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
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,
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
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
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
"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
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
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."
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.
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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Fifteen days in
a Tahitian paradise
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.
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
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.
3: In the morning, shop for artisan goods. In the
afternoon, kayak, snorkel or relax at
the beach or the pool.
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
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.
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
7: On Raiatea, spend the day on an outrigger canoe/snorkel
tour of the lagoon and shop in artisans' stores.
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.
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
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.