State travel manager woman of the world
CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- You can join the Navy to see the world. Or put in 30-plus years as a travel agent and go just about everywhere imaginable.
Bitten by the travel bug as a New Jersey teenager, Catherine DeMarco eventually realized her globe-trotting dreams as an international travel agent. The tailor-made work took her to all sorts of exotic places -- expenses paid and a salary to boot.
Highlights in her been-there-done-that story range from celebrating the fall of the Berlin Wall to scuba diving on the Great Barrier Reef. She did it all in a golden era of airline travel when airlines pampered their passengers, particularly agents responsible for booking trips.
In 1996, marriage brought her to Charleston where she settled into a desk job as state travel manager. No more lavish trips. Oh, well. The grounded Ms. Gulliver can nourish her wanderlust with three decades of worldly memories.
"It used to be fun to fly. Back then, I would never think of going to the airport without wearing a dress, high heels and stockings. The airlines would never upgrade you if you looked like a slob.
"Before frequent fliers got all the first-class tickets, they let travel agents sit in first class. I got very spoiled. When I went to Calcutta on coach, I thought I was going to have a heart attack. It was a 16-hour flight!
"I loved the Third World countries, the ruins, Pompeii and my favorite museum, the Prada in Madrid. I've been to Hong Kong three times and Italy seven times. I've crawled through the pyramids, scuba dived on the Great Barrier Reef, visited Lenin's Tomb in Russia, sailed down the Nile, stood on the Great Wall of China, partied at the Berlin Wall three days after it fell. They were still partying.
"In Communist Moscow, cars were very rare because no one could afford them. We were told if we wanted a cab to just hold a pack of Marlboros up because nobody could get Marlboros. They couldn't get anything. We left gratuities for our housekeepers, Tampax and deodorant, things they couldn't get in stores.
"There were lines for everything. They were in line for clothing irons and meat. When I went back and it wasn't Communist, there were lines, and they said they were waiting for Barbie dolls. It was so different.
"Travel is your best education. When my son graduated from college, I gave him an open ticket from Newark to London and a Eurorail pass. I told him, 'Knock yourself out. Do everything and see everything you can.'
"That's back when a passport meant something. You were safe. If you ever got stopped by a policeman, all you had to do was take out your U.S. passport.
"One day in high school, I saw a picture of Jamaica. I had been at the ocean all my life and had never seen water that color, the blue, clear water. I vowed that I would go there someday. That's when I got the travel bug.
"I was born in Atlantic City, a Jersey girl. We were at the beach every day. That's what I miss about living in West Virginia -- the shore.
"My dad was vice president of the Atlantic City Electric Co. Mom was an RN.
"I wanted to be an illustrator, but I got married too young. I wasn't even 21 when Jason was born. So that changed my whole course of life.
"When I had Jason and the art thing fell apart, I had started college, but it was too much. So I went to my next passion, which was travel. I went to travel agents' school for six weeks.
"We didn't have computers. Before deregulation, old fares were in a big, thick book called the ARC. If you wanted to go from Charleston to Atlanta, you would look in that book for the fares.
"We typed itineraries on a typewriter, picked up a phone and called the airline and booked your reservation.
"I worked at Travel-Rite in Hightstown, N.J., about three years. Then I got a corporate position. Travel agents don't make that much money, but the Fortune 500 companies subsidized your salaries to get good agents to work on their accounts.
"The company was Travelco out of Philadelphia. They were opening a branch office in Princeton, N.J., at RCA. I opened the office to service the RCA account. I was branch manager for eight years. That's when I got the bug for the international side of travel.
"When RCA merged with GE, all the vice presidents would go to these exotic places. I met one of my clients for lunch in Hong Kong.
"Travelco was about to merge with another company when Desert Storm happened and travel stopped. The merger fell through and the company closed, so I had to head in another direction. I wanted to be an international specialist, maybe on the management side.
"I worked for Merck Pharmaceuticals Elizabeth, N.J. They would go to places like the Congo to get these viruses, so you had to figure out how to get them to all these strange places.
"I wanted to move closer to home, so I moved to Carlson Travel and specialized in international travel. Their accounts were mostly oil companies, people going to all these oil countries, like Pakistan.
"International agents had to figure out the tariffs and make our own fares for these guys. If he was a foreign national going to some strange place, you had to make sure what visas were needed and that they had all their documents. There's a whole different side to international travel.
"The companies would look for the best of the best in travel agents and subsidize your salary. A Carlson posting came out for Coca-Cola and Delta Airlines in Atlanta. They recruited all across the U.S., and I was one of their top southern recruits. That was such an honor, being that good.
"They hired me at Coca-Cola and moved me there. That's another whole area of travel. These Coca-Cola guys were trying to get into Vietnam and we had to figure out a way to get them there.
"Coca-Cola didn't like me down there. I guess it was my Jersey accent. So I moved back home and got a job with Squibb in the international department. That's when I met Corky, my husband.
"I was on a flight from Pittsburgh to Charleston to visit my sister in Glenville. This bald, short guy sat next to me and he made me laugh the whole way.
"We had this long-distance friendship for two years, and it turned out the way it turned out. I gave up my career to move down here.
"There are no Fortune 500 companies here, so in 1996, I went to work for National Travel doing what I did in the beginning. I wasn't happy because it was like going back to 1980. So this position came open as state travel manager.
"I administer the state contracts for the travel agency. Now National Travel is my vendor. The credit cards, the car contracts, I negotiate all of that and write the governor's travel rules and administer them. If you work for the state and do something that involves travel, you get my approval to get reimbursed.
"I'm under constant effort to negotiate discounts, but those are going away. You are only going to end up with a handful of carriers, and they are going to control the prices.
"When I was an international agent, reps from the airlines would come sit at your desk to woo you for business. Japan Airlines or TWA would ask if you wanted to go to Rome for the weekend. We would get paid for it because we were working. The airline or the country would sponsor it, and we always went first class or business class and got these great suites in the hotels.
"I got infected with hepatitis C when I was 17 or 18. It doesn't manifest itself for years. I got a checkup in 2000, and went on these treatments. Last year, they came out with a super drug. It did get rid of the virus. But there was a complication that nobody knew about. It destroyed my liver in the process.
"I got a new liver. I had a good surgeon and a good liver, and I'm grateful for that.
"I got the transplant last August and went back to work part time in October. On Jan. 2, I came back full time, but I couldn't sit up. I'm an active person. This was an irritation. Now I'm back to part time, just getting my strength up.
"I miss traveling. There are a couple of places I regret not going. My father was born in Messina in Sicily. I never got there. I wanted to go back to Hong Kong. I wanted to go to Prague.
"But when I got really sick, I thought, if I die tomorrow, I can't complain. I've had a great career. I've got four passports. One is stuffed full. I've done things that 80 percent of the population wouldn't get to do. I just wish I had kept a journal."
Reach Sandy Wells at email@example.com or 304-348-5173.