Turning a Food Tour into a Tourism Experience, with Bonnie Hayes and Debra Smith

Episode 329

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Bonnie Hayes is the Director for Tourism Development for the City of Thomasville, a position she has held for seven years and thoroughly enjoys. Before working for the City, Bonnie was teaching Video Broadcast in the Thomasville School System as well as being the on-air host of Thomasville Today, a local event-focused TV program. Many people recognize her from the TV program or remember her holding puppies and other animals in her pet store, Pet Stop, which she opened when she arrived in Thomasville. A graduate of Florida State University, Bonnie is originally from the Florida panhandle but has called Thomasville home for over 25 years. When she has time, she works in her yard, takes care of her many pets, or travels with her husband and college-age twins.

Debra Smith is a retired teacher who taught in the Thomasville School System for 30 years. She retired at age 51, and after growing bored sitting at home, she knew she needed to do something. Debra decided to investigate food tours, and she went to Food Tour Pros in Chicago to learn how to do food tours. Her first tour was on March 24, 2013. As of today, Debra has hosted 1469 tours and 11800+ guests. Her company was named Small Business of the Year in 2018 and GA CVCB Travel Trail Blazers in 2022. Debra gives credit to her wonderful guides, who she couldn’t do this business without, and she notes that she has the best team!

On this episode of Destination on the Left, I talk with Bonnie Hayes and Debra Smith about the power of collaboration between a tourism office and a local tour operator. We discuss the partnership between their two organizations, how they support each other, and how this collaboration led to an elevated visitor experience.

What You Will Learn in this Episode:

  • How the partnership between Taste of Thomasville and the Visitors Centre has evolved
  • The process of shaping the food tour into an authentic tourist experience
  • Why Bonnie nominated Debra for the Trailblazer Award
  • Debra’s lessons learned from ten years in the travel and tourism business
  • The importance of being visible and asking questions
  • How Debra built her partnerships with local restaurants and why personal connection was so important in building those relationships
  • Upcoming events and festivals happening in Thomasville

The Value of Personal Connection

In the world of tourism, personal connections, collaborations, and partnerships are key to success. This is especially true for the tour industry, where visitors are looking for a unique and memorable experience. Debra, who has been running her Taste of Thomasville tour for ten years, understands this better than anyone. Bonnie Hayes, Director for Tourism Development for the City of Thomasville, also shares more about how her organization created a collaboration with Debra and how their partnership has evolved over the years.

An Innovative Tourism Experience

Debra and Bonnie have continued to shape the restaurant tour into a tourism product that appeals to a range of visitors. This meant creating not only a daytime tour on weekends but also an evening tour where guests could have drinks in a range of fun establishments. But their creativity didn’t stop there. When large groups come into town for events like the Victorian Christmas festival, Debra also curates specific experiences to entertain visitors during the day.

For her outstanding contributions to the tourism industry, Debra won the Trailblazer Award, which celebrates individuals who have significantly impacted the travel industry and helped shape how we experience new places. Debra’s dedication and creativity have undoubtedly earned her this recognition.

The Future for Taste of Thomasville

As the popularity of the food tour in Thomasville continues to grow, there are always new ideas and possibilities for expanding the experience. One such idea that has been on the mind of Debra and Bonnie is to incorporate more of the town’s art district, also known as the “bottom,” into the tour. This area has some great restaurants currently not included in the tour’s walking path, so the hope is to eventually create a third tour called “Breakfast on the Bottom,” which would showcase these establishments.

In addition to expanding the tour for adults, there are plans to continue offering tours geared toward children and high school students. The children’s tour has become particularly popular, with many elementary and middle schools taking field trips to participate. Meanwhile, the culinary tour for high school students allows them to learn from the owners and managers of local restaurants and get a behind-the-scenes look at the culinary industry.


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