Following the hors d’ouevres of the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) meeting in Bruges, recently, Oliver Thomas tucks into the topic of how gastronomy can be leveraged within the MICE industry.
“Gastronomy is the best ambassador for any country.” Or at least this is what the United Nations World Tourism Organisation (UNWTO) general secretary, Zurab Pololikashvili, believes.
In early November the Basque Culinary Center (BCC), Visit Flanders and the city of Bruges hosted the 6th UNWTO World Forum on Gastronomy Tourism. Destination representatives, gastronomy experts and inter-governmental figures came from all parts of the world to attend this hybrid event. A major thrust of this forum aimed to emphasise how gastronomy could be used to develop ‘rural tourism and regional development.’
The underlying message throughout the conference’s seminars, discussions and activities was the capacity that gastronomy has in creating meaningful connections between visitors and the destinations. What a region eats and drinks are intrinsically linked to its culture, heritage and identity; in effect, you are what you eat.
Or for Abduleah Al-Tokhais, assistant professor at the College of Tourism and Archaeology at King Saud University, Saudi Arabia, you are what you drink. As he spoke about the role of coffee in preserving the identity of the Saudi Arabian region of Jazan, Al-Tokhais stated how “the most important thing for tourists is to have an authentic experience.” He believes connecting tourists with the Saudi region’s long history of coffee production is critical to creating original connections between visitors and the region of Jazan. This authenticity comes from making visitors feel as if they have really experienced the soul of a destination and gastronomy is the ‘best ambassador’ for this. But why is this important to event organisers?
While it is an imperative for destinations to have state of the art infrastructure for conferences and business events, organisers must increasingly look beyond this when planning international events. With the pandemic related challenges of international travel and the increasing considerations of climate change, businesses need to see the true value of sending delegates across the globe to attend events in-person. Thus, it is becoming ever more important for MICE destinations to provide delegates with experiences where the region will be remembered for much more than its meetings facilities or hotels.
From Bruges to Tunis
In recent weeks I have visited two locations, contrasting in culture, but equally bubbling over in gastronomic identity.
During my visit to Bruges, Belgium, I was immersed in the heritage of culinary craftmanship, with fine dining a plenty, and, of course, no shortage in supply of quality Belgium beer and chocolates.
I then spent some time exploring Tunisia, the southern gateway to the Mediterranean. There I was able to connect with the country’s identity of fresh food and again witnessed first-hand the potential gastronomy has to expand the appeal and development of the country’s MICE industry.
Both destinations were able to leverage gastronomy to form Unique Selling Points (USPs) for MICE events taking place there.
Bruges is a perfect example of how a destination can leverage its gastronomic identity to make it stand out on the meetings menu from the competition. Peter de Wilde, CEO of Visit Flanders, stated at the UNWTO Gastronomy Forum that if “local industry disappears, you have an experience that can be found anywhere in the world.” This loss of uniqueness can be detrimental to the prosperity of a MICE location and underlines the importance of local industry in creating authentic experiences. For Bruges, gastronomy is at the heart of this authenticity.
Bruges’ USP within gastronomy is centred around craftmanship. At the Bruges Beer Experience I was treated to a beer and chocolate tasting session, where manager Lars Pillen explained how these tasting mixes epitomise the city’s culture of craftmanship: “In making these combinations we have always stepped off the common road and tried to look at things from a new/different angle. Sometimes the result is a success, sometimes it’s a miss. But in doing so we have made great, unique combinations that have raised the bar on the food-beer pairing front.” It doesn’t matter if the ingredients originate from the region, it’s artisans that can craft them with expertise to enhance the end product which is important for Bruges.
This craftmanship is indicative of Bruges’ ability to offer delegates much more than just meetings facilities – although there are plenty of those with over 100 hotels, a 1,250-seat concert hall, and a new Meetings & Convention Centre which opens February 2022. Such facilities provide the foundation to Bruges’ appeal as a MICE destination, while gastronomy adds another layer that distinguishes it from similar locations. Delegates at the UNWTO Gastronomy Forum, I noticed, did not slip back into their rooms when the day was finished but were eagerly looking forward to experiencing more of the city’s restaurants and bars.
Jasmine Kestens, sales manager at Visit Bruges Convention Bureau, says: “We’re all humans and, of course, after a day of being at a conference it’s really nice to have a lovely experience, where you can eat and drink.” This not only adds personal value to a delegate’s trip but encourages those meaningful knowledge exchanges and networking opportunities that happen during conferences and meetings and which we treasure all the more so following the experiences of lockdown. Thus, gastronomy is far from just a tourist attraction, but can be used as an evocative and tactile tool to maximise delegate interactions and the overall impact of MICE events.
Fresh approach in Tunisia
A couple of thousand kilometres to the south, Tunisia sits on the northern tip of Africa, at the entrance to the Mediterranean Sea. Gastronomy is a big factor in how the country displays its authenticity and rich culture. Moncef Battikh, head of promotions at the Tunisian National Tourist Office in London, says: “Gastronomy and culture play a big part in MICE business as it is an opportunity (for business tourists) to enjoy a typical local variety of Italian, Roman, French, and Berber influenced cuisines.”
Centred around the principles of ‘fresh cuisine’ and diverse historical influences, Tunisia offers delegates endless opportunities to try delicious and exciting flavours from land to sea. Once part of the breadbasket for the Roman empire, Tunisian agriculture is an integral part of the country’s economy. Crops such as olives, dates and fresh fruits make up the majority of production and are abundantly used throughout Tunisian cuisine. Furthermore, Tunisia’s coastline stretching around 1,300km, also offers large access to the Mediterranean, where copious amounts of fresh fish can be found. The gastronomic tradition that stems from these principles of ‘freshness’, provide visitors with not just original dishes (couscous, brik, Ojja…) but great quality produce.
However, in the past decade, concerns over the region’s stability and security (Jasmine revolution 2010-11; Sousse resort and Bardo Museum terrorist attacks 2015) have dampened international event organisers’ desires to host events in Tunisia. As the Covid pandemic continues to ebb and flow, Tunisia, perhaps more than most, is looking for innovative ways to attract international business events back to the region. Gastronomy certainly has the potential to help build authentic experiences and evoke an appetite in those MICE visitors to return.
This potential presented by gastronomy can be a most welcome side dish to Tunisia’s existing natural MICE credentials and experience in leisure tourism. The distinctive North African culture has big appeal and being located only a short flight away from most European hubs makes for a handy destination that has traditionally offered excellent value for money.
Mokhtar Charfeddine, director of the Sousse Palace hotel, in the country’s second largest business hub of Sousse, argues that having events in Tunisia, compared “to the same category of hotel in Europe, is not as expensive.”
Therefore, gastronomy can only add a new and important dish to the meetings menu in Tunisia as the country’s business events proposition is developed for the future.
Time to take gastronomy seriously
The beauty of gastronomy is that it’s not exclusive to any one single destination. All locations in the world have their own gastronomy that is intrinsically linked to their own culture and history. In order to leverage this tradition to improve the MICE offer, there needs to be an understanding of where it can link into the identity of a location and how this can be used to create authentic experiences for delegates.
In Bruges and Tunisia, there is the insight and skill to harness the destinations’ gastronomy to benefit business events and add to their appeal. And as increasing scrutiny is placed on the value of international business travel, event organisers and destinations need to be able to demonstrate the value that can be added for their delegate experiences by gastronomy. Get it right and the outcomes can be to everyone’s taste.