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VACATION LEADS TO NEW CAREER Retiree finds niche in travel business


Entrepreneurs often talk about finding a niche marketing opportunity. Jim Ruos found his niche on a St. Martin beach where clothing is optional.

On a vacation to Guadeloupe, he and his wife, Mary, discovered that they enjoyed skinny-dipping in the Caribbean. A fellow traveler recommended that they try out the Club Orient on St. Martin, known for its luxury as well as its laissez-faire attitude about clothing.

They were getting ready for a Club Orient vacation in April 1987 when Mr. Ruos' employer, the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, offered long-term employees the option of early retirement.

A dedicated wildlife manager and ornithologist, Mr. Ruos had been with the agency for 21 years. But he had become frustrated by the lack of funding for programs in which he was involved -- tracking birds that summer in the United States and winter in the Caribbean and Latin America. And he had grown weary of the two-hour, round-trip commute between Washington and his house in Highland in Howard County.

So he grabbed the early retirement offer, and phoned in an order for new business cards, making up the company name, Caribbean Islands Travel Service, on the spur of the moment.

At Club Orient, he asked to be management's U.S. representative. His pitch coincided with a shift in the club's marketing strategy -- to attract people like Mr. Ruos and his wife, who weren't die-hard nudists but simply liked the option of swimming in the buff. He also was in the right age group, since the hotel was gearing itself toward 40-plus professionals who wanted a quiet escape.

Mr. Ruos has since expanded, to handle reservations from 13 other hotels and inns.

Like many other small businesses that are information-based, Mr. Ruos' agency would not have been possible much more than five years ago. That's when prices of computers began a dramatic descent that continues today.

Using a powerful Everex 386 computer, he effectively manages more than 1,000 travel agency and individual accounts. As Mr. Ruos puts it, "You need something powerful enough to handle 1,000 clients and not bankrupt you."

Mr. Ruos also attributes his success to doing "everything to reduce overhead. I don't want to get into cost."

Instead of ticketing his own clients, he signed up as an associate agent with a Burtonsville travel agency, preferring to share his airline ticket commissions instead of incurring the extra expense of getting his own ticketing terminal. Meanwhile, as a hotel representative, Mr. Ruos usually splits the 20 percent commission on the price of a room.

Further, he does virtually no advertising of his own. He has gotten his company name into all the free listings he could find and has cultivated contacts with travel boards.

His one extravagance is a toll-free phone line into his office.

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