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This travel agent born to the job

Anita Travel Inc. has been helping people get out of St. Petersburg for 30 years. But the family that created the company has spent a century catering to tourist wanderlust.

The family crest behind owner Liz Lees' desk is a constant reminder that she has filled some well-established shoes.

"My grandmother opened the agency the year I was born," Ms. Lees said. "I don't think I ever thought about doing anything else."

In 1893, Ms. Lees' great-great-grandfather, Carl Landsee, opened the Hotel Tyrol in Innsbruck, Austria. He also organized tours to the Passion play in Oberammergau, Germany, in between housing such famous guests as Mark Twain, Archduke Francis Ferdinand, the Rockefellers and the Vanderbilts.

The anti-Nazi activities of his son, Max Landsee, forced him to emigrate from Europe to the United States. In 1936, Max Landsee and partner Elizabeth Persons opened the Persons-Landsee Travel Service on Central Avenue.

When Max Landsee retired in 1963, his daughter Anita Landsee Lees opened her self-titled agency at 1023 Fourth St. N.

Liz Lees' father, Ron Lees, now the owner of Apropos restaurant in St. Petersburg, traveled the world as a sales representative for several airline companies, including Swiss Air and Air France. By the time she was 15, Ms. Lees already had seen most of the continents.

"I love to travel," said Ms. Lees, who has a degree in history and geography from the University of South Florida. "It must be something in the blood."

The travel business changed a lot over the years. Mrs. Landsee Lees, now retired and living in Gulfport, found it increasingly difficult to keep up with the new waves of technology.

"We did not have computers when I was in business," Mrs. Landsee Lees said. "We wrote all the air tickets ourselves."

People's vacationing styles changed, too. Customers who once had months to frolic in Aruba had only weekends. Fares that changed yearly changed daily.

The company had to hustle to catch up with the competition when Ms. Lees came to the helm.

"When I took the business over, we were not doing all that well," she said. "We've had a lot of growth to catch up on."

Had the industry not changed so dramatically, Ms. Lees said her grandmother might have retired later.

"She had a very loyal following. Everybody really appreciated the work she did," Ms. Lees said. "She hated to leave."

Now every travel agent at Anita Travel is armed with a computer that spits out a ticket in one-third the time it takes to fill it out by hand. The company, which is now in the Cocoanut Grove shopping center at 2900 Fourth St. N, deals with about 100 customers per week, Ms. Lees said.

But what will not change, she said, is the personalized service for which Anita Travel Inc. is known. She said the company has refused several opportunities to expand or merge with a franchise.

"We're not looking to be big," she said. "We've seen a lot of agencies do that expansion and not benefit from it."

That is good news to customers like Newton Wilson of St. Petersburg, who said larger travel agencies seem more concerned with volume than service. He is planning trips to Germany for himself and his daughter and a flight to Colorodo.

"The people are nice. They go out of their way to help us out," Wilson said. "We had a nice trip through this agency last year."

Although the travel industry is largely female, it was very unusual in Mrs. Landsee Lees' day for a woman to own a business. People even today often assume Ms. Lees works for someone else.

"I'm like, no, I own a travel agency," she said. "I definitely get an eyebrow when I'm out socializing."

Most of the six employees at Anita Travel are women but a few men handle outside sales.

"It's a very women-dominated industry," Ms. Lees said. "I think women, by nature, like to help and that's a good quality in our office."

"It takes a certain mentality to be a travel agent," said employee Gigi Pelosi. "These people are spending money they've worked hard to save."