How did Toronto land the Michelin Guide? A Q&A with Andrew Weir, executive vice-president of Destination Toronto
In May, word got out that tire maker turned culinary kingmaker Michelin would be publishing a Toronto edition of its legendary restaurant guidebook this fall, giving the city’s culinary scene an opportunity to shine on the global stage. But finally getting Michelin’s inspectors to evaluate the city’s dining scene took years of behind-the-scenes effort and bureaucratic hoop-jumping. To find out more, we called up one of the key players in the deal: Andrew Weir, the executive vice president of Destination Toronto, the city’s tourism marketing organization.
When did Destination Toronto first try to get Michelin’s attention?
Every destination wants a Michelin Guide, but it became an actual possibility back in 2017, when a few industrious Toronto-based restaurateurs flew to France and met with the Michelin team about bringing the guide here. But Michelin only works with publicly funded organizations that have a mandate with the city. So those entrepreneurs connected Michelin with John Tory’s office, which made the introduction to Destination Toronto. That opened up the opportunity.
What happened after that?
We met with Michelin to understand their process. It’s important to note that Michelin will only come to a destination and do a guide if there’s a sufficient culinary scene. A small city could have the greatest restaurant in the world, but it won’t get a guide unless it has enough scale and quality. That’s the first test Toronto had to pass. So Michelin sent an inspection team at some point between late 2017 and early 2018. We had no interaction with them whatsoever. We don’t know who they are, when they arrived or when they left.
And what did they find?
They created a report establishing that Toronto did, in fact, have a culinary scene that could support a Michelin Guide. They made some other interesting observations too, like that Toronto has a very good cocktail scene. But their findings weren’t entirely positive: our restaurants also have a lot of staff turnover compared with, say, Europe, where a server might work at the same place for 40 years.
So we passed the big test. Then what?
We moved on to looking at what a relationship with Michelin would look like and who else would need to be involved. We considered the broader benefits that would accrue, provincially and nationally. So we brought in Destination Ontario and Destination Canada as partners.
I imagine it required a lot of wrangling to get different levels of government involved.
A lot of cachet and reputational lift come with a Michelin Guide. Our partners at the provincial and federal level saw that right away, so the interest and engagement was immediate.
And what, exactly, was your agreement with Michelin?
We look at this as a multi-year program. These are some concrete deliverables that Michelin needs to provide: the inspection, publication of the guide, and a series of content stories and videos that are sent out throughout the year. We want authoritative, high-quality content that showcases Toronto’s culinary scene through the voice of Michelin.
It sounds like this is costing us big bucks. Who’s paying?
We paid initially for the Michelin inspectors to come into the market for months at a time, and that has evolved into a broader marketing partnership, which needed to happen for the guide to become a reality. The money comes from Destination Toronto’s core funds plus our partners in Destination Ontario and Destination Canada. I can’t really share the specific details of that, but what I can say is that we view this as a long-term opportunity for Toronto.
So how did you know it would be worth it?
We did a lot of research about the impact Michelin has when it arrives in a city. We looked at places like Washington, San Francisco, Italy, Thailand. Obviously, it helps attract visitors to the city and provides a reputational boost. There’s a connection between Michelin and an appeal for visitors seeking out high-quality culinary experiences. But having the guide also encourages restaurants to invest in their own improvement, with better staff training and ingredients. And new restaurateurs and chefs, who might have developed a reputation in other communities, come to the city hoping to earn a rating. We think Michelin will improve the entire restaurant ecosystem.
Part of your job, according to your LinkedIn bio, is “improving the destination experience in Toronto.” What does that mean? And how does getting the Michelin Guide fit into that?
Well, our role as a destination marketing organization is to reflect back to potential visitors the full scale, depth and breadth of the city. Michelin is a very good way to do that because of the credibility and respect it has across the globe. It’s one thing for us to say that Toronto has a rich culinary scene worth experiencing; it’s another thing when the most respected voices in cuisine says it. Frankly, it was about putting the global media powerhouse of Michelin to work for Toronto.
By the way, how is our tourism these days?
Just before the pandemic, in the fall of 2019, we commissioned a new study on the economic impact of visitor spending. The result: we receive more than $10.3 billion a year.
Dare I ask how things are looking this year?
We’ve seen a very strong rebound in 2022. It’s important to qualify that by saying we’re not at pre-pandemic levels. There have been some busy weeks: the month of June was quite busy from a combination of leisure travel and the Collision tech conference. After that, in July, hotel occupancy—which is a good measure of visitor activity—fell to the low 70s when it would usually be in the 80s. We’ll really benefit when the number of international travellers, anyone from outside of North America, increases again.
What other things can we do in the city to help attract tourists?
Toronto would really benefit from more areas of pedestrianized urban vibrancy, like the Distillery District. People have their best experiences when they gather and celebrate in an organic way—for example, happening upon a band playing in the street.
You’re the consummate Toronto pitchman. Quick, you’ve got one minute to sell a potential visitor on the city.
I’d encourage them to get a map, a camera and a comfortable pair of shoes, then walk the neighbourhoods and experience our culture at street level. Otherwise, I’d say buy a TTC day pass and ride the 501. There’s a world of experience available on that one streetcar ride.