Specialty coffee buyers visit the communities and estates where coffee is farmed in coffee-producing nations, known within the industry as coffee origin tours.
The purpose of these trips is to:
Trips occur each year or more often, sometimes at the beginning of each season. This is to plan orders for critical or competitive supply origins, or to discuss pricing and credit arrangements. Coffee buying trips are most often made at the time of harvest when practical decisions are made after tasting early lot samples.
Frequent communication and the development of beneficial trade relationships over several harvest seasons. It also leads to mutual respect and friendships between buyers and sellers. Relationships reduce the cost of marketing, the cost of purchasing, and increase efficiency of communication, and lower risks for both parties.
For the buyer, loyalty from a seller provides early access to the best quality coffees each season and assurance that contracted orders are shipped as requested. For the seller, the relationship provides a predictable market for at agreed price premiums that are higher than anonymous transactions. These are often with a payment structure designed to meet organizational needs of the seller. In the event of unexpected problems, trading partners with strong relationships are more likely to find an fair solution. Sometimes at a short-term loss to one or both parties, rather than walk away from a transaction, damaging years of goodwill.
A coffee origin tour is often a first introduction for coffee buyers considering purchases from a producing origin. Over time, origin tours facilitate he development of long-term relationships with coffee producers.
The specialty coffee industry is built on the principle that every coffee is unique. Coffee origin trips support the specialty concept by demonstrating what makes each place special.
A coffee origin tour is a guided trip taken by coffee buyers (both importers and end-user roaster/retailers) for approximately one week to coffee producing regions. Tours are organized by producer associations, exporters from producing nations, or sometimes by coffee importers from consuming nations. They are tailored to the specific interests of each traveling group. Trips designed for buyers seeking to buy within a season are conducted during the harvest so that specific information about quality and lot availability is known, and samples may be tasted while on-location.
The experience of an origin tour is both educational and rewarding for the buyer:
The experience of an origin tour is also educational and rewarding for the coffee producer:
Planning for the coffee origin tour should begin at least one year in advance. There are many strategic decisions that must be made and logistics to organize. Time must be allowed to advertise and invite travelers on the trip. Some may already have commitments if approached with less than a few months’ notice.
Beginning the planning effort with any less time limits your audience of travelers. It also increases the likelihood of facing problems on the trip. When in doubt, do not rush to begin an activity this season. The trip will be more effective if more time is invested into creating a thoughtful program.
To define a program agenda, and invite or attract travelers on a tour, the host organization must clearly define its purpose and goals. “Selling more coffee to international buyers,” is too broad an goal and requires more detail.
Answer the following questions while designing the trip:
Some may find that an origin tour is not the appropriate activity to reach the goals of the host, or that the trip should be delayed to a later season. That’s okay. Consider other marketing activities that may be better suited to the situation, like participation at an international coffee trade show event. It is always better to cancel or delay an origin tour, rather than risk failing to meet expectation. A bad experience is more damaging to the host entity’s market reputation than no experience at all.
A wide range of travelers may express interest in participating on an origin tour. Some may be professional green coffee buyers representing importing companies, or roasters seeking new source of supply. Others may be coffee retailers that want to learn more about how and where coffee is grown. Others still may be consumer coffee enthusiasts in search of an ecotourism holiday. Each will have different goals for participating on a tour. Defining the goals of the trip is critical to avoid miscommunication and potential disappointment for all.
Tours may be private, with invitation-only participation, or open to the public as an advertised event. Private tours offer the most control over the guest list of travelers. They are less likely to be for-profit activities. The goal of a private tour is trade. The cost of the activity is often shared between traveler and host. Or, it is sometimes sponsored in total by the host as an investment in the business relationship.
Private tour hosts may invite:
Public tours may be open for participation from any interested party. These are sometimes for-profit activities for the trip organizer, charging a fee for each traveler. Control of the guest list for a publicly advertised tour is limited, but can be targeted to audience segments, for example, by:
The broader public announcements are made about the trip, the larger your potential group of travelers. At the same time, there is less control over the makeup of that group. Inviting a large group of less relevant travelers, may be counterproductive to the host’s goals.
The job role of the traveler and function of his or her company is an important consideration when developing an invitation list. Invite those who perform a role that compliments your goals for the event. Directors of coffee or green coffee buyers are an obvious company function that is relevant to the interests of coffee sellers. Other personnel may assist by specifying buying activity from a new region or creating new consumer products.
Reputation is a guidepost of credibility in the coffee industry. Including distinguished industry personalities on a tour may strengthen the brand image of an origin. It may also increase effectiveness of the tour as a marketing activity. Invite leaders the industry looks to for guidance. Consider visible heads of respected coffee businesses, coffee champions of competitions, volunteer leadership (e.g. SCA Roasters Guild, Sustainability Council, etc.).
There is no one way that all origin tours are funded, and the host maintains total flexibility on the best way to finance each element of a trip. The following three origin trip fee structures are common within the coffee industry, but the host may adapt any that best suits its purpose. Regardless of the structure selected, it is important to communicate which expenses each party is responsible to pay, and when.
Customarily, origin trip costs are shared between seller and buyer. Sellers (e.g. export associations, private estates, producer groups, exporter/importers, or auction events) prepay the cost of in-country accommodations, meals, and ground transportation at the host’s expense. The traveler (buyer) is responsible to pay for his or her own airfare to a designated international airport within the host country.
In-country costs are included for prospective buyers both as a courtesy, but also as a matter of convenience. When transporting groups of travelers, the time necessary to pay for hotels, meals, or transportation quickly multiplies, so advance arrangement is recommended.
It is not unusual for in-country travel costs to be supported by sponsors. Sponsors may be local private businesses, outside donor aid organizations, or government.
International airfare may be paid by the host organization when the origin is underdeveloped. This structure is found where the export country has limited immediate commercial appeal for international visitors. It may also occur when visitors are asked to perform significant services (e.g. lead training courses) benefitting the host origin on the trip. The host may include a per diem for unreimbursed travel expenses and/or an honorarium as compensation for the work performed. Funding for these aid activities is provided by government or a donor organizations. A return on the investment comes from new economic activity or skills that improve competitiveness.
When the origin tour is being run as a for-profit activity or intended to benefit the host organization (i.e. charitable contribution), travelers may be asked to pay a lump sum fee to the host in advance of travel. He or she is also responsible for making international travel arrangements. The fee includes costs for all domestic travel (ground transportation, domestic flights), meals, and lodging. There is sometimes also an additional portion intended as profit for the organizer. The host entity will act as a tour guide, organizing and leading all elements of the trip.
An event entirely funded by visitors may sound appealing, but consider a possible negative impact on future business. It is true that green coffee buyers are not motivated by the promise of cost reimbursement to travel. However, a traveler-funded trip is likely to be open to a wider range of participants to maximize income. This means precious time invested into conducting the tour may be spent catering to tourists, not industry professionals.
When determining the fee structure, always remember to consider the questions mentioned at the beginning of this article: “who is our ideal customer,” and “how is success measured for this activity,” as guides to aid in the decision.
Job function and company suitability as a customer is not the only factor when deciding who to invite on a tour. Consider that during the trip, ten or so individuals will be traveling in close contact for a week or more, and very far from home. We are all human, when placed under stress, lacking sleep and food, may become emotional or confrontational. To mitigate potential conflicts between travelers, pay attention to the balance of each group. Strive to achieve balance among the group by gender, geography or culture, language. When possible, social or business interests. Avoid enrolling one single traveler isolated from the rest. If the situation arises, be sure that the group leader facilitates his or her interaction with the rest. Remember that the goal of a coffee origin tour is to provide a positive experience. Social interaction with other group members is a large part of that experience.
New events need long lead times of notice to attract participation. Invitations to take part on a coffee origin tour should be sent no less than three months in advance of the first date of travel. Experienced green coffee buyers and other coffee industry professionals plan busy travel schedules a year in advance. Adding a new origin or travel activity to an already full annual itinerary requires effort and careful planning to execute. To build awareness of an upcoming activity, consider announcing its dates or the intent to conduct the trip a year or more in advance. This may be done before a final itinerary is set.
Personal, direct, and relevant invitations are the most effective. Determine the goals of your trip and with a basic understanding of the coffee buying community. Next, select individuals who may benefit from participation in the event. Write by email or call him or her to describe the coffee origin tour plan (as best as is known) and determine interest as a possible participant. This is also a good opportunity to ask for referrals to others that may also be appropriate to join. For example, if inviting a green coffee importer, ask which of that company’s clients may be suitable to additionally join.
To reach a larger relevant audience, email invitations may be sent to customer lists, or those who have expressed interest in the past. Lists may include other members of professional organizations, like the SCA Roasters’ Guild. To avoid sending unwanted commercial solicitations (spam), email lists should be selected carefully and reviewed to determine suitability. As with the above personal invitations, the goal is to invite those who reasonably have a relevant interest in the event. If uncertain about any recipient on the list, exclude him or her from the list.
Paid advertisement in print trade publications like Roast Magazine, STiR, Fresh Cup, or Global Coffee Report, or online publications Daily Coffee News, or Perfect Daily Grind, will help to raise awareness among a larger audience of industry professionals. This approach is optimal when the origin is seeking access to a new geographic market or niche. For best results, print artwork should be prepared no less than three months ahead of the date of publication. Significant advance planning is required. Electronic advertisements are a good alternative when available time for implementation is short or if changes to published details are expected. Consider involving your advertising partner as a sponsor of the event. This may be done by providing the publication complimentary participation or exclusive information in exchange for coverage of the activity.
Social media offers a low-cost way of reaching a global audience instantly and with greater depth than print media. However, these messages may reach a wider audience of consumers than is appropriate to invite. Sites like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter provide an opportunity for the origin host announce trip plans. Also to post stories and updates from the event to build a global following. They also engage a broad audience year-round as part of the origin’s larger marketing and communications plan.
Media tours designed for promotional purposes are commonplace in the public relations trade. Inclusion of a trade journalist allows the stories of a small group of coffee professionals to be shared industry wide. The specialty coffee industry has a small number of trade media outlets to choose from.
The cost of travel sponsorship for one or two trade journalists is far less expensive than any comparable amount of advertising. Being editorial articles, some control of content may be lost but these are offset by gains in the credibility of content written. The host should agree on terms of an editorial article (editing / final approval, photos, word count and publish issue/date) at the time of securing the journalist to take part. Trade publications have flexibility on these terms, consumer media or established news media, less so.
The itinerary of any coffee origin tour should focus on commercial activities that provide access to sources, evaluation of coffees available for trade, and information that can be used to market the coffees in a consuming country. Travelers are investing business resources to participate and expect a return. This should not be without cultural experiences in the country. The culture of each coffee producing origin is what helps to make it unique. Culture makes coffee marketable, so cultural activities on the tour are important. Design activities that promote interaction with the people and experience the place.
The duration of a coffee origin tour is generally five-to-seven days, but varies depending on the size and remoteness of the location. As a rule of thumb, one week including visitor travel time, is a reasonable timeframe. A week is more accessible to busy professionals than trips lasting ten days or longer.
Travelers should be greeted at the arrival airport by a member of the host organization or a driver holding a clearly marked sign. Origin tour participants have traveled several hours, sometimes many days to reach the destination. They will be tired, disoriented, and unfamiliar with the language, and customs. It is in the host’s best interest to make the arrival as comfortable and effortless as possible for the traveler.
The daily program of a coffee origin tour should begin at a reasonable morning hour (08:00) and extend to an early evening hour (18:00), as would a normal work day. It may be necessary to begin very early or end late on some days, but these occurrences should be limited to one or two days during the trip. Evening events should be optional, with two or three hosted dinners available during the week. Travelers often need time to check-in with their businesses and families, or may prefer to skip some activities in favor of a quiet evening. Some late-night dinner parties are appropriate, but should be kept to a few – once or twice throughout the duration of the trip.
The first morning after arrival should include a group briefing for host and participants to be introduced to each other. This is a one- to two-hour meeting where introductions are exchanged. It will include an overview of the country, industry, culture, and daily agenda. Time is allowed for any questions from participants.
Each morning, coffees should be served with breakfast. These should be from the regions or communities/estates visited on the trip. Do not allow coffee service to be an afterthought or rely on hotels or F&B providers to serve coffee. Carry fresh roasted coffee sufficient for the needs of the group. Include grinding equipment, brewing equipment, water, and cups. Bring ample coffee best representing the origin to consume each day.
There should be cupping activities on all, or most mornings. Cupping sessions may include of whatever number of samples are available. In some origins, this may be two dozen or more samples representing available lots. In others, it may be six or less samples per day, representative of the regions visited on the trip.
Where possible, the cupping environment and procedures should conform with international standards. Get as close as is reasonable achievable. Sample coffees that are available for sale (lot samples), or generally indicative of the quality of each region or farming group (type samples, if offseason). Draw a connection with the coffees sampled and the places visited on the trip. If possible, cup coffees from the farms or regions visited that day. Include participation from the region’s farmers, where practical. It is helpful to be aware of what coffees are available for sale (or if not, when) and the origin or seller of each coffee in as much detail as possible.
Visit farming communities, estates, and processing facilities throughout the local region. It is important to include time for meeting and communication between the farmers/exporters, and participants on the tour. Each is likely to have questions of the other, which leads to better understanding between buyer and seller, and more productive trade. Activities that provide a meaningful and authentic experience most successful in post-trip surveys. Stops at cultural landmarks or convenient tourist attractions, are encouraged so long as they do not interrupt coffee business activities. The mix of culture and business events on each coffee origin trip will vary based on location and goal. Ss a guideline, tourist activities should be a brief recess from business activities, not the focus. It is reasonable to allow for some extra private time to explore or shop for souvenirs before departure.
Meals should be served at normal meal times in the morning, afternoons, and evenings. Coffee origin tour visitors prefer typical meals served within a region. Special arrangements to serve “Western-style” meals or other foods that travelers eat at home is not necessary. Do ask if any travelers have dietary restrictions (customary, religious, or medical) that may need special advance arrangements at meal stops.
Potable water should be plentiful and available at all times during the trip. Bottled water should be available at all rest stops and destinations, during car trips, and at lodging accommodations. Carry extra water necessary for coffee brewing and any remote meal preparation.
Modern, international business hotels are recommended for nights spent in arrival/departure cities. Urban lodging should be clean and include air conditioning, and other modern conveniences. Field accommodations should be the best available, noting that most coffee producing communities are lacking business hotels. It is important where facilities not meeting Western standards are not available to notify the travelers in advance. Travelers may choose to bring bedding, or other items like mosquito netting if made aware of the expected conditions.
Traveling long distances by car or bus along poorly maintained roads should be kept to a minimum. The trip route should be planned for efficient to limit the number of ground transportation hours necessary. When not possible, reasonable accommodations should be made so that travelers are comfortable. High quality vehicles with enough space for attendees are preferred. Expect no more than three persons plus one driver per ordinary passenger vehicle, or a larger hire car or coach with ample excess seats. All vehicles should have an operable seatbelt for each occupant.
Collect the email addresses and mobile phone numbers of all travelers prior to departure. This is to to stay in contact while traveling to the coffee origin tour country. If mobile phone service is available within the tour country, distribute local SIM cards with data service. This may not be necessary if international roaming agreements allow for the travelers to use his or her own phones. Setup a WhatsApp or other social network chat group so that all can stay in constant contact (e.g. between cars while on the road) and also share photos.
A translator (or translators) may be required to facilitate communication between the visitors and coffee producers. Any translator should be familiar with coffee technical (harvest, processing) and sensory terminology to avoid miscommunication.
Be certain to document the trip. This may include the participation of a staff journalist. Otherwise enlist the cooperation of travelers to provide photos and/or of each stop and activity. Coverage of the event may be a future editorial promotional opportunity for the coffee origin. It may assist to enlist future travelers or outside funding to support later trips.
Reasonable security precautions should be taken for each trip, as are appropriate for each region. As necessary, security contractors should escort the trip through dangerous environments. Vehicles should not travel at night or in poor weather conditions. The agenda should be changed in the event of poor road conditions, weather, public disturbances, or any other factor that may jeopardize the safety of the travel group. It is important that tour leaders stay in routine communication with drivers and participants to be informed of any changing conditions. For larger groups, institute a ‘buddy system’ where two people are paired and told to stay together for safety and to notify the group if one is mission. Count your participants before leaving each rest stop so that no one is left behind.
Prepare an emergency first aid kit with supplies and medicines for simple injuries and illnesses. Develop a communications and logistics plan to transport participants to medical facilities, in the unlikely event of injury, illness, or natural disaster. Serious conditions may need medical evacuation to a neighboring country for treatment. Tell participants to enroll in a travel medical insurance program that includes evacuation coverage. These policies are inexpensive and an ordinary contingency for those who frequently travel to developing nations.
Organizing a coffee origin tour is a challenging and detail-oriented task. When planned thoughtfully it can be an effective export market tool in the toolkit of coffee producing nations that build positive experiences and long-lasting trade relationships.
Do one year or more ahead
Do six months ahead
Do three months ahead
Do one month ahead
Do just before
Do just after
Do one month after