Travel agents worldwide have seized on the opportunity to promote tea tourism, scheduling visits to working tea gardens where guests spend a few idyllic days in a quaint bungalow in exotic locales.
Sourcing tourism shares many of the same pleasures. The difference is that these tours are led by experienced tea experts for the benefit of retailers and tea professionals. Several offer full immersion experience that includes plucking, withering, rolling and finishing teas.
Dan Robertson has been sourcing tea in China and Taiwan since 1989. His World Tea Tours have brought hundreds of retailers to India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and Japan since 1997. Robertson is presenting a lecture on Sourcing Tourism at this year’s World Tea Expo titled: “The Right Way to Go…”
“For tea business people and retailers, knowledge and authenticity aren’t just buzz-words, they are ways to stand out above the rest and create brand distinction,” explains Robertson. “There is no better way to gain a depth of knowledge in a short period of time than by seeing the tea grown and processed in a factory or by hand,” he said.
A 2015 sourcing tour led by Tealet
“It is good for the producers because it allows for a feedback loop where buyers can explain what they are looking for in quality and price,” explains Tealet Founder Elyse Petersen. “It also allows producers to understand how their tea is being sold. Retailers that travel with us often teach producers new brewing methods they use in their service and consumer education that helps the producers do more diligent quality control,” said Petersen.
“Sourcing tourism also gives the retailer the ability to ask detailed questions they often can’t find answers to regarding the transparency and ethics of their tea,” said Petersen. Tealet tours are limited to direct trade buyers. Destinations include China, India, Nepal, Taiwan and Japan.
Austin Hodge and his wife Zhu Ping have led sourcing tours to China for the past decade. “These are educational tours that take you out into the gardens to see how things are done,” said Hodge. “We introduce the group to top tea scholars and medal-winning tea producers.” Participants are varied and include a tea master from Japan, tea sommeliers, business executives and tea enthusiasts such as tech luminaries Kevin Rose and author Tim Ferris.
“I believe that to be on the tea plantation, in the tea factories, and most of all, experiencing hands-on the work of completing a batch of Oolong… is a priceless experience,” adds Thomas Shu, who with wife Josephine Pan, has led the TOST (Taiwan Oolong Study Tour) since 2008. The program attracts tea vendors with a desire to “smell and feel the leaf’s change during each step.”
Thomas Shu leading a sourcing tour
The trips typically scheduled in the fall include visits to four growing regions so that participants experience several different processing styles. Retailers are presented with extensive collection of photographs, video and details about processing that are valuable in establishing credibility with customers.
Matthew Frayer operates Little Tree Tea, a travel company based in Burlington, Vermont. “After 13 years in the tea business, we started Little Tree Tea as a way to truly connect tea producers in Asia with tea lovers and other tea professionals in the U.S.,” he said.
“First of all, they are fun!” said Frayer. “If you are in the tea business, hopefully you love tea and are passionate about it, so going on a tea tour can be a dream come true. You get to drink the freshest tea available, experience a new and exciting culture, and learn invaluable information about the products that are at the heart of your business,” he said.
“From a business standpoint, it is important in the tea industry to have quality products, extensive knowledge of those products, and transparency and authenticity when it comes to your products. The only way to ensure all of these is to visit the source,” he said.
“Customers really respond to someone who can speak authoritatively, from experience,” said Robertson. “When you describe for your customers how you picked and processed your own tea, learned tea tasting and evaluation in a tea broker’s cupping room and steeped yourself in the local culture, you gain not only immediate customer interest but also long term credibility,” he said.
“Certainly, a tea tour to an exotic land will be a memorable adventure for you personally. It will also be good for business and has a lasting ROI,” said Robertson.
“It will be stuck in your mind and your heart,” adds Shu.
Trips to distant lands take time. Retailers will find trips range from a minimum of four days to 18 days. Cost is directly proportionate to distance and time. Accommodations often require double occupancy which is an advantage as it encourages camaraderie. A short trip to India might be priced for as little as $1200 (double occupancy) but it is better to budget $4,500 to $6,000 and spend 10-12 days in-country.
||Cost (double occupancy)
|Little Tree Tea
|World Tea Tours