Tales of the Vine

Larry Martin is shown here with Laura Martin, the company’s CFO and co-owner, in Portugal’s Douro Valley.
Larry Martin is shown here with Laura Martin, the company’s CFO and co-owner, in Portugal’s Douro Valley.

“Experiential,” “culturally immersive,” “wine” and “local cuisine” — these are all the buzzwords for a successful luxury vacation these days, but Larry Martin, president of Food & Wine Trails, has been serving up these offerings to his clients for the past three decades.

His mantra, in fact, has long been, “To offer our guests authenticity and the highest-quality value in the culinary and viticulture travel world.”

With goals like that, it’s no surprise Martin is based in Sonoma County, CA, a region whose lifestyle he’s fully embraced.

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“My vocation is also my avocation. I’m an avid vegetable gardener and wine collector — I have been a Northern California Governor for Slow Food USA, a chapter leader for the same organization, and a board member for the Sonoma County School Garden Network,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Doing what he loves has clearly paid off, as Food & Wine Trails celebrates its 30th year in business, it’s flourishing, reaping $2 million in net revenue a year and enjoying the editorial spotlight in coveted consumer publications such as Food & Wine and Wine Spectator. Not bad places to be if you want to catch the eye of those who love wine.

And attract them he does with a staff of 16, each with their own specialty. Martin and company handle 3,000 wine lovers a year; they find him online or through one of his winery-sponsored trips. Many of them are high-end customers of California’s notable wineries; others are part of affinity groups seeking to spend quality time together, wine included.

Martin, a member of the Signature Travel Network, uses the consortia’s cruise and hotel programs as the base for his product development.

“We are a proud and long-time member of Signature,” says Martin. “Our clients appreciate the hotel room upgrades and free breakfasts that we can offer, and when I am booking one of my wine groups into a new city, I always work with a Signature hotel.”

A large part of Food & Wine Trails’ business is wine-themed cruises. Hosted by vineyard owners and winemakers, the voyages are intricately programmed to include interesting viticultural education and great wines. Land excursions and pre- and post-cruise programs are carefully crafted; for example, before getting on a ship in Venice, Martin’s clients will likely spend two nights in nearby Valpolicella, getting up close and friendly with winemakers and their wine. At other stops, clients might explore Amarone and Prosecco.

“In each port the ship comes into, we have sommeliers who work for us to meet the ship, and [are] able to take people to their favorite wineries and their favorite restaurants,” says Martin. “Because they’re sommeliers, and they’re in the business of buying and selling wine in that region, they’re able to open up these doors for us that people wouldn’t be able to do if we had brokered it through a traditional DMC.”

The cruises are just a part of Food & Wine Trails’ business; in fact, they serve only as a platform to introduce clients to land trips that provide wine education around the world.

Martin’s network of sommeliers also includes connected wine writers. The two groups span 12 countries and 40 wine appellations in France, Italy, Spain, Israel, Argentina, Chile, Greece, Croatia, Portugal, Australia and New Zealand, and, of course, California, and can provide his clients with insider access to their regions.

“Our goal is to do such a good job that they then become our ‘client for life,’ and book all of their vacations and cruises with our company,” says Martin, who travels four to five times a year internationally to expand his knowledge base and network. He’s currently developing wine tours in Slovenia and Croatia, where there’s lower demand for wine tourism. “Everybody wants to go to Tuscany, but if I build my model around Tuscany, people are going to learn what I do pretty quickly. They can duplicate it, and where am I? So, we have to continually be looking for that next varietal and that next wine destination,” says Martin.

He also has close relationships with winemakers and vineyard owners in California. All of these factors enable him to offer unique experiences to his clients that can’t be bought off the shelf from suppliers.

That business model, which he’s embraced since his company’s inception, is why he doesn’t see Food & Wine Trails as a traditional travel agency.

“I decided I wanted to build a brand and a product that was unique and could not be ‘shopped,’” says Martin. He and his team are generating the interest from those travelers that suppliers can’t easily reach on their own. “We are, in effect, ‘growing the pie,’” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Because he’s not relying on suppliers to create the demand, he has more control over the end product, and is able to cultivate higher margins for his business.

So what is it that can’t be shopped? Consider these over-the-top experiences, which illustrate Martin’s unique programming and insider-access capabilities.

An “Ultimate Tuscany Tour” for a client served up super-star wineries such as Ornellaia, Tua Rita and Tignanello, lunch at the Banfi Wine Estate in Montalcino with the owner, a six-course dinner with Albiera Antinori in the dining room of her family’s 15th-century Florence Renaissance palace, and a festive gala in the 17th-century Palazzo Corsini on the Arno River hosted by Principe Corsini, where clients sat with winemakers from such luxury Tuscan wine brands as Sassicaia and Fontodi. The program finale was a Tuscan barbeque at a well-known international rock star’s private residence in the Chianti countryside where he graced clients with a few songs, backed by one of the hottest jazz bands from Cuba — especially brought in for the party.

Another group of 100 “family and friends” of Napa Valley’s Robert Biale sailed together on a seven-day Uniworld cruise from Budapest, Hungary, to Passau, Germany. All Food & Wine Trails wine cruises provide private group excursions to the region’s top wine estates, and this trip was no exception. The pre-cruise portion began with everyone receiving a guaranteed river-, bridge- or palace-view room at the Sofitel Budapest Chain Bridge Hotel. The next day, they were met by a Hungarian-American TV entrepreneur for a drive to his estate winery for a private tasting and a wine-paired Hungarian luncheon. Later during the trip, when the group was in Austria’s acclaimed Wachau valley, they enjoyed a lunch and wine tasting with the owners of a top-rate winery in the family’s baroque, landmark castle that was built in 1775. The tour was led by an Austrian wine writer and sommelier who had been voted “Austria’s Business Woman of the Year” in 2012.

A Likely Path

The odds were high that Martin would somehow be involved with wine tourism. His parents owned travel agencies in the San Francisco Bay Area and Martin traveled with them on vacations and on their tour groups. He was immersed in the business early, stamping travel brochures and filing airline tariffs for their agency in Berkeley, CA. College beckoned and Martin headed north to Sonoma County, where he earned his degree in environmental planning. After working for several Northern California government organizations with a focus on land-use planning and prepping environmental reports, he circled back to working in the family business before opening his own travel agency in Sonoma County in 1983.

The agency from its inception had a wine focus. Martin’s French mother had always served wine at the dinner table, but perhaps even more inspiring was the fact that in Sonoma those 30-plus years ago, the wine industry was still in its infancy. Winery owners were just growing their careers, giving Martin the chance to forge personal relationships with them very early.

The major turning point that allowed him to grow the roots of Food & Wine Trails came when the owner of a local winery asked Martin to coordinate the national trade tour for the newly formed Sonoma County Wineries Association. For the next seven years, Martin traveled with up to 60 winery owners for multiple weeks on end, pouring wine and talking about the Sonoma County wine country.

The experience he garnered and the connections he forged gave him the toolbox to innovate and craft those new travel experiences that have made him a success today.

In 1989, Martin created what he believes was the first wine cruise, with Bon Appetit magazine and Royal Viking. What followed over the years were other wine-themed vacations, such as the first airline-sponsored wine-country fly/drive package; the first wine-and-ski festivals in Telluride, Vail and Crested Butte, CO; and the first cruise-line wholesale wine-tour series for Oceania and Regent cruise lines.

Sailing France’s Wine Trails: Larry and Laura Martin on the Rhone River.
Sailing France’s Wine Trails: Larry and Laura Martin on the Rhone River.

Today, Martin can say that he’s designed and operated trips for thousands of wine and food lovers, and for culinary-focused groups like Slow Food USA, Fine Cooking magazine and the American Institute of Wine and Food. He realizes that others have copied his business model of crafting food and wine cruises, but he says he still stands out because his programs have the actual winemaker or vineyard owner onboard.

“People think that they can just put a sales rep that works in a winery on a cruise line and call it a wine cruise,” he says. “You really have to make sure you communicate the differences to the consumer, many of whom don’t have the time or inclination to really sort that out. They even look at what Costco is doing, because Costco is doing wine cruises and Costco rebates and discounts.”

That’s a practice Food & Wine Trails does not engage in. In fact, if anything, the company tends to price its offerings so they are more expensive than the market.

“I don’t want the guy looking for the great deal. I want the guy looking for the great value,” says Martin. “I’m selling the value proposition. Costco is selling the price proposition. That’s a decision that every travel agent owner has to make. If you’re selling the price proposition, you’re going to be swimming in the commodity world. If you’re selling the value proposition, you’ve got to substantiate that because there’s a lot of BS in our business.”

Looking back at what he calls a 30-year overnight success, Martin says he’s been fortunate to pair his passions for food and wine with his career.

“If you’re going to go to work, try to do something that you’re passionate about. When your avocation becomes your vocation, you never go to work another day in your life, because you’re having fun,” he advises.

Combine that good fortune with the love he has for his clients and the quality time he enjoys educating them on all things wine.

“We are so lucky. Our customers love and appreciate what we do and they view us as an extension of their family as opposed to a supplier, so they come out and hang out with me. We go out and drink wine and get crazy. I don’t feel a separation between us ... It’s all like a big family, but that’s what food and wine does. We seduce our mates over food and wine. We broker our business deals over food and wine. We establish our friendships over food and wine,” Martin says.

In his eyes, the business will only get better as trends are in his favor (see sidebar), but Martin is also able to sit back and savor his success.

“It’s been an incredible ride for us. I’m a lucky kid,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor. 

Food & Wine Trails/HMS Travel Group

Headquarters: Santa Rosa, CA

Number of employees: 16

Annual volume of business: $2 million in net revenue

Affiliations: Signature Travel Network

Website: www.foodandwinetrails.com; www.hmstravel.com

Advisor Insight

Larry Martin, president of Food & Wine Trails, fully believes that the trend for experiential travel, and in particular wine travel, will continue to grow. “Because of that, and because of our tenure, contacts and ability to consistently deliver a unique and authentic experience, Food & Wine Trails will not only continue to be a major player in the food and wine travel niche, but will continue our history of innovation and growth,” he tells Luxury Travel Advisor.

Fueling Martin’s optimism are the following statistics:

- 62 percent of premium-wine buyers are Baby Boomers and 84 percent are over 40. (1)

Baby Boomers comprise the primary market for experiential and luxury travel, and 80 million have or soon will reach retirement age, 10,000 a day. They have the time to travel. (2)

They have traveled their entire lives and now want experiences — with the most popular trips including food and wine travel. (3)

America is the world’s biggest wine market, and there are now 6,000 bonded U.S. wineries. (4)

The culinary travel market is growing; 75 percent of U.S. leisure travelers are characterized as “culinary travelers.” (5)

One in five U.S. travelers have participated in some fashion of a wine-related trip in the past three years, and 41 percent of that group say that wine was the key reason for travel. (5)

Sources: (1) VinoPRO/Wine Industry Business Journal, January 13, 2014; (2) Immersion Active Report, 2007; (3) Ypartnership Study, December 2010; (4) Wine Spectator, August 2013; (5) Mandala wine tourism research paper, November 2013

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