in order to prevent major missteps.
- Able to market your tours through a decent website, business card, Twitter, Facebook and/or screaming from rooftops, if necessary. You are constantly selling. If you are out to dinner with your family, friends, spouse or significant other, you better damn well have a brochure or a business card in your pocket, just in case you strike up a conversation with someone at the next table.
- Knowledgeable about food (culinary credentials are essential) and about the location you will be taking people. This includes some of the history, language, customs, politics or – even more importantly – when the latest landslide, tsunami, hurricane, governmental overthrow, mugging and garbage pick-up occurred.
- Aware of insurance issues (medical, travelers, etc.). People who go on tours often want every detail attended to, even if it has little to do with the actual tour and is not included in the price. Make sure you have a list of websites and other miscellaneous information on a million subjects, some of which may seem unrelated to the tour.
- Willing to arrive a few days early and stay a few days later. You need to make sure all your ducks are in a row with the classes, drivers (last year’s great driver is this year’s most wanted), hotels, rooms, pick-ups, last-minute changes if necessary (always have a disclaimer on your brochure that itinerary can change without prior notice).
- Able to invest time and money for a few years before you see any payback. I have been doing tours since 1994 and haven’t made a dime yet – so don’t quit your day job.
- Thick-skinned (elephant skin or, even better, wear a suit of armor). There is no way to make everyone happy on a tour. People are out of their comfort zone and are vulnerable. They have to adjust what time they wake, what time they eat, etc. Most people are interesting and well-behaved, but sometimes you are stuck for a week with a really high-maintenance type who hasn’t a clue about tour protocol and or normal adult behavior. I have even had people who have no idea what the actual itinerary is. One woman thought our culinary tour was an art tour and asked why we weren’t visiting more museums. Your tourists want to do everything, but then complain there is no free time. Other complaints include the weather, air conditioning (or lack of), bus rides, ceiling heights, too many animals in the street, too many people who don’t speak English, the food, the coffee, the beds, the shower size . . .
- Calm in the face of “whatever.” When a participant attempts to smuggle illegal substances into the county, do not panic! Just leave them at the airport, like I did on our first tour to Sicily. A more common occurrence on tours is when a participant gets “lost.” After I had a couple of tours under my belt, I realized sometimes people need to “disappear” for their own sake and the sake of the group. Don’t worry about it too much, unless they don’t show up by dinner time.
So why, one might now ask, would one want to run a basically non-lucrative business with all these hassles for almost 20 years? I consider the tours as a form of continuing education for myself as a culinary professional. On these tours I may interject my own culinary expertise from time to time, but basically I’m there as a student learning about food and culture.
Working with the same cooks (in my case, grandmas), guides, drivers and Bread and Breakfast owners over the years has resulted in some solid and strong working relationships and friendships. Yes, one tour participant did attempt to smuggle drugs into the country on one trip and there have been complaints about everything under the sun, but most of the people who have come on our tours are really great, and we have made some new friends and reconnected with old ones.
There is no time like the first time when it comes to discovering a new location. By introducing people to the places I love, I have the opportunity of experiencing that first-time feeling over and over again.