From president's plane to Polynesia


Bill Thomas runs a small agency that he opened less than five years ago. He makes no claims to a lifetime of travel-selling experiences.

What he does have, however, is a dozen years of travel experiences shared by very few Americans.

From 1994 until his retirement from the Air Force in 2006, he was a crew member on Air Force One, a role that took him to 120 countries.

Not all of those countries, Thomas said, are ready for prime time as tourist destinations -- Afghanistan, for example -- but plenty are good candidates and popular with those who visit, like French Polynesia, Thomas' favorite.

Thomas established a travel agency, Tropical Latitudes Travel, in 2003 with a view to parlaying his background into a second career.

Besides, he married a travel agent a few years ago; she is his partner and vice president of travel marketing.

The agency was founded in Maryland, but Thomas relocated the business to Cape Coral, Fla., a year ago. It is a largely one-man operation, with wife Jennifer providing backup while she pursues other business interests, as well.

The 100% leisure operation, which grosses about $500,000, makes tropical destinations its niche, often in combination with cruising. Tropical Latitudes also sells some Las Vegas and Disney packages.

The largest share of business is the Caribbean, but Thomas' heart is in the South Pacific. French Polynesia is his favorite, for the French-based culture plus the wide variety of activities beyond the beaches.

During his years on Air Force One, Thomas said he was "thrilled" to visit a variety of destinations, and he was particularly taken with the beauty of Afghanistan.

"It's a stunning place and could be an amazing destination for those interested in mountain terrain," he said.

Thomas was a communications officer on Air Force One, which meant he was responsible for all communications between the aircraft and the ground.

He said the president's staff would be on the phone ensuring that ground arrangements at the next destination were in order, and that "the president was constantly on the phone."

Depending on a trip's length and scheduling, there could be from five to 30 crew members aboard. The crew "tries to be self-sustained as an operation, dealing with maintenance, security, travel arrangements, whatever," he said.

As a result, Thomas' duties included booking hotels and car rentals for the crew.

Thomas recalled a 17-day journey to the South Pacific with a Congressional delegation, during which he had some days off to snorkel, sail and do the things tourist do. Thomas said the cultural exchanges were "amazing," although limited in certain ways.

"There are a lot of security issues," he said. "If you are traveling with the president, you cannot be as free-spirited as when you are on your own. You have to be more cautious about what you are saying, a little more standoffish."

Nevertheless, crew members did become friendly with locals, whom they would see again on later trips. Most of the time, the aircraft and crew were on the ground at each place a minimum of 12 hours.

"You can't have a tired crew flying the president around ... but 12 hours is not enough time to do much but eat dinner," he said.

He winced when recalling a dinner in Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, where the food was "not that great."

"But we all had emergency snack packs," he said.

In his last years before leaving the high-flying life behind, Thomas prepared for a new career by taking online courses relevant to travel and launched the travel agency with Jennifer on a part-time basis until he could go full-time after retirement from the Air Force.

The toughest challenge was the relocation to Florida, where satisfying the state's insurance licensing laws was "a lengthy, drawn-out affair and not that pleasant." He joked that getting a government security clearance had been easier.

Thomas deems the business a success, based in part on the level of repeat business and client referrals.

Key factors, he believes, are the fact that he's meticulous about ensuring all the pieces are in place for each trip. Another skill, he said, is listening to clients and watching for nonverbal clues.

Thomas said he tries not to sell any destination he has not researched "extensively" or visited.

"I can't give personalized service if I don't know enough," he said.

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Perfect Itinerary

Fifteen days in a Tahitian paradise

The following itinerary was prepared by Bill Thomas, president of Tropical Latitudes Travel in Cape Coral, Fla. It highlights French Polynesia, one of the destinations he came to love during his years traveling as a crew member on Air Force One.

Day 1: After flying to Los Angeles, take a taxi to your hotel in Marina Del Rey. Enjoy an outdoor dinner and stroll the beach at sunset.

Day 2: Board an Air Tahiti flight to Papeete. You'll be greeted with a lei and transferred to the domestic terminal for an eight-minute flight to Moorea. Transfer from the airport to the Moorea Pearl Resort for a stay in an overwater bungalow.

Day 3: In the morning, shop for artisan goods. In the afternoon, kayak, snorkel or  relax at the beach or the pool.

Day 4: Go on a safari tour of the island, viewing the local fauna and wildlife and climbing Mount Belvedere. In the evening, see Tahitian dancing at a dinner show at the cultural center.

Day 5: Rent a car and tour the island, stopping at pineapple plantations and pearl farms. Relax at the resort in the afternoon, taking a dip in the infinity pool or kayaking directly from your bungalow. Dinner is at an Italian restaurant in Moorea.

Day 6: Check out of the Moorea Pearl for the short flight back to Papeete. Board the Paul Gauguin for a seven-day cruise visiting the islands of Tahiti, Raiatea, Taha'a Motu Mahana and Bora Bora.

Day 7: On Raiatea, spend the day on an outrigger canoe/snorkel tour of the lagoon and shop in artisans' stores.

Day 8: On Taha'a Motu Mahana, tour the island and visit a vanilla plantation and a black pearl farm. On the motu, a tiny outer island made of coral and sand, read a book and drink a mai tai from a coconut shell.

Days 9 and 10: On Bora Bora, take a four-wheel Land Rover adventure, visiting a plantation, World War II cannon embunkments and local artisans. The next day, head for the lagoon to take a tour of the island via personal watercraft, stopping at small motus.

Days 11 and 12: On Moorea, activities include parasailing, a sunset cocktail cruise on a schooner, snorkeling in the lagoon and waterskiing from aft end of the Paul Gauguin.

Day 13: Enjoy dinner and dancing in Papeete. Spend the night on the ship.

Days 14 and 15: Disembark the ship and take a taxi to the InterContinental Resort Tahiti for a day pass in an overwater bungalow. Enjoy a private, candlelight dinner in a bungalow. Take a shuttle to the airport for your return, overnight flight.

The Perfect Itinerary is an example of an itinerary an agent crafted his or herself, not available anywhere else, but can be duplicated by other agents to sell to their clients. To send an example of an itinerary you've customized, e-mail to [email protected] with "Perfect Itinerary" in the subject line.

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