Like most places, Columbus, Ohio, has a few quirks that make it unique: German Village. James Thurber’s old house. And an unusually high number of coffee roasters.
In 2014, some of those roasters approached Experience Columbus with an idea. “They wanted to create something that would encourage people to get out and explore, taste, and experience the coffee scene here in Columbus,” said Megumi Robinson, associate director of public relations for Experience Columbus. “It seemed like a great opportunity for us to bring these roasters together and showcase the scene. We saw [the coffee scene] as something that was very distinct to Columbus, particularly when looking at the cities that we would regularly compete against.”
After grinding and filtering the concept, Experience Columbus and the roasters came up with the Columbus Coffee Experience, a self-guided trail of eight coffee cafés and shops downtown. If visitors dropped in on at least four of the coffee shops listed on a printed passport, they could redeem those stamps for a Columbus Coffee Experience t-shirt. Soon, Experience Columbus began promoting the trail nationally, including on social media. In 2015, barely a year after the launch, roughly 2,000 people completed the trail. “Immediately, it was a huge success,” Robinson said, “with tons and tons of interest.”
That level of interest extends beyond coffee — and Columbus. Whether it’s cheese, bourbon, barbecue, or even paper-thin cookies, destinations increasingly are serving up their local culinary assets on trails designed to help visitors create their own unique experiences. And while food- and drink-focused trails may initially have been designed with leisure travelers in mind, they’re now being used to entice business travelers and meetings as well.
It’s a natural fit, at least in Columbus, where all of the now-13 coffee destinations are within walking distance of the Greater Columbus Convention Center. “When people are here for a conference, they want to experience the city beyond the meeting-room walls,” Robinson said. “Not only do they get to sample some amazing coffee from roasters who have won national awards, but it’s another way for us to show off our growing food scene. Something that sets us apart, too, is the quality of our milk. A lot of it is locally sourced, and that’s something unique to Columbus that infiltrates the whole food and dining scene.”
All of the sweat equity that went into creating Columbus’ coffee trail, as well as fees paid by participating roasters, have a demonstrated return on investment. Through the end of March 2016, Experience Columbus had tallied 9,580 cups of coffee sold because of the trail.
Sometimes, a food, dish, or drink specific to a destination can be so woven into a community’s fabric that locals don’t necessarily see it as unique — that is, until visitors point it out to them. So it was with Moravian cookies in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
In the mid-1700s, thousands of Eastern Europeans — including a high concentration from Bohemia and Moravia — settled in the Winston-Salem region. In addition to their distinct religion, Moravians brought with them a few noteworthy culinary traditions, including wispy Moravian cookies.
For years, few people outside of Winston-Salem knew much about the cookies, which traditionally are spiced with clove, ginger, and molasses. “We kept hearing over and over from travel and culinary writers that they’d never heard of the cookies,” said Marcheta Cole Keefer, director of marketing and communications for Visit Winston-Salem. That sparked an idea. Four years ago, Cole Keefer’s team used a whiteboard to work out their ideas for promoting the cookies — then assembled a virtual, self-guided trail for visitors, with each stop outlined on a dedicated website.
The Moravian Cookie Trail, which includes stops at the two largest U.S. producers of Moravian cookies and a handful of other historic bakeries, debuted in 2014, and quickly became so popular that Visit Winston-Salem added information on where visitors could also taste Moravian chicken pie and sugar cake. “It all started with the cookie,” Cole Keefer said, “and we started building on it in tangible ways, so [visitors] could truly experience the different components of it.” That included offering Moravian cookie pairings for groups — the delicate cookie pairs well with goat cheese and mascarpone.
The trail also offers visitors a sense of Winston-Salem’s uniqueness — something its convention team can sell to meeting planners. “Meeting planners’ missions are parallel to our mission — to find what’s going to make the delegate take note and say wow,” Cole Keefer said. “The planner then gets kudos for doing something different that nobody else has done. It’s been really fun and successful to tell the story of something that’s authentically ours, and that no other destination really has. A lot of times, business travelers don’t have a choice about what destination they are going to. We try to take advantage of that moment, and hope that they’ll come back as a leisure traveler.”
The Kentucky Bourbon Trail is something of a senior citizen among modern food and drink trails. It was conceived by the Kentucky Distillers’ Association in 1999, and now sees 2.5 million visitors each year. But the balance between leisure and business travelers has tipped in recent years.
“Bourbon is definitely a selling point for business travelers, meeting planners, and groups,” said Scottie Ellis, marketing communications manager for the Greater Louisville Convention & Visitors Bureau, “because it’s a unique experience that sets us apart from other markets.”
The overwhelming success of the Kentucky Bourbon Trail gave rise to the Urban Bourbon Trail (UBT), a more compact, mostly walkable self-guided tour for travelers who might lack the means or inclination to go beyond downtown Louisville. It includes 13 stops that range from bars and eateries to a museum and a chocolate shop, and is backed by both a printed passport and an app. “It allows visitors to experience the fun of a passport like the Kentucky Bourbon Trail, but in the heart of the city,” Ellis said. “This is a big talking point for us with meeting planners, as we typically provide passports to attendees, and guests can easily walk to a large percentage of the UBT stops.”
Added David Kinney, director of Midwest sales for the Greater Louisville CVB: “We have dedicated an entire department to marketing our Urban Bourbon Trail and culinary scene. Over a million travelers came into Louisville last year to utilize the bourbon trail. Bourbon is hot, so why wouldn’t you want to include that in a conference?”
Back in Columbus, the early success of the Columbus Coffee Trail helped spur an equally popular Columbus Ale Trail, and the CVB’s cogs are still turning. “We want to continue to develop these trails,” Robinson said, “to leverage them in our marketing.”