Lessons from Ontario: Talking with Rebecca LeHeup about Ontario’s Culinary Tourism

Rebecca LeHeup of Ontario Culinary Tourism

Rebecca LeHeup of Ontario Culinary Tourism

Today the Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism is wrapping up at the Grand Traverse Resort. The theme this year is culinary tourism, and we sat down with one of the experts brought in to help Michigan tourism pros explore this lucrative aspect of the industry.

Rebecca LeHeup is the Executive Director of the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance (OCTA), a province-wide, industry-led, nonprofit organization dedicated to using culinary tourism as a driver to Ontario’s economy. OCTA was originally funded by the Ontario Ministry of Tourism, but through contributions from many institutions and organizations, they were able to develop a plan to engage business to the point where today the organization is 70% funded by member businesses, regional tourism and commodity organizations and consulting revenues.

Rebecca explains, “Part of it was getting the industry engaged and mobilized, but a big piece getting them to pay to play. You have to have skin in the game – people don’t value it if it’s free.”

Something that’s instructive for folks in Traverse City to consider as we shape our own culinary tourism product is that OCTA is not primarily a destination marketing organization like a chamber or CVB. “Our focus is really on destination development,” Rebecca explains. “It’s not just about creating a product that’s wine & food based for foodies, but rather how you can add local food and drink aspects to cultural, adventure and other tourism experiences. Instead of being the demand generator, unique tastes of place become an experience enhancer. When you add them to any of these experiences, you get the consumers to linger longer, spend more money and develop loyalty.”

Rebecca says that the program has been a huge success. “We went from working with 5 destinations in the fall of 2008 to over 30 and are developing strategies with several regions and consulting internationally. We’re teaching festivals and events how to put local flavor into their festivals. Even festivals that nothing to do with food, but have a food or beverage offering are learning how to shift to local flavors.”

Barrel tasting with Debra Paskus (Closson Chase winery) with the Oliver & Bonacini crew

Barrel tasting with Debra Paskus at Closson Chase Winery
courtesy Rebecca LeHeup/OCTA

Ontario has a lot of similarities in the food & drink Michigan produces including a vibrant farm-to-table and wine scene. Rebecca says, “I think we’re very similar. With both Michigan and Ontario, the question is often: ‘You have a wine industry?’ A challenge is to exposure consumers to Ontario wine and to get them to taste with the goal of increasing sales. Our Feast ON program pays it forward to restaurants that are showcasing Ontario wines, craft beers and ciders, it supports the Ontario Wine Council- a really savvy marketing organization that gives recognition to restaurants who have 25% of their wine list or 25 bottles from Ontario.

“There’s a whole generation of baby boomers whose first taste of Ontario wine was Baby Duck – sickly-sweet recipe for a hangover. Today we’re producing internationally competitive, quality wines. The challenge is getting past perceptions and making it approachable to everyone from the Millennials on up.”

With research that shows a $3 impact for every dollar spent on local food. For every 1L of Ontario wine that is consumed, $12.29 is generated in added value as compared to wine from other places, OCTA’s Culinary Tourism Strategy suggests that this challenge is well worth undertaking. Rebecca concludes, “In the end, culinary tourism is really all about economic impact. It’s important to get agriculture and tourism to work together, but a key factor is getting economic development interests to the table.”

You can keep up with the Michigan Culinary Tourism Alliance online and stay tuned to eatdrinkTC for news on Traverse City’s efforts. Be sure to check out this video from the Ontario Culinary Tourism Alliance for more about an effort that’s definitely worth a look for Traverse City and the state of Michigan.