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Travel season in full swing; many staying close to home

By Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer
Photo by Nick Stubbs

Sally Cook, a reservation specialist, assists Army Specialist Manuel Bonilla with information on tickets to an upcoming ball game.

The day of the operation is fast approaching. A battalion-strength force is being readied to descend on its target. Logistics are the responsibility of a very busy command and control center at MacDill - the Tickets and Tours office. The operation, in this case, is a group of 1,000 who are coming to town to visit Busch Gardens.

It is summer and that means the operations tempo is up at the base travel agency, which is busy answering questions, planning and organizing trips for the 250 to 300 people a day passing through the doors, according to Diane Gurrera, director of the agency. It is the busiest time of year for the service, as summer vacation madness sets in.

A rebounding economy also seems to be a factor, although the shape of travel has changed since 9/11, said Mrs. Gurrera.

"People are definitely spending more money and traveling more but they are staying closer to home."

She said there have been big drops in trips out of the country, mostly due to security concerns.

"I have people come in and ask me if it is safe (to travel to a given overseas destination)," said Mrs. Gurrera. "Sometimes I'm not too sure what to tell them. Where is safe these days? I still think America is the safest place in the world to be."

So, many are opting to take short trips to destinations in their home states, with Florida remaining a major destination. With its abundance of water, theme parks and attractions, things are buzzing in the Sunshine State.

Mrs. Gurrera said the important thing military members need to know about Ticket and Tours is that it is geared for and tailored to military needs. Many special discounts for hotels and admissions have been secured by contract, and having someone you can depend on to make arrangements or help deal with problems is a big advantage to trying to deal with a service remotely via the Internet, for example.

"We are there to take care of them if some problem comes up," she said, adding the office is on call 24 hours. Coupled with some of the best deals anywhere for active duty and retired military, the service is hard to beat, she said.

The other advantage is those booking through the service can be sure they are not sent to undesirable hotels, attractions or areas.

"We visit every place we recommend to make sure it meets our standards," said Mrs. Gurrera. "If it doesn't (meet standards) we don't say anything bad about it, we just choose not to recommend it."

Tickets and Tours deals with about an even split of active duty and retired, with perhaps a slight edge to retired. Cruise trips are popular, with the Caribbean being the most requested, followed perhaps by Alaska.

But long journeys to far-off places take a backseat to the volume done on simple trips, like to Orlando attractions or even a night at the ball game or a concert, said Mrs. Gurrera.

"We have some great deals with the St. Pete Times forum for concert tickets and the Devil Rays and Lightning have been great about working with us," she said. "We have really made progress in getting these organizations to help us put together great deals."

And while arranging a trip to nearby Busch Gardens may not seem like a complicated process, Mrs. Gurrera points out that often her agency is dealing with logistics that rival the military missions that run out of MacDill.

Her office is working now on a group of 1,000 visiting servicemembers who will be spending the day at the Tampa theme park. Making sure everything goes smoothly is her personal mission.

The main objective here is to make sure the customer has the best experience they can possibly get," said Mrs. Gurrera. "They come in looking forward to having a good time with the family and their hopes are so high, we have to work to make sure their vision comes true and that the trip is memorable and enjoyable."




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