11 Sep How to Choose a Food Tour in Hong Kong-and Everywhere Else
How to Choose a Food Tour in Hong Kong—and Everywhere Else
Choosing a food tour in Hong Kong, or in any world city, can be a challenge. Ten years ago, there were usually one, perhaps two companies in each city. But today, thanks to the explosion of interest in food tourism, big foodie cities like Hong Kong, New York, and Rome may have dozens of foodie tours on offer.
How do you make sure that the food tour you choose will be the right one for you? Our director at Little Adventures in Hong Kong, Daisann McLane, draws on her ten years of experience running food tours in Hong Kong to share the following five pieces of advice:
1.Select the food tour that fits your level of interest and experience.
Before you start researching, ask yourself some questions to determine what type of food traveler you are. Are you a serious foodie? The kind that is the first in line to try out every hot new restaurant in your city? Do you collect cookbooks, watch Anthony Bourdain, and spend your weekends walking through local neighborhoods looking for unusual or interesting bites? Is food your first priority whenever you travel?
If that profile sounds like you, then you probably won’t be happy on the average middle of the road food tour that’s so common around the world. We’re talking about the tours that squeeze a lot of short tastes into a few hours. The group size of these walking tours is fairly large, usually 8 and sometimes as many as 15 persons. The group leaders are career tour guides, students on gap year, or out of work actors, not food experts. (NOTE: These tours often take place in the afternoon, the time between lunch and dinner. That’s the only time that large groups will fit into most busy restaurants, but it is also the time when the food coming out of the kitchen is the least fresh and attractive!)
Serious food travelers should consider the extra expense of booking a private food tour. That way you’ll be sure of a small group size. And you will have the opportunity to customize your program around your interests.
Perhaps you are NOT a dyed in the wool foodie in need of an expert-led Bourdain-style experience. You like food and eating, but it’s just one of many things you are interested in doing on your travels, along with checking out museums, seeing famous sights, appreciating architecture and shopping. You’re quite okay with an overview of the local cuisine led by an entertaining tour guide. In fact, that sounds like exactly how you’d like to spend a few hours during your next trip! If that’s the case (or if you are traveling with someone who sounds like they fit this description), then by all means, book a standard group food tour. You’ll have a few bites, learn more about your destination, and have a lot of fun too!
2. Choose a food tour that offers quality over quantity
Beware the food tour company that promotes their tour by telling potential customers they will “feel so full they won’t have to eat dinner” when it’s finished. Or that advertise an impossibly high number of tasting stops in a three hour walking tour. When we see that kind of marketing or testimonial, we run the other way!
Why? Well as food tour operators we are privy to a secret of our industry: the food that you eat on a food tour represents the LOWEST expense of our business. In many cases, a tour operator is getting your food for free! That’s right, lots of operators partner with restaurants to give out sample tastes for free, or close to it, for promotional purposes. That means you’re not necessarily tasting food at the best restaurants in the area. You’re eating at the ones who have made a deal with your food tour company. (NOTE: At Little Adventures in Hong Kong we never, ever do that. We choose restaurants because we like them, not because they cut us a break).
If you are the kind of traveler that enjoys overviews, rather than deep dives, then a tour padded with lots of stops for cheaper items like cookies, pastries and other starchy dishes may be right for you. But if you prefer to have a tour with fewer, but higher quality items on offer, then steer clear of the food tours that promise to “fill you up”.
3. Check the itinerary. Make sure there is more to your food tour than just eating.
We have been on food tours around the world that consist of three or four hours jumping from food stop to food stop. At each restaurant, cafe, street food stand or bakery we learn the name of the owners, how old the establishment is, and perhaps we’ll hear one anecdote about each place. Wash, rinse repeat.
Frankly, we find these types of food tours boring. Food is a door to the culture and history of a place, and it’s such a pity to just eat it! That is why we recommend examining your food tour itinerary. Does it include stops at local groceries or (even better) open air food markets? Will you be making any non-food related stops at interesting, off the beaten track places? Will you be meeting a food artisan or getting a demonstration of a traditional cooking method? These are all signs that your tour company has done its research and is interested in giving you a rounded experience that includes food, but also communicates a sense of place.
4. Who are the company’s tour guides? Are they legitimate local food experts with credentials to match?
We’ve already mentioned that food is the least expensive item in the cost of your food tour. So what’s the most expensive part of the budget? As you (or anybody who’s taken Economics 101) might guess, it is the salary of the person who is your food tour guide for the day. The amount of money spent (or not spent) on staff is the biggest part of a tour company’s budget, and the size of that budget largely determines how much profit the company is making.
Most food tour guides around the world have a passion for food and their local culture. But a really great food tour guide is someone with professional experience in the food and beverage industry. They might be a chef, a writer, a food scholar or journalist. They haven’t just eaten a lot of local food, they’ve thought about it, cooked it in a professional setting, or written about it for legitimate media.
Food tour guides with that level of expertise need to be well-paid, they don’t work for peanuts. Especially if they are bilingual (which they should be if you are in a country where English is not the language spoken on the street and in restaurant kitchens). And they certainly don’t work for tips alone (WARNING: Steer well clear of “free” tours if you want to learn about food with experts. The “free” tours are possible because the guides get no salary and they are working for your tips. That is never a happy situation, in our opinion).
So if your food tour is incredibly cheap, and your group size is less than @8, you can be pretty sure the company has set salaries for guides as low as possible. They might be terrific and fun tour leaders, but they won’t have real culinary credentials. As always, you get what you pay for.
How can you tell if a company’s food tour guides are really culinary experts? One clue is the company website. Does it list guides by their full names, first and last, so you can Google to find out their background? Or are they simply listed as “Joe” “Rodrigo” or “Jane”? Do the guide bios include links to verify their resumes?
We recently chose to use a food tour company in Mexico City based on their staff credentials, which were clearly listed on the website. Our guide was a former restaurant chef. She had a deep knowledge not just of where to eat the best quesadilla, but where it was made, what kind of corn they used, and where it came from. She gave us abundant detail about the unfamiliar ingredients in the market. This was probably one of the more expensive food tour available in Mexico City. But it was worth every extra penny.
5. How does the food tour company communicate with you. Do you get a personal answer to your email?
A few years ago, we were told (by a top marketing company in Hong Kong) that a new generation of travelers was “disrupting” the market. These travelers preferred to choose, click, book and pay for their food or walking tours online, without having to bother with “old-fashioned” email. The marketing company recommended that we at Little Adventures completely revamp our website, cut most of the text on all the pages, and make all our tours instantly bookable online.
We ignored most of their advice (we like words, sorry!) but we did take some of their recommendations to heart. After much research we installed an online automated booking system on our website with lots of user-friendly buttons, so that people could book our tours without getting in touch with us first.
A funny thing happened. We kept getting customer emails anyway. Less than 20 percent of our customers used the online “Instant” booking system.
After a month or two, we realized this: When people are booking a food tour in a faraway city, especially one they have never visited before, they seek reassurance on the other end. They want to hear (or read) a voice to confirm that they are dealing with real professional people. They want to be able to ask questions, and get answers in reply.
We eventually dismantled most of the online booking and went back to the old fashioned way of answering emails by hand. Yes, it is more time consuming, but the benefit of establishing a relationship with clients before they arrive in Hong Kong is priceless. Your tour with us begins before you even arrive in Hong Kong.
While we don’t think it is absolutely necessary to be as hands-on with client communications as we are, we do recommend that you choose a food tour company based on the quality of their communications. Can you email the food tour company, and are your emails answered by an actual person? If the whole inquiry and booking process is automated, you can figure a company is doing a high volume of customers and doesn’t really have time to handle you personally. And your tour experience can’t help but reflect that.