Interested in our travel history and travel industry background???
Tampa Bay's Cloud Based Travel Agency
John and Gina met while attending the University of South Florida. We graduated with business degrees in 1982. We got married and took a honeymoon in Jamaica. John ran a marketing company and Gina managed a bank branch. Mom got married again and bought some timeshare in St. Maarten. We got the bonus week. As we returned from each early trip, we immediately wanted to travel more. John's marketing company started running spring break trips for college kids to Jamaica. This gave us an excuse to head to Jamaica a few more times because we paid "taxes only" which amounted to about $30 in the eighties. If you wore nice clothes you might get upgraded to first class which was a special treat on Air Jamaica including champagne and a meal on real dishes. We had a contract for marketing with the USF Athletic Department and our startup had free rent in the basement of the USF Sun Dome. We also handled marketing for the new arena and we had backstage passes to the biggest indoor concert venue in Tampa. It was the beginning of the digital age and we were able to take advantage of this for marketing purposes when we bought one of the orignal Apple Macintosh computers but our laser printer cost $6000. College kids began flocking to Jamaica and Bahamas plus were even renting small cruise ships (anybody remember the Regal Empress?) and filling them with college kids. ReggaeJAM was our first product where we sold small hotels that nobody else sold. After turmoil in the industry with airlines like Eastern Airlines going bankrupt during de-regulation, we created a mainstream program called Calypso to handle high end hotels and the emerging all-inclusive vacaitons that had recently burst on the scene. Our contract with Air Jamaica expanded as the airline expanded.
Traveled to Jamaica, Bahamas, Florida and Key West
ReggaeJAM/Calypso Tours was a tour operator. It was an early kind of company that is like Expedia today that was spawned by the de-regulation of airlines. We still use some of our larger competitors like Go Go and Apple that have been around years longer than the online guys today to book Caribbean packages. We started doing the marketing using reggae music promotions and we were heading to Jamaica frequently to contract and inspect hotels plus we were guests at Reggae Sunsplash, a yearly buying conference called JAPEX in a different Jamaican city and were involved with the original organization of Reggae Sumfest in Montego Bay. Life was fun as we met most of the large reggae artists like Third World, Freddie McGregor and even Ziggy Marley. Our business was successful and Gina quit the bank to count heads and pay bills. Once the department had three employees, we realized it was a back-office in travel lingo. We sold our tour packages to travel agents who booked them for clients because we specialized in Jamaica Bahamas and Key West. We traveled and toured around the islands of Jamaica, Bahamas, Antigua, Barbados, St. Kitts, Nevis and Key West. Most vacations were work and play which became a pattern since we were in the travel business. We ran a small program with a Cesna airline called Cape Air. It flew from various Florida cities to Key West. We were approached by BWIA which was the Trinidadian airline that was expanding to the Eastern Caribbean and needed tour operators. We started selling charters to Jamaica with the Jamaican Government and worked with Sir Freddie Laker in Bahamas. A hotelier friend in Jamaica convinced me to get involved with an orphanage so we ran a school shoes program with our wedding and affinity groups and once took an entire toyota full of shoes up after a group.
We built a proprietary database to keep track of passengers and documentation which propelled us into the next stage of growth. The tour company was still humming along on used Apple Macintoshes, desks and cubicles. Being a tour operator allowed for longer stays in the island for vacation/work as we had 13 employees in the 90's including dept. managers. Money was flowing in America and everybody was invited to the party so the economy grew. It was a time when a doorman in New Orleans could easily save up for an all-inclusive week in Jamaica. We were very lucky to have experienced genuine Caribbean culture including local restaurants, stays at friend's villas and the experience to drive rental cars into every niche of an island. Plus we were running our own jet airplanes and flew for free or reduced rates on most of our carriers so why not run down for the weekend? We moved the company into a 1200 square foot facility with offices, a back office and a sales floor. The company employees were older ladies who had worked in the tour business and college students. We found the college kids could deal with the emerging technology and the older ladies would show up on-time to open the place plus they knew how hotels operated and the importance of details in the travel industry. Pay and bonus was good for everybody including our cubicle workers and back office people.
We were part of the sales force as All-Inclusive product took over the Caribbean travel market. All-Inclusive originated in Jamaica with Sandals and SuperClubs which included the famous Hedonism 2. We never knew there was a "clothing optional" segment of the travel market but it was now 10% of our business. By this time, we were one of the largest tour operators for the Jamaican Government charter called JAMVAC. The mission of this Government organization was to run charters to the island from cities that needed air service to Jamaica. We had contracts with Northwest Airlines, Air Jamaica, Delta, Bahamasair and other carriers. Most of our travel during this period of high growth involved work with vacations stuck on the end. We were running charter aircraft from New Orleans and Memphis to Jamaica. With a charter aircraft to Jamaica everybody is your friend plus we used the festival circuit to market our products except unlike the early days, we had the equipment and tent driven in ahead of us and we flew in to work the festival. We received invitations to New Orleans Jazz and Heritage festival plus various festivals in Cajun Country and the Memphis Blues circuit. We were also immersed in New Orleans culture as Gina's had family there and the charter allowed us to spend a lot of time with her aunts and uncles as they got older. The Jamaica Shuttle from New Orleans/Memphis to Jamaica ran for eight years with very high load factors because of our company's leadership.
Traveled to New Orleans, Lafayette, Memphis, Nashville, New York City, The Maine Coast, Bahamas, Jamaica, Turks and Caicos, Puerto Rico, St. Maarten and Guadeloupe. By this point, we had been to Jamaica almost 100 times and other Caribbean islands 10 or 15 times.
Blue Mountain Award Winners
We were moving about 9,000 bodies a year as we specialized in opening markets for the Jamaican Shuttle charter plus we inherited a major airline contract every time we moved on to a new city. John was a good sales person so the crew always knew which town he was in as the phones would start ringing when they did a sales blitz to annouce the charter. Gina used her banking experience to learn the travel industry from the back end where the people actually get processed. One day in 1995, we received an engraved invitation from the Government of Jamaica. It invited us to the Prime Minister's mansion and also the Governor General's House the following September. John rented a tux and we took Gina to get fitted for a party dress. It was quite a scene in Kingston Jamaica as they closed streets for our motorcade that was led by Jamaican motorcycle police in their dress whites. A stamp was issued in Jamaica in all of our honor. One night we were hosted on the Prime Minister's lawn and the next night at the GG's house as they would say in England. Jamaica is an independent nation but is still part of the British Commonwealth so they have a Governor General who is the representative of the Queen of England in Kingston. It was a grand party and all our tour operator friends won so it was a pretty big party with people we knew from all over the USA and the World. At our conference, we would always see Paolo from Italy, the Brits and the guys from Havanatour. As the world evolved, we got introduced to the Russians and the Chinese representatives at the conferences which fed our interest in World travel.
JAMAICA BLUE MOUNTAIN AWARDS
At the Governor General's Mansion in Jamaica 1995
John Rice worked personally with hundreds of Travel Agencies as the company Sales Manager
Chris Wright of Jamaica Tourist Board still calls on our company.
September 11, 2001
As our college workers were now married (and mommies), we worked a later shift starting at 10AM as we never left the office during this stage until 7 or 8PM. We had employees stuffed in every niche of the office and the economy was so good we had a hard time finding qualified call center employees in Tampa even though we paid above average with bonus. We were approached by Morgan Stanley and others to sell the company which might have been a good idea in hindsight. As I got out of the shower on my way to work, Gina called me to the Today show and the first airplane had already hit the first tower. About that time, the second jet aircraft plowed into tower 2 and I went to get dressed. I suggested that Gina get into work early as this is going to be bad. She was stunned like everybody else in America but turned to me and said "You mean business wise?" as the TV began talking about grounded airplanes and stranded travelers. We worked 18 hours a day as we tried to get everybody home to the United States and the feeling was sinking in that the Travel Industry would be hurt drastically. We assured everybody that the company would go on as we had built up a good cash cushion plus we had everybody's deposits escrowed as the company grew. As the weeks went on, it became obvious that we were not getting back to work as nobody wanted to go anywhere. We had refunded about $100,000 in deposits and pre-payments for cancelled trips. Employees were sitting around a quiet office and all our travel agents were saying business was dead because people were scared. On the morning of November 12, the tail fell off an American Airlines flight 597 over New York City and John made the decision to fire the six of our last 7 employees. Shortly after JAMVAC shut down all charter operations and airlines began to merge. Things began to recover a little bit in 2002 but the declaration of the Iraq War slowed the travel market again so we started selling cruises and fell back on our Caribbean knowledge to create a retail company as the internet was growing as a source of travel bookings.
November, 2001, Traveled to San Francisco and Northern California Wine Country
We still had frequent flyer miles from John's road warrier days and employees doing nothing so we do what we always do when the going gets tough, we go on vacation. Travel carnage was everywhere with empty hotels and great offers for those brave enough to travel. We bought 2 nights at the Pan Pacific (now the Marriott) on Union Square in San Francisco and got a free night. We stayed at Sea Ranch on California 1 and got a tasting dinner with wines and a room for less than the price of a room. The wine country was pretty empty that year and we really enjoyed the half empty wine train in Napa. We got a great agent rate and an upgrade at the Marc Hopkins and the concierge helped us score last minute tickets for Jazz bassist Stanley Clarke. Then there was a snafu with seating and Gina said she could have held his music at the manager's table at Yoshi's. A good hotel concierge is worth his weight in gold but you have to tip them good when they arrange a special experience. Gina and I had planned to take the BART roundtrip but he suggested the ferry and a glass of wine at sunset across San Francisco Bay. He also reconfirmed our Supershuttle transfer times while we were out touring the city.
Caribbean Tour & Cruise was created to market Caribbean resorts and cruises directly to the general public. The internet was flooded with travel start ups like Expedia, Travelocity and Priceline that gained marketshare on "do it yourself" travel by cutting prices and employing workers in places like the Philippines for $1.25 an hour. At 42 years old, we were basically going through start-up again but with our travel knowledge and digital experience we were surviving. This time, we already had our own resources and a house that was paid for so it was easier in some respects than the initial go-round but in some respects, it was harder than at 42 than 24 when we worked long hours.
Traveled Italy/Sicily, France most of the Florida coastal cities following our hobby of back-country kayak fishing plus we began to take cruises to the Western Caribbean and the Bahamas.
The company moved into the back of Leisure Travel in Temple Terrace to share expenses. We learned the retail travel business, which vendors to use and about the myriad of travel products and countries in the world. It was an interesting time as the map of the world kept changing countries so the huge map on Leisure's wall was always outdated. Our cruise business was rapidly growing and we sold a lot of all-inclusive products on the phone to people who discovered our webpages and did not want to "do it yourself". John was also learning how to program web pages. As we started with a marketing company, we have been successful at driving people into our companies using digital marketing so web pages were just another form of digital marketing. We also switched from phone books to search engines and from mail marketing to email marketing to our opt-in customers.
2004 was the year of our twentieth anniversary of marriage. It was also the year of the Grand Italian Trip to Florence, Rome, Naples and Sicily. As it was a big anniversary, it was celebrated with fancy hotels and first class tickets. We had an apartment in Rome that was absolutely delightful, stayed in a 12th century Palace in Naples and flew from Naples, Italy to Catania Sicily with the intent of visiting Gina's Grandfather's home town. We saw Pompeii, The David and the Vatican, stayed a night overlooking Mt Aetna which was erupting at the time and could be seen from Taormina then we went on to Cefalu, Sicily where we checked into an apartment on the sea for three days. We met Kate and Pipo plus Gina's other cousin Mary. Gina's grandfather had a brother that did not like America and went back to Sicily. These were the decendants of that man. One of the Uncles in New Orleans had made this connection 10 years earlier at the completion of a Globus escorted tour of Italy/Sicily. We got to se the Country house and also their beautiful apartment in the old town of Cefalu.
2006 Trip to Paris and Reims.
This was our first experience with couch surfing as Gina's brother had an apartment overlooking the Seine in Paris, France so we crashed on his Futon for eight nights. I can attest that an Ikea Futon is pretty comfortable and we could see half the Eiffel Tower so we waited until midnight every night to turn in when they turned off the Eiffel Tower. It was late March and the first week of April so it was a nice time in Paris and the museums were not busy during our visit. It is true what they sing about April in Paris as the flowers, flowering trees and bulbs were all coming out. Since we were couch surfing, we bought food for the week. We took a daytrip to Reims to see the champagne caves and the Mark Chagal windows in the church. Paris and Reims Blog at this link
Late in 2006, Leisure Travel finally shut down. Many travel agencies did not make the jump to a digital age and our friend got sick so she decided to close the agency and work from home. This was practically the last full service travel agency in our small town so it seemed that we could make a go of what our industry calls a "bricks and mortar" agency. We rented a very small office on the back of a doctor's office with a door that faced Fowler Avenue and expanded from the Caribbean to handle the whole world. We had come to the internet late so our Caribbean URL was pretty long but we were able to secure http://vacationtc.com and we operated the internet company as Caribbean Tour and Cruise but we created a new identity for the local agency called Vacation Tour & Cruise. For a while, we operated under both names as Caribbean had a solid internet presence but the new company did not. The internet and search engines are becomming more important even for regular travel agencies as phone books were disappearing and agencies could reach outside a 5 mile radius with an internet presence.
In 2007, we also went back to Italy and Sicily but we also drove across Tuscany, visited Siena, Ravenna, Sansepolcro and finally Venice.
Italy blog is available here
On top of La Rocca "The Rock" in Cefalu Sicily. View is back towards Palermo Sicily.
Driving the Fiat around Tuscany
Vacation Tour & Cruise was pretty successful with walk in customers during the entire period that we were located on Fowler Ave. At the suggestion of one of our old friends Ron Horne who worked for Carnival Cruise Lines, we test marketed a promotion at the Red Barn Flea Market in Bradenton. It was a success. Early in the year my Mom won a trip to Las Vegas and Gina went along as the companion. She became a Las Vegas specialist after that vacation. Gina's vegas blog is at this link. We got bumped on the way to Italy and had a $400 voucher that was going to expire so we booked a flight to Montreal Canada in the fall to see the fall foilage. We stayed in the Old Town of Quebec, Canada and took daytrips around the area Iles d Orleans, Montmorency, Charlevoix and Jacques Cartier National Park to see the beautiful Canadian countryside. Quebec Blog
Our election was ongoing and when we returned from Vacation the economic world fell apart. This was not good as we had committed to office rent and cruise prices along with competition from failing desperate public companies challanged our company profits. November 1, John went back to Red Barn in Bradenton and began to build a new clientele with the snowbirds from the midwest and Canada. Red Barn is an upscale flea market but we sold plenty of cruises and even some high end vacations as it is frequented by snowbirds from Bradenton, Sarasota and Sun City Center. We began building this into a seasonal location rather than a temporary promotion. This has been a great high traffic laboratory for John and Gina to learn every conceviable type of travel product imaginable.
When 2009 dawned, it looked pretty much like the end of the economic world and the talking heads were using the word depression. This coincided with our 25th wedding anniversary so we agreed that we would pick a "travel agent deal" on something when it came available over the course of the year. Our anniversary is in August, but we usually travel in the fall as the travel industry slows down quite a bit so we are planning for a two week fall "bucket list" trip every year or two. We had decided we would close our new office for two weeks every fall when we took this bucket list trip. The river cruise industry was getting ramped up in 2009 with new competitors and new boats. One of our preferred suppliers is Avalon River Cruises which is part of the Globus Family of Brands. They were offering agents the deal of the century so we selected a Rhine cruise as we wanted to keep it under two weeks and the river cruise portion of the Rhine is only seven nights. We extended the trip in Amsterdam and also toured Zurich on our own on arrival day. We loved river cruising and we sell a lot of river cruises. For John Germany was a genealogical trip even though we did not meet any family or travel to homeland cities as we stayed along the river.
He was surprised as he felt the pull of the homeland in the food and customs plus this digital blog is connected to the Gutenberg bible through his Uncle Ray (his Godfather) that was from an area about 100 miles south of Mainz yet he was a German immigrant typesetter who worked with hot lead type and early linotype machines. Germany is the cradle of publishing and Heidelberg is famous for the best printing presses in the world in addition to the castle. It is amazing the long span of years between Gutenberg and Uncle Ray and the short span of years between Uncle Ray and this digital blog. We visited Heidelberg Castle and also did walking tours of many of the Rhine towns including Strasbourg, Cologne and our favorite Speyer. This was a good beer trip. At this point, we are selling a lot of cruises but not making much money as cruises were "upside down" and extremely cheap. As the recession widened worldwide, pretty much all destinations had deals and even some steals. At this point, Google invested heavily in local and we began to understand web SEO. We were at the right place at the right time and we became a favorite place on Google. You will find that our websites contain actual content unlike many of our competitors as it helps to bring in business and increase search engine placement for our company. Get our River Cruise Blog at this link
On this trip, we sailed to Switzerland, France, Germany and the Netherlands (Amsterdam).
John and Gina at the confluence of the Rhine and Moselle Rivers in Koblenz, Germany.
Back to the California Wine Country California Wine Country Blog
We kept feeling the tug from Sicily as we had met Ginas other side of the family and they were such nice people. The Aunt we met in Palermo on our second trip had passed away and Gina's brother was heading back again plus we were all a few years older. That year the Italian airlines had consolidated so there were no cheap tickets from Rome to Sicily. We did find airline tickets from Barcelona, Spain to Palermo so the plan was on. We stayed three nights in Barcelona on the way there and another night at an airport hotel in Barcelona on the way home. We did take an overnight trip while in Sicily to go to see the Valley of the Temples in Agrigento. In Barcelona, this was the trip where Gina secured the suite for only 45 euros a night at the Condes de Barcelona. We think it was supposed to be 450 euros a night but the hotel manager kept the reservation since we had already confirmed the room and made a deposit. The deal was supposed to include a mini-cooper for half a day but we did not even ask about that given the room overlooked the Passeig de Gracia and had a large balcony. Check our Barcelona Trip Blog at this link Check out our Agrigento Sicily blog with the Valley of the Temples
On this trip, we traveled to Barcelona Spain and Sicily.
Up in the tower of the Sagrada Familia in Barcelona Spain
We visited Cancun/Riviera Maya Mexico and we were back to Couples Resorts and Sunset Beach Resort in Jamaica. John won the Mexico certificate at a trade show and we traveled to the Barcelo Tropical Riviera Maya. It is amazing how much they have built south of Cancun. We drove the rental car as far as Tulum and there are now resorts all along the 1 hour drive. We had not been to Jamaica in quite a few years so we wanted to see some old friends. Gina had accrued some free nights at Couples Resorts and we have always loved Couples Sans Souci. Jamaica had changed but also was the same in many ways. More stuff keeps getting built and we went by the new cruise port at Falmouth to see how it came out. We skipped a rental car in Jamaica so we were pretty much couch potatoes in all-inclusive land. Our trip blogs are taking off so we are selling a lot of Italy. Red Barn is going crazy with the cruise deals but we are learning about bucket list destinations and we are selling a lot of escorted tours and river cruises. Most of the European river boats are full as the product category has gone wild. As former tour operators, we are finding that we are particularly good at doing foreign independent travel even if we have not been to that particular destination. Like all pendulums, people are getting tired of doing these types of complicated trips themselves so people are seeking out travel agents again. We only took a couple of short vacations as our Red Barn office is keeping us busy all year even though it is only open six months a year. The situation in Temple Terrace is different in that we are not seeing people with much disposable income, even though cash is not as tight as 2009 working people are not recovering as quickly. After 28 years in the travel business, we never forget that travel is a luxury and people value travel experiences more than money as time off is so short. More boats come out and we are still giving cruises away cheap prices. Link to our 2012 Jamaica Trip Report
This picture is at Evita's in Ocho Rios. We had lunch with our Rasta friend Patsy.
This year's vacations were taken in Cancun/Riviera Maya - Mexico and Jamaica.
John and his Mom had been researching Irish Genealogy of her grandfather. We had planned a trip in 2013 but we got Mom moved to Sun City Center and the trip was scrubbed until 2014. 2014 was another busy work year for the company so the Irish trip was planned at the last minute. We were doing a lot of overseas trips and some of the European airlines were feeling frisky about strikes. We had a window in late September to October where our client travel was light so John began planning a drive of the Wild Atlantic Way in Ireland. Mom went with us as this trip and it was quite a homecoming for the first one in her family to return to Ireland since the mid 1800s. Ireland is very pretty and yes, very green. The people are some of the friendliest on earth and the food was fantastic including plenty of seafood along the coast. We traveled with a laptop and have access to all our records and agent tools while traveling the world as long as we can get a wi-fi signal.
Ireland Trip included Cliffs of Moher, Dingle Peninsula, Ring of Kerry, West Cork, Cork, Cobh, Cashel, Kildare and Dublin
John, Gina and Mom at the Stague Fort along the Ring of Kerry.
Tampa Bay's Cloud Based Travel Agency
As of May 1, 2015; we will no longer operate walk-in service at the Tampa office. We are transitioning to a Cloud Based Travel Agency but we are still based in the Tampa Bay area. We were finding that we were doing 85% of our business over the telephone and email. People were discovering our web pages but they did not live around the corner. My cousin is in the telephone business so he talked to me about the Cloud based telephone communications and we already have one of the strongest digital footprints of any travel agency in the Tampa Bay area. We had made the decision to close the Fowler Avenue office in the fall of 2014 but it was too busy to make the jump to the cloud until May 1. Airline tickets have become a complicated problem so as of May 1, we will only sell tickets as part of our cruises, vacaiton packages, hotels, independent travel and escorted tours or river cruises. We will still operate the Red Barn office during our seasonal snowbrid season and the cloud will allow us to transfer our phones down to Bradenton as there are some times where we need both agents in that office in January and February on the weekends. Our phone numbers and email are all the same and the Cloud has a "find me-follow me" feature that can ring our cell phones when we are not at our desk. We hope you continue to patronize our company and we can always meet you somewhere if you want to talk about a trip and we still mail out documents for your travel. Travel is our passion and our life's work. The cloud and our new web based tools will allow us to travel and still service our customers where a fixed location made that difficult. From the time of that first Apple computer, we have always changed and adapted to the changes in the market. We are working to do that one last time with our move to the cloud, mobile enabled websites, web based electronic booking tools and our entry into social media. Being a shopkeeper did not allow us the time to adapt to a changing market but working in the cloud will. Our hours are the same as they were at the agency except we are closing Mondays on an ongoing basis but we will still maintain Saturday hours year round. Red Barn will be open Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from November 1 until May 1 yearly.
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