On December 21, 2017, the MSC Cruise Line hosted an inaugural cruise and naming ceremony in Miami for its new ship, the MSC Seaside.

Travel industry heavyweights were invited for the star-studded gala event. Italian actress Sophia Loren, tenor Andreas Bocelli, television star Mario Lopez and The Villages travel maven, Gail Deutsch, were among the guests.

“Oh, what a voice Bocelli has,” Deutsch said. “It was a spectacular night.”

Her invitation to that elegant evening was the culmination of many years of making other people happy. It all began with a dream.

When Deutsch was 15 years old and attending high school, she read a travel article that set the course for her life’s journey.

“I was a naughty girl and they put me in detention,” she said. “At that time, detention was in the library, and you could look at any book you wanted to.”

She picked up a copy of National Geographic and thumbed through the pages to kill time.

“All of a sudden I saw this beautiful photograph of Milford Sound, New Zealand — the most beautiful place I had ever seen,” she said. “I told myself, ‘Some day I’m going to go there.’”

Years passed and Deutsch moved to The Villages, where another publication came into play. In 1992, she picked up the Daily Sun and saw an advertisement announcing an opportunity to earn a free trip to Australia and New Zealand by becoming a tour leader. 

She called for information, the itinerary and prices. Before you can say “pack your bags,” Deutsch was convinced she could get 20 people to book the trip so she could go free. She invited friends to her Village of Chatham home, explained the details of the trip and handed out brochures.

“That was a 21-day trip, and eventually, after a lot of coffee and cookies, I had 22 people sign up that first year,” she said.

When Deutsch got to the portion of the trip that stopped at Milford Sound, she said it was a heart-rending experience. Even today, her voice cracks and eyes water with the mention of that first excursion.

“When I got to Milford Sound, on that boat, I just sat there because it is so emotional to me,” she said. “It is so beautiful. I just couldn’t believe I was there — all those years I had waited, and I finally made it.”

That moment aside, a tour leader’s life isn’t all bonbons, deck chairs and umbrellas in the sun.

Part of the educational learning curve for Deutsch was learning how to process luggage, submit paperwork and passports and navigate the myriad ins and outs of shepherding large groups of travelers.

Prior to each trip, Deutsch held document parties at recreation centers to check everyone’s paperwork so there was enough time to straighten out problems before it was too late.

That first trip was so successful and people talked about it so much, the following year’s 28-day trip to Tasmania with 64 people was an overwhelming success.

“It was absolutely fabulous and we just had a wonderful time,” Deutsch said. “That was my introduction to how you can travel for free.”

Deutsch was a member of the New York Club at that time and organized several trips for members of that club.

“It just took off,” she said. “After a few trips I decided I didn’t need the money from the commissions and started donating it to my clubs.”

In addition to the New York Club, she donated to the Jewish Club and the Canadian Club. Most recently, Le Club Francais has been her beneficiary. Now she donates all of her commissions to the club. Club president, Gene Westhoff, of the Village of Belle Aire, said her contributions have enabled the club to enjoy entertainment at each meeting while keeping their dues to only $10 per year.

“Now that Gail is retiring, we’re looking for someone to fill her shoes, but that’s going to be very hard to do,” Westhoff said.

Deutsch explained her role at the event was that of a travel consultant, not an agent.

“There’s not much difference, but I don’t have to pay all of the bills to the different cruise lines,” she said. “I pick out some place I want to go, book a bunch of people, and get a commission for the number of people who go and donate that check.”

Her travel consulting adventure began in her home state of New York, booking day trips to Ottawa, Canada, for $25.

“I was a recreational therapist for years and that’s what I did — teach people how to play and enjoy life,” she said.

In her wake, Deutsch has many appreciative fellow travelers, suitcases of fond memories and a stellar reputation.

She and her husband, Jerry, just returned from her 54th cruise, a trip through the Panama Canal with another batch of photos to catalog. The walls on one room in their home are lined with shelves stacked high with box upon box of slides and prints.  Jerry, a photography enthusiast, estimates their photo collection exceeds 100,000 images.

For 28 years, Deutsch has opened the door to the world, introducing hundreds of Villagers to every continent multiple times. Now, she says the time has come to hang up her wandering shoes.

“This will be my last year (booking trips), because I’ll be 81 and I’m getting tired,” she said. “I’ve loaded a lot of luggage over the years and don’t have the physical strength to do the trips anymore.”

One thing she won’t be giving up are her memories.

Ask about any country in the world and you’ll hear lots of fascinating stories illustrated by Jerry’s photos.

Frank Ross is a staff writer with The Villages Daily Sun. He can be reached at 352-753-1119, ext. 5367, or frank.ross@thevillagesmedia.com.


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