Although there has been much talk about the Cayman Islands Government entering into public/private partnerships in recent times, one successful such partnership has already existed for three years.
This year, the third annual Cayman Cookout held 13-16 January brought packed hotels, record numbers of tickets sales and revenues, and a 28 per cent increase in international visitors. The event is a collaboration between The Cayman Islands Department of Tourism, The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman and Food & Wine magazine.
Cline Glidden Jr., chairman of the Ministerial Council for Tourism, said the Cookout was designed to showcase the Islands as a world class, sophisticated vacation destination with a primary goal of increasing incremental visitation during the relative slump in travel immediately following the Christmas holidays.
“With the Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman as the host venue, the concept of the weekend centres on cooking and the culinary arts, with the outdoor landscape of the Caribbean as the backdrop,” he said. “As such, attendees have an opportunity to enjoy tastings, demonstrations, tours and dinners alongside all of the very best that Cayman has to offer in terms of natural beauty and cultural traditions.”
Glidden said events like the Bush Tea Party held at the Mission House in Bodden Town in 2010 and the Starfish Point picnic held this year highlighted not only Cayman’s culinary culture, but also featured local arts and crafts demonstrations and music provided by homegrown performers.
The public/private partnership in place for the Cayman Cookout presents a mutually beneficial scenario for the partners, as well as the Cayman Islands as a destination, Glidden said.“The economic benefits to the destination and spill over to hoteliers, restaurants and other tourism service providers is evidently growing,” he said. “This is what Cookout was conceptualized to deliver and we anticipate further growth and expansion year on year.”
‘A labour of love’ for the Ritz-Carlton
Melissa Ladley, communications director for The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman, said the hotel was thrilled about how the Cayman Cookout has grown in just three years, both quantitatively and qualitatively. This year’s Cookout brought larger attendance at events in addition to more visitors, most of whom were first-time visitors to Cayman.
“The hotel was fully committed during the Cayman Cookout weekend,” she said. “More than 90 per cent of the guests at The Ritz-Carlton, Grand Cayman were here 13-16 January specifically for Cayman Cookout. This number includes the visiting chefs, sponsors and international media, as well as guests.”
Many of those in the hotel not originally tied to the Cookout ended up attending multiple events after they learned it was happening, Ladley said.
“For example, a young couple on their honeymoon didn’t know about Cookout until they checked in, but they are food enthusiasts and got tickets for a few demonstrations,” she said.
“One was the Just Desserts competition with Gail Simmons and Michael Laiskonis in which Jose Andres, Charlie Trotter and Eric Ripert became impromptu sous chefs. The wife was selected as one of the three contestants and ended up winning the competition. So, this young woman has honeymoon photos of her preparing a dessert with Eric Ripert as her sous chef and then one of the group including the great chefs she and Eric defeated. That is the kind of surprising and fun intimacy of Cayman Cookout that we love.”
Love is a key word when discussing why the Ritz-Carlton hosts and produces the Cookout, as well as being a sponsor of the event. The event itself isn’t a big money maker right now, says Director of Food and Beverage Guntram Merl.
“Cookout is a labour of love for us,” he said. “It’s what we refer to in The Ritz-Carlton vernacular as a ‘mystique builder’, an event that raises the profile of the Island and its culinary scene.
The idea of Cookout was born back in 2007 over beers with Eric Ripert and a few others at Calico Jacks, not in a corporate boardroom. It’s fuelled by passion, not profit.
“While we will continue to produce Cookout more efficiently and attract sponsors to underwrite the cost, The Ritz-Carlton will not realize a significant profit from the event in the foreseeable future.”
There are other benefits to The Ritz-Carlton besides profits though, said Ladley.
“Our culinary team works side-by-side in the kitchens with the guest chefs and their sous chefs,” she said. “[I]t’s a tremendous learning experience and fantastic networking opportunity for upcoming chefs to work alongside them. Watching the likes of Eric Ripert, Charlie Trotter and Jose Andres plate up a banquet at the Cayman Cookout Gala Dinner is an awe-inspiring experience.”
Overseas media coverage is another benefit The Ritz-Carlton receives from the Cookout.
“Part of the media objectives of Cayman Cookout are to generate exposure for not only the event, but also the Island as a world-class culinary destination year round,” Ladley said. “To this end, the organisers invite journalists in both luxury lifestyle/travel publications as well as epicurean titles. All of these segments are long lead, so exposure will continue throughout the first half of the year.”
In addition to articles in a variety of print publications, Cookout gets mentions on many Internet-base blogs and social network sites, some of which gives “the kind of publicity that you just can’t buy”, Ladley said.
“Before Cookout was in full swing, Eric Ripert and Anthony Bourdain were hanging out with their families on the beach,” she said. “They were trash talking each other playfully as chefs do, but they were doing it on Twitter. Eric calls Tony a lobster; Tony jokes how Eric is self-conscious about his famous silver hair even on the beach. Their collective 250,000+ followers read this and saw pictures of them with beautiful Seven Mile Beach in the background on a day when yet another snowstorm was hitting New York.”
Ladley said the Cayman Cookout is a destination event first and foremost and is heavily supported by the Cayman Islands Department of Tourism with marketing and promotions.
“The Department of Tourism and its agencies lead the marketing and public relations efforts in the US, UK and Canada to ensure there is widespread awareness about Cayman Cookout among affluent travellers,” she said. “However, while the message of the advertisements does feature Cookout, the top-line takeaway is to establish Cayman as a true culinary destination for year around travel. A Cookout ad featuring the likes of Eric Ripert, Anthony Bourdain and other well-known chefs gives Cayman real credibility as a destination for people who love great food and wine.”
Shomari Scott, acting director of the Department of Tourism, said building Cayman’s reputation internationally “as the culinary capital of the Caribbean” is a large part of the marketing and public relations thrust.
“Cayman Cookout provides the perfect promotional vehicle to carry this message to a defined target demographic, who not only become intrigued by the event and the strong line-up of chefs, but also by the opportunity of having more than 150 restaurants to sample during their vacation.”
With January being designated Culinary Month, Scott noted that in addition to the Cookout, there are a number of other culinary-related activities in a short period of time, including Taste of Cayman.
“When promoting cookout to international audiences, [the Department of Tourism] is able to create a high degree of buzz and excitement by reinforcing the Culinary Month message,” he said. To close the loop and generate bookings, [the Department of Tourism] drives potential visitors to the Cayman Islands/Cookout website, where they can purchase tickets and find out more about the Cayman Islands as a vacation destination.” Scott said the Department of Tourism’s marketing plan entails four main engines, including print and Internet advertising; direct marketing by email and hardcopy; public relations and social media messaging; and sales promotions. That plan is put in motion from February.
“For example, full page ads highlighting the chefs who will be participating in Cookout are included in some of the USA’s highest indexing publications such as Food & Wine and Conde Nast Traveler,” he said. “These ads depict Cayman as a sophisticated vacation destination and the messaging is designed to drive sales…” Television advertising is also placed on niche networks in strategically targeted at gateways where Cayman Airways operates – such as Miami, Washington, DC, Chicago, and New York, Scott said. “This calculated approach is aimed at increasing the likelihood that persons travelling from the USA will choose to fly the national carrier and throughout the promotion period, sales are monitored to confirm that the tactics being utilised are yielding anticipated results.”
The Department of Tourism also sends representatives to man booths at trade shows and other food festivals like the South Beach Wine & Food Festival and the BB&T Charleston Wine + Food Festival, where they can interact with potential Cayman Cookout attendees.
Another vital aspect of the Cayman Cookout is getting the various celebrity chefs, winemakers and other ‘talent’ in the culinary industry.
Here is where Food & Wine magazine, which has many years experience producing epicurean events, plays a key role, Scott said.
“Food & Wine serves as event advisors and provides guidance as well as top-tier talent who attend the event and host demos and tastings,” he said. “Given that Food & Wine works with some of the most well-known chefs and sommeliers in the industry, the partnership agreement enables the Department of Toursim to extend its reach by tapping into its extensive database to secure chefs and/or sommeliers to participate in the event.” Ripert also plays a role in recruiting talent to Cayman Cookout, as does word of mouth from those participating. Ladley noted that some talent is now coming on its own initiative.
“For our first festival in 2009, we timidly approached chefs asking them if they would come,” she said. “For 2012, we are already being approached by well known chefs asking to be invited.”
The Cayman Cookout won’t rest on its past laurels.
“The organisers are committed to continuing this annual event,” Ladley said. “But we are also committed to keeping the scale intimate, which is what distinguishes it from the mass-market aspects of some of the better know American festivals. Growth in the number of attendees is important and we certainly have not saturated the number of visitors Cookout can bring to the island just yet, but the growth cycle will be finite in order to preserve the vision of Cookout as an intimate festival in which guests have much access to the visiting chefs and winemakers.”
One thing the organisers would like to do in the future is increase the number of events taking place outside The Ritz-Carlton, Ladley said. “The Saturday evening dinners at The Brasserie, Michael’s Genuine, Ortanique, Abacus and Luca were wildly successful and really hammered home the point that visitors to Grand Cayman can dine out in a world class restaurant every night of their stay and still not get to experience them all,” she said. “We also need to build more compelling events off the resort grounds. For example, we’re already planning that the signature welcome reception/dinner which was on The Ritz-Carlton beach in 2011 be moved to a location like Starfish Point in 2012.” Ladley said Ripert fully supports the efforts to expand the footprint of Cookout on the Island.
“After he produced his 2010 PBS show ‘Avec Eric’ with two episodes featuring Cayman, he is bringing a lot of ideas for events around the Island, integrating the well-known chefs he invites down.”
Although Ladley said local residents account for about 23 per cent of Cayman Cookout ticket sales, it’s important to maintain a strong component of local attendees. “It’s a tough balance as Cookout is extraordinarily expensive to produce,” she said.
“Ticket prices are right in line with other premier festivals such as Aspen or Pebble Beach, but they can seem quite high to our local market. We need to better communicate what makes Cookout special and why it’s worth a splurge.”