Ben Rich, owner of Latitudes Unlimited, is a flyboy turned cruise specialist. His biggest love (aeronautically speaking) is the Boeing 777, which he calls the "greatest plane in the world."
"A 747 guy will tell you his was the greatest, but ours could go farther," said Rich, who wound up his flying career as a Boeing 777 captain for Emirates.
A man of energy and enthusiasm, Rich was an Air Force pilot, flying transport planes everywhere in the world except Antarctica, before getting his commercial license. But his passion for flight is not all encompassing; he has room in his heart for many things, and cruising is one of them.
That, combined with his natural ebullience, launched his travel agent career while he was still flying MD11s, MD80s, Boeing 737s and 727s during his 19 years with American Airlines.
It started while he was on a western Caribbean cruise aboard the Norway and talking with his characteristic enthusiasm about cruising during a dinner. One of his table mates, Jane Maxvill, then owner of Cruise Holidays Lovers Lane in Dallas, offered him a job as an outside sales agent.
Rich thought about it for a while, and then in 1995, the same year airlines capped commissions, Rich became an outside agent, specializing in creating groups to take on cruises. He scheduled his groups around his flying schedule and vacations.
His first big group was a reunion of retired Air Force pilots and navigators. From that group of 30, his business grew via word of mouth.
Then in 2003, Rich, along with other American pilots, took a 35% pay cut as part of a massive corporate restructuring aimed at staving off bankruptcy, only to see Donald Carty, then CEO of American Airline's parent company AMR, let airline executives keep millions of dollars in bonuses. (Carty's career with American ended soon after).
Disenchanted, Rich started looking for other opportunities. He had been reading about Emirates in travel trade magazines and applied for a job with the airline. In 2007, Emirates offered Rich his dream job: captain of a Boeing 777.
But Emirates law did not allow him to operate his agency, so he handed off his clients to other agents for the two-and-a-half years he worked for Emirates out of Dubai.
"It was a great experience," he said.
The former pilot wound up his flying career as a Boeing 777 captain for Emirates.
He wound up that gig in 2009, moved back home and swiftly began rebuilding his cruise business. He is still affiliated with the same agency, although it is now called Clear Haven Cruises.
This year, he and his wife, Sherrie, are hosting some 25 cruises.
But these trips are not entirely at sea; they usually include a land portion that is as long or longer than the cruise itself.
For example, last year Rich did a 46-day trip that included a 14-night Australia and New Zealand cruise aboard the Voyager of the Seas. The rest of the trip was on land, with stops in Singapore, Bangkok, the Maldives and Dubai.
He does his own legwork. When he and Sherrie were planning a Mediterranean cruise, they flew to Italy in advance to check out hotels in Rome and Venice to ensure they were staying in the right places.
Other extras include add-ons that grew out of Rich's background as a veteran and his passion for history.
That means in places like Hawaii, for example, the land portion of the trip included a private tour of the Kilauea Military Camp on the Big Island of Hawaii. On Oahu, they stayed at the Hale Koa Hotel (it means "young warrior" in Hawaiian, he said). Set on 72 acres on Waikiki Beach, it is reserved for active and retired military personnel and some of their guests.
They also toured the USS Arizona Memorial, the USS Battleship Missouri Memorial and the Pacific Aviation Museum at Hickam Air Force base, where walls are still pockmarked with bullet holes from the Dec. 7, 1941, attack by Japan. They also visited the National Memorial Cemetery of the Pacific (in a crater known as Punch Bowl).
Last year, one of Ben and Sherrie's tours celebrated the 70th anniversary of D-Day with a Viking River Cruise preceded by a week in Paris.
He estimated that 25% of his client base is ex-military.
If a client asks him to book a land-only vacation, he will, and thanks to all the land portions he adds to his cruises, he has enough expertise to be able to recommend his favorite hotel in Paris, for example. But he firmly believes in specializing.
"With all of the cruise lines and changes in ships and changes in design, I find that it is a big enough challenge to stay up to date on the ships," he said.
He does not have a website.
"That is intentional," he said. "I don't want my time wasted by Internet shoppers."
His marketing mantra: "I am not the cheapest, but I'm your best value because of all the extra work we do."
His main marketing vehicles are repeat, word of mouth and a newsletter, which he sends out "as appropriate" and only to those who sign up for it.
"I won't spam anybody," he said.
Today, big ships are his bread and butter, but mention any flight in the world and he can't stop himself from telling you its configuration and what works and what doesn't.
Asked if he misses flying, he admitted that when he's outside his house west of Fort Worth, he always looks up to watch the planes take off from DFW.
"Being a travel agent and being a pilot don't compare," he said and added, "It was a great career, but it was time for it to come to an end."
He doesn't waste time missing his days in the sky, because he's busy enjoying the sea.
At the time he was interviewed, he was about to take a group aboard the Emerald Princess.
The group planned to scuba dive in Honduras and Belize (he loves diving, he said, because it's the only place the animals come to you). Then they were going to "visit my favorite Cozumel haunt, Pancho's Backyard, for taquitos, guac and margaritas."