The Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association is the main (not-for-profit) organization linking people involved in many sectors of the tourism industry. Not only does it have an important role in representing the interests of both individuals and businesses in the sector as it lobbies hard and successfully both in Tallahassee and outside the state, but also provides training, advice, education, certification and support for those involved in creating experiences for our tourists and locals alike.

The FRLA has local groups, or chapters, across the whole of Florida and some of the most active chapters are here in the Northwest with groups in Escambia/Santa Rosa, Bay and Okaloosa/Walton counties. The NWFL chapter recently held its annual awards ceremony where the recipients were honored for their work in customer service, cuisine and the whole range of hospitality skills.

I have to confess to being awed by professionalism and creativity, and not only of the chefs, restaurant managers and hoteliers, but by the experience and sheer ability of the wait staff, bartenders, front desk folks and housekeepers that look after us and our tourists. Kudos to all of them!

This is particularly important these days as the culinary and customer service aspects of our traveling experiences are becoming more important.

According to a report by Destination Analysts, more than half of travelers between the ages of 25 and 35 won’t visit a destination that lacks good restaurants. In fact, a full 95 percent of all travelers say they engage in unique and memorable dining experiences when on the move. It’s really not surprising, and I’m sure that you, like me, refuse to put up with average or less than great food experiences.

Here on the northern Gulf Coast, we’re particularly lucky to have not only a source of the best seafood, but also a rich vein of chefs who know what to do with that food, restaurant entrepreneurs who can create spectacular venues and the professional staff to operate those places.

It’s vital, as the competition is aggressive, not only along the coast, but within the areas and cities of our own region. It would appear that no longer are tourists, or indeed locals, willing to put up with the same food and service they’ve experienced for years. While it’s delightful to return to a restaurant that brings back memories, unless that food is inventively presented and served, it’s not going to impress.

Talking of memories, there’s even a new restaurant in California that’s set up in the nose of an old Boeing 747, called the Pan Am Experience. It’s not a tacky cafe in a junk plane, but a set that’s used for filming Hollywood movies. You’re served modern food created from ex-Pan Am menus by “stewardesses” wearing Pan Am uniforms. The aim is to recreate the golden age of air travel. It’s not advertised but still books out every two weeks, and it isn’t cheap with the experience starting at $490 per couple!

Martin Owen is an independent consultant to the tourism industry and owner of Owen Organization in Shalimar. Readers can email questions to