Serving those who serve

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Anne SherwoodWhen Anne Sherwood "jumped on the incredible opportunity" to launch a travel agency at Camp Pendleton, Calif., she had her detractors. They said she would fail.

A decade has passed, and she now manages Latitudes Travel, which serves personnel on the Marine base and is the effective home office for the Joint Services Travel Program, a collection of offices that book leisure travel for military personnel on dozens of bases throughout the U.S.

Latitudes, a government-owned agency, can sell only to "authorized patrons," meaning active or retired military, their families and civilian employees of the Department of Defense. At the base, it has a captive market but, Sherwood added, that market is quite fluid because of the quick turnover of military personnel.

That means the agency, which sells only leisure travel, has to promote itself constantly to catch the attention of a regular stream of newcomers. And there are limitations as to how that can be done.

Latitudes can use direct mail as well as on-site events and devices like banners, Sherwood said, but it cannot advertise off the base or sponsor a self-booking option on a government website. The key event is an annual, half-day travel show on base that features free food and attracts about 70 vendors and 3,000 people.

Latitudes' parent is the Virginia-based Marine Corps Community Services, part of the Department of Defense.

Sherwood has been an MCCS employee for 22 years, initially at the El Toro base in Irvine, Calif., which has since closed. She started in accounting, "a great background," she said, for her business activities today. She then managed the base's Information, Tickets and Tours office and transferred to the same position at Camp Pendleton in the early '90s.

SatoTravel was the full-service travel provider, but "when it pulled out of leisure here, we asked to pick it up," Sherwood said. She became and remains manager of both Latitudes and the Information, Tickets and Tours office at Camp Pendleton.

Initially, she said, Latitudes was a break-even operation, but today it is making some profit, all of which is contributed to quality-of-life programs for military personnel.

"We really, really push cruises and tours," she said. As a result, cruises account for 45% of sales and packages another 35%.

The ebb and flow of sales doesn't necessarily track with the economy.

The biggest challenge comes when there are huge deployments, Sherwood said. At such times, many Marines leave the base, and some families return to hometowns for the duration, hence taking away some of her captive customers. Sherwood said 2008 was that kind of year at Camp Pendleton.

There is some compensation, however, in the R&R business that the agency arranges for troops stationed overseas, mostly in Afghanistan or Iraq. Using email and occasional phone calls, the servicemen and servicewomen arrange to spend leave time in places like Australia, Sherwood said.

In 2009, she continued, the business did "pretty well" and grew, helped along by free admissions offered to active and retired military by Disneyland (through Sept. 30) and Disney World (through Dec. 23). The agency sold travel packages plus entry tickets for family members. And the military rates for cruises "have been incredible, although the volume is not there" for the agency, Sherwood noted.

Two full-time agents and one part-time agent sell for Latitudes, while an operations assistant and Sherwood focus on the needs of the 75 other bases in the Joint Services Travel Program.

Latitudes has been a member of Vacation.com since the agency's inception, and the V-com membership encompasses the other 75 outlets. The travel offices are financially connected in that all are owned by MCCS and the Morale, Welfare and Recreation office within the Department of Defense. Latitudes functions like a host agency for those offices because the others don't have GDSs or ARC approval. The branches book their own leisure packages, using Latitudes' ARC number, and Latitudes provides airline ticketing. As a result, Latitudes and its affiliates can combine their sales for V-com's commission benefits.

In addition to hosting local sales, Latitudes generally operates an annual Joint Services group tour overseas. (There was no trip this year, and in this case, the economy did make a difference.)

Sherwood kicks herself for failing to attend annual V-com conferences, a mistake she corrected this year. She found the 2009 meeting "motivating [and] energizing" and plans to piggyback training for staff at Joint Services Travel offices for the day before or after next year's conference.

She remains most energized, though, about the job itself. "There is a great need for this to enhance a serviceperson's life. What we do is incredibly beneficial."

Perfect Itinerary: At ease in Europe's capitals

Notre DameThe following itinerary is a 2010 group departure of the Globus Essential Europe plan arranged and offered by Latitudes Travel to all military personnel.

Day 1: Arrive in Rome. Explore the Eternal City on your own before a welcome dinner at one of Rome's lively restaurants.

Day 2: Sightsee with a local guide; see the Vatican Museums, St. Peter's Square and Basilica, and the Colosseum. There will be time for independent activities.

Day 3: Drive to Florence, followed by a walking tour led by a local guide. See the Academy of Fine Arts, home to Michelangelo's "David," and Signoria Square. There's time to check out Florentine shops, too.

Day 4: Enter Venice in style, by private boat to St. Mark's Square. Admire the Doge's Palace and Bridge of Sighs. Free time to explore or join an optional gondola ride.

Day 5: Drive to picture-book Lucerne, Switzerland, for a folklore party with yodeling and alphorn blowing.

Day 6: Tour the Old Town in Lucerne and cross its famous covered Chapel Bridge to the Jesuit Church. Afterward, shop for watches, climb a mountain in a cable car or cruise on Lake Lucerne.

Day 7: Travel to Paris.

Day 8: See the top sites of Paris with a local guide who takes you to the Eiffel Tower, Arc de Triomphe and Notre Dame Cathedral. Consider the optional excursion to the lavish Versailles Palace and a cabaret show in the evening.

Day 9: In the afternoon, travel to London on the Eurostar train. Take in a West End show.

Day 10: See the best-known London landmarks with a local guide, including the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Whitehall's mounted horseguards and Buckingham Palace. Rest of the day at leisure or optional excursions.

Day 11: Return to the U.S.

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