Carol Dover, the president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association (FRLA), is this week’s featured guest. In our conversation, we talk about how Carol got her start in the hospitality industry and how the industry has evolved over the years. We also talk about the biggest challenge for the restaurant and lodging industries, about effective tourism marketing strategies and how being a breast cancer survivor impacted her priorities.
Chris Cate: Welcome to the Fluent in Floridian podcast, featuring the sunshine states brightest leaders talking about the issues most important to the people of Florida and it’s millions of weekly visitors. I’m your host Chris Cate, and in this episode created by SalterMitchellPR, I talk to Carol Dover, the president and CEO of the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association.
In our conversation, we’ll talk about how she got her start in the hospitality industry, and how the industry has changed through the years. We also talk about the biggest challenge of [00:00:30] the hospitality industry, about tourism marketing, and about how being a cancer survivor has influenced Carol’s priorities. You can it all, right now.
Carol, thanks so much for being on the show. I want to start by asking about your work prior to FRLA. Can you tell me how did you get involved in the hospitality industry?
Carol Dover:Well Chris, I grew up in Orlando, graduated from Winter Park High. I was always involved in the hospitality industry. I grew up working in hotels [00:01:00] and restaurants. I lost my dad when I was quite young, so for me to be able to go to college, it meant that I had to wait tables and work my way through. That was how I started. Then once I graduated, I realized that most of the good high paying jobs that you hear about when you’re a hospitality major, were outside of Tallahassee. My job offer was [00:01:30] in Huston Oaks Galleria, and I didn’t want to leave Tallahassee. I ended up staying here, and making this home but it meant a little bit of a change in a career path.
Chris Cate: That was working for the beer industry, is that right?
Carol Dover: That’s right. Yes, it was.
Chris Cate: Which I imagine at the time, must have been a very male dominated work place, but you seem to have broken down some of those barriers throughout your career in the hospitality industry. Is that something that you’ve been aware of as [00:02:00] you’ve been in these board meetings with others?
Carol Dover: It certainly evolved over time. I think when I first got into it, I’m not sure I really realized at the time exactly how male dominated it was. I didn’t focus on that, and make it part of my mission to conquer that. Except, I guess over time I really started to realize that there was a system, [00:02:30] that … I’ve seen it change. I’ve watched it evolve. I have to say it’s evolved for the better, where women are certainly holding higher positions today, and more elected officials that they didn’t have back when I first started my career.
Chris Cate: Do you think that’s partly in that industry, they’re more the owners? Are you seeing kind of the ownership of these companies change as well?
Carol Dover: There’s no question. The whole industry has changed. I think it’s interesting [00:03:00] when you think about when we were in school, it just wasn’t the sexy thing if you will. Like when you’re asked, “What are you going to be when you grow up?”
It was a lawyer, a firefighter, or a doctor. No one ever said, “I want to be a chef.” Or, “I want to go work for the hospitality industry.” That just wasn’t a buzz line. Thanks to people like Emeril Lagasse, and many of the famous chefs, particularly in a state like Florida, [00:03:30] they have changed that image, and made it … I mean, look at Rachel Ray. They’ve made it where it’s really exciting to be a chef.
Now we have thousands of kids in high school today that if you ask them, they’ll tell you, “I want to be a chef.” Or, “I want to work in the hospitality industry.” So, it has really changed.
Chris Cate: How then did you end up working in Governor Bob Martinez’s administration, and what was that experience like?
Carol Dover: It was amazing. I’m very, [00:04:00] very loyal. I think that’s one of the traits that I have that I’ve tried to carry throughout my career, and I did not want to leave the beer industry. They had been very good to me. I’d been there 10 years.
I graduated from FSU quite young. I was only 20, so I worked there from 20 … I think I was 29, I hadn’t even quite turned 30, when then [Vanpool 00:04:24] had been appointed secretary at DBPR, and Will [Mckenley 00:04:27] was his deputy. And they came [00:04:30] over to do the traditional visit and saw my degree on the wall, and they were looking for a hotel and restaurant director.
I first started by going over to DBPR. Then I was there for maybe two years, and then I was asked to come be deputy chief of staff with the governor. Again in life, you never know where these stepping stones are going to lead you, and now at this point [00:05:00] in my career I can look back and see where every single stepping stone that was laid in front of me, lead to this position.
Chris Cate: Do you think there was … When you’re working for Governor Martinez, more awareness in Florida about the importance of tourism? Forgive me for not knowing the history of Florida, but at that time, what kind of emphasis was there on drawing tourists to Florida?
Carol Dover: It has changed dramatically. Back then we had what was known as the Department of Commerce, and Jeb Bush was our secretary. Yes, of [00:05:30] course we promoted Florida but from a government agency perspective to what we have with the VISIT FLORIDA today, it’s a completely different model.
I don’t think that we were as effective back then. Clearly, it has changed when you go from 82 million visitors to 113 million visitors. You can see that the model worked, but [00:06:00] it’s another thing that has just evolved over time from putting the regulatory agency into more of a private sector mode.
Chris Cate: When you finally joined the FRLA or at the time, I guess it was-
Chris Cate: FRA. What was it like? Tell me about that transition to add lodging into that, and how it kind of came together.
Carol Dover: That was a national, [00:06:30] interesting conversation with a lot of controversy. It was not normal at all, and still as we sit today, none of the large states … So, Texas, California, New York. The larger states ares still separated, so you always … Most states you would have the restaurant association and then the hotel association.
I have the utmost respect for what was then, [FH & MA 00:06:59], the Florida Hotel Motel Association [00:07:00] that had been around forever. In fact, Tommy Waits was like a mentor to me, and when they asked for us to take it over, they had come upon some challenging times.
In the beginning, I didn’t think it was in the best interest of … At the time, I thought of the industry. Of course, later I realized that I was probably being a bit selfish. I realized for me it would be more travel, another board, whole another group of regulatory issues, but when I came to grips [00:07:30] with it, there is no doubt that the merger, and now being the former restaurant and lodging association, was the best thing that ever happened to the industry and to the trade assassination.
Chris Cate: Do you find that the needs of the restaurant industry and the lodging industry, typically line up or do you sometimes have to balance it [inaudible 00:07:50]?
Carol Dover: It’s a balancing act, but we have been very blessed. There’s never been an issue that has divided them. Sometimes [00:08:00] it’s true that we spend a little bit more time on some hotel issues. Sometimes more on restaurant issues, but the reality of it is, almost every hotel that we represent has a restaurant.
I think if there’s one thing that we’ve probably done is we’ve highlighted a lot of the restaurant issues in the hotel world, that may have otherwise not been brought to their attention. So, it’s been positive.
Chris Cate: What would you say is the biggest issue facing the restaurant, [00:08:30] and lodging industry?
Carol Dover: Labor. Jobs. I’ve seen all types of predictions, that 2025 we could be as much as a quarter of a million employees down, so immigration is very obviously a big issue for this industry.
We need employees, and if we want to continue on this growth pattern that we’re on, if we don’t continue to [00:09:00] look at our labor force, we’re not going to have as many cases today, we don’t have enough people.
Chris Cate: Is there a proactive way that you can try to bring more people to Florida to work? What’s the approach to …
Carol Dover: Obviously, we work a lot, like I said on immigration, and the [inaudible 00:09:19] issue. We also have our own educational foundation where we are in the high schools, where we are teaching kids [00:09:30] about the hospitality industry.
We’re in over 240 high school. We have over 30,000 high school kids in our program. Clearly not all of them will leave high school and go into the industry, but a great number of them will. That is the educational and training norm of our future labor force.
Chris Cate: You brought up VISIT FLORIDA a little bit earlier, which has been making a lot of headlines for many months now. What is FRLA’s stance on how Florida tourism should be [00:10:00] marketed? Not necessarily speak to VISIT FLORIDA, but just in general. What’s the best way for Florida’s market itself?
Carol Dover: Well, if you go back in time, clearly we felt that imposing a tax on ourselves was the best way to do it, and that’s why we have the bed tax. If you look at the original intent, it was a self imposed tax by the hotel industry to market tourism, and market Florida.
It has worked very well. I still [00:10:30] believe that it is one of the best ways. We certainly don’t need to tax the citizens of Florida to promote tourism. I think taxing the tourists that come here by virtue of a bed tax, is still the best use and smartest way to do it.
I think there’s still a lot to figure out from last session, and maybe some … There’s certainly been a lot of good that came [00:11:00] out of it. I mean, we’ve never ever been opposed to transparency. There’s like I said, “There were good things that came out of it.” But the flip side of that is, I think that they’re were possibly some chains that were put on, that are making it a little bit of a challenge.
I do think we need to step back now. Look at what’s working, look at what’s not working and hopefully this session fix some of the challenging issues that we’re having.
Chris Cate: [00:11:30] I know you host events like the Songwriters Tour to promote tourism and hospitality. How do you decide what makes a promotional event successful and worth doing again?
Carol Dover: Well, it started with the oil spill. We learned a lot from that. Here as you will well remember, we never saw an ounce of oil on beaches. I mean, could Destin have been anymore beautiful, but we could not get anyone else to report it that way.
All you [00:12:00] saw was the oil, and It looked like the oil was all over the beaches. That’s when we kind of took it into our own hands, and we thought what can we do to rebuild tourism here? That’s where our partnership with BMI and the National Songwriters came into play. We started these events, and next thing we knew people were coming, and the hotels were full, and the restaurants were full, so if it works here, let’s take this around the state.
It has worked in every single market that we have taken it too. [00:12:30] It’s not just Songwriters, we do SUN ‘n FUN. We do the Main Street, we have art shows … It depends on the niche in that community and what will bring people to the community, but we do know that in-state marketing is very important.
Chris Cate: One thing that many people might not know about you is that you actually live on a farm, and commute to work here, which I don’t know how many people here in downtown Tallahassee do that. What is it about living on [00:13:00] a farm in Florida that you enjoy so much?
Carol Dover: I love the history. My father’s family … My father-in-law bought the farm in 1942. It’s an old tobacco farm, and I again, being raise in Orlando, and certainly not the farm life … I fell in love with that particular lifestyle, and my passion are my horses. I love the horses, and I jokingly say, “We’re a little bit [00:13:30] like the Clampetts.”
All of our adult kids, both daughters live on the farm. Our granddaughter was the third generation born there, so it’s just a very special place. It’s just so much history, that I think unfortunately we’re losing a lot of with all the development, and the sub divisions. There’s just not a lot of places today where there’s large tracks of land. That were one time truly farms, [00:14:00] that are being worked. I mean, not as much in this area.
Chris Cate: Yeah. As big as our agricultural industry is, if you ask somebody in California or New York about Florida, they probably wouldn’t think about farming. Yet we do have many amazing farms.
Carol Dover: A lot of agricultural. That’s right.
It’s something that we have to preserve. Something that we need to always do a good job of marketing as well, we’re doing a lot with farm-to-table. I think there’s a lot of things that people don’t know [00:14:30] about Florida that … You’re right, they think of the beautiful beaches or the attractions, but we’re doing a lot of farm-to-table events that are really special.
Chris Cate: I want to ask you a question. Perhaps a little bit personal, but I know you are an advocate fort on this issue.
Carol Dover: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Chris Cate: But in 2003 you were diagnosed with breast cancer, and now as a breast cancer survivor I know you help raise money to help fund research. How has being a survivor changed the way you approach your work, and your relationships, and priorities?
Carol Dover: [00:15:00] It’s certainly put priorities in perspective, and life in perspective. I feel like I’m one of the lucky ones, because I’m still here sitting here having this conversation with you, and sadly to say many of my friends, and colleagues that I have met aren’t.
I say that, “It’s not necessarily the club that any of us women wake up and say we want to be inducted into, [00:15:30] but I can tell you that being a part of the breast cancer club, if you will, has been a blessing for me.”
I have met so many women. I am completely honored by the fundraising events that we’ve been allowed to do, and it’s truly … It changed my life, and it changed it for the better.
Chris Cate: Thank you for sharing that, and I know a lot of people deal with that issue, so it’s good for others to hear that story too.
Carol Dover: [00:16:00] It’s a very important issue.
Chris Cate: I’m going to transition now to our final four questions that I ask every guest.
Carol Dover: Okay.
Chris Cate: The first being, who is a Florida leader that you admire? And you’re welcome to name more than one, if you like.
Carol Dover: I knew you were going to go there. It’s so funny when you mention that, I told you it’s really hard, but somebody that always come to mind to me is Kenny [Plant 00:16:22]. I don’t even know how many in the younger lobbying generation, even [00:16:30] know or remember much about Kenny, but he was just such a man of integrity. Such a great lobbyist. I met him when I first started with the beer industry, so he certainly gave me a lot of advice, and I always respected that he was there anytime you needed him.
Lee [Moffat 00:16:49]. You think about people like Lee speaking of breast cancer. How many people in this town have reached out to Lee because of need, whether [00:17:00] for themselves or for someone else that’s been dealt the cancer card. One thing I know about that man is I’ve never seen him turn his back. He’s there for every single person who has ever asked him, “Can you help me?”
There are people like that, that we forget. We get all wrapped up in the politics of Tallahassee, and so many times we forget about the people who really paved the way for things that are so important in life, that don’t have anything to do with the political world.
Chris Cate: Mm- [00:17:30] hmm (affirmative).
The next of our final four questions is, what Florida place or thing deserves more attention than what it’s getting right now?
Carol Dover: I would say some of the rural areas. It’s really hard to compete when you’re a smaller county next to the counties that get so much marketing, and bed taxes, and revenues. We spend a lot of time here looking at … Like I mentioned Main Street. Main Street is a restaurant program where we [00:18:00] go in to communities where there’s smaller independent restaurant operators.
Certainty we love our chains. We all can’t say enough about what the chains do for the industry, but sometimes for an independent operator, several chains popping up on the block could mean that they’re going to go out of business. We try to do a lot to help the smaller operator, and in some of the rural areas, so more marketing [00:18:30] in those areas would be helpful.
Chris Cate: Good. Next question on my list. What is your favorite Florida location to visit? And I even open this question up sometimes, and say, “It can be even a favorite restaurant as well.”
I don’t know. It may be hard for you to pick favorites but where’s somewhere you love to go?
Carol Dover: I better not get out of that [inaudible 00:18:50]. How about if I say the beautiful farm out on the west side of Tallahassee.
There’s so many unbelievable places here. [00:19:00] I feel so fortunate when I go to my national conferences, and I sit with my 49 other colleagues, and reminded about how blessed we are in Florida to have over 800 miles of beaches. And all the great attractions, and then you get down to south Florida with all the innovation that has gone on the south beach.
I truly don’t have a favorite. I love just being able to go from place to place and see [00:19:30] all the different from the … Like I said, “The Independent operator to the larger operator, and to see how they make things work in their communities.”
I truly don’t have one favorite.
Chris Cate: Yeah, and Florida really is so different. It’s almost apples and oranges, trying to compare south Florida to north Florida.
Carol Dover: And you can’t. We’re such a diverse state, and I don’t find that to be true when I talk to many of my colleagues.
Chris Cate: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Well, the last question on the list is hopefully is [00:20:00] an easy one. What is your favorite Florida sports team?
Carol Dover: Well, come on now. Go [ ‘Noles 00:20:07]. I’m an FSU die hard. Graduated from there. Love the school. Still do a lot of work. I’m on the board of governors there.
I absolutely adore president John [Thrasher 00:20:19]. I think that that was a brilliant move for the school to make him the president, so I can’t say enough about … FSU football season’s around the corner. [00:20:30] Can’t wait.
Chris Cate: Great. Well, go ‘Noles.
Carol Dover: Go ‘Noles.
Chris Cate: Thank you so much for being on the show.
Carol Dover: Thank you Chris. Thank you for the opportunity.
Chris Cate: Thanks for listening to the Fluent in Floridian podcast. If you aren’t subscribed to the podcast yet, I hope you’ll look us up and subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app. Like Apple podcast, Stitcher, or Google Play music.
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