By Martin Owen | Special to Destin.comowen-martin

I was asked recently if, despite the increase in tourists to the Gulf Coast, are we attracting the “right sort” of visitors. It appears that some restaurants are reporting lower-spending guests. I decided to do some research.

All our Destination Marketing Organizations (DMOs) along the coast have been targeting more affluent tourists over the past few years, while persuading them to visit outside the peak “60 Days of Summer.” Hotel and condo daily rates have risen and reports from hoteliers indicate they have been largely successful. Targeting is certainly effective, although the silver lining of the 2010 oil spill was that awareness of our area was raised to the whole population. As this wasn’t targeted, we probably gained new visitors who hadn’t considered us before, and therefore did not fit our regular profile.

Talking to restauranteurs and wait staff brought out a slightly different picture, and a very complex one. Many suggest that it’s not the size of actual food bills that have declined, but the tips that diners leave. Does this mean that tipping habits are changing?

Apparently younger restaurant visitors across the country tend to tip less. It’s just not part of millennial philosophy to tip, and certainly not to leave high tips. With the increase in younger guests, that may have an effect.

We are seeing a change from where our tourists come, which may also have an effect. Traditionally, tips in the Panhandle were in the 20-25 percent range, whereas the rest of Florida experienced around 18 percent. It could certainly be that visitors from the newer markets spend more on accommodations and tours but are used to lower tipping.

Hospitality experts are suggesting that tourists are changing their dining habits to include “experiences” — as we discussed last week. So, during a five-day stay, they may snack at lower-cost eateries for three days so they can eat at a really upscale restaurant on two nights and get their culinary experience fix.

The majority of our accommodations here on the Gulf Coast are condos and rental homes, all of which come with a fully equipped kitchen. Given that we have an increasing number of good food markets (including Fresh Market and Whole Foods), plus regular farmer’s markets and fresh seafood outlets, could we be seeing our guests providing for themselves for at least part of their stay?

Lastly, a good number of new upscale restaurants have sprung up over the past couple of years as our culinary reputation rises. These often offer new dining options, celebrity chefs and locations in spectacular places. These could be attracting visitors away from more established establishments.

Once again, there are no simple explanations for the continual change in our tourist market. It’s more that many small things add together and we shouldn’t jump to conclusions!

It’s that time of year when people are traveling to be with their families and friends, and many of us become tourists. Please travel safely.

So, Merry Christmas, Hanukkah Sameach, Merry Yule and happy holidays to everyone.

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