Husband and wife Larry and Lorna Hundt, of Kitchener, Ontario, Canada-based Great Canadian Holidays and Coaches, married their passions for tourism and the motorcoach business and started their operation, formerly Travel Ventures, in 1984. They still run it together to this day, growing the fleet and fostering several partnerships as well as offering a diverse mix of businesses, from tours to truck repairs.
“And we stayed married,” Lorna laughs.
Lorna always had the travel business in her blood, starting her career as a travel agent in 1976.
Meanwhile, Larry got involved in the motorcoach industry while he was in college, taking a summer job working for a coach company, where he fell in love with the business and never looked back.
Larry and Lorna hired other operators to run their coaches for their tours, and eventually, grew the operation to 52 motorcoaches. The operation also partners with more than 30 other tour companies, which they now operate coaches for.
Employing approximately 80 drivers and a total of 160 employees, the operation provides tours, motorcoach rentals and vehicle maintenance from its state-of-the-art facility. Great Canadian’s operation also features vehicles that stand out with unique, original and patriotic artwork.
Larry’s devotion to the operation extends to the industry, with his work on the United Motorcoach Association (UMA) board of directors, where for five years, he has represented the Canadian Region IV, Victor Parra, president and CEO for UMA, says. Larry has also served as UMA’s Expo chair for the past three years and on the Finance and Marketing Committees.
"Larry Hundt is not your typical association committee chair,” Parra says. “He takes his responsibility seriously and is truly engaged in helping develop every aspect of Expo. He's definitely a roll-up-your-sleeves, get-involved leader. Plus he really understands our industry, which helps us pick Expo education topics, covering the most timely, critical issues facing bus operators... I wish I could clone him."
To honor their outstanding achievements in the industry, METRO Magazine selected Larry and Lorna Hundt as its 2014 Motorcoach Operator of the Year. METRO Publisher Frank Di Giacomo presented the award to the Hundts at the UMA’s 2014 Motorcoach Expo at Travel Exchange in Los Angeles in February.
The company has grown significantly over the last 30 years because it has taken an innovative approach to expansion and problem solving, with Lorna and Larry working hard to adapt and grow the tour business when many others were closing their doors, Larry says.
In 2004, due to some opportunities that arose not long after two traumatic events — 9/11 and the SARS epidemic, which hit Canada particularly hard — Great Canadian experienced a significant growth spurt.
“The tour business, particularly the international business, was in a state of shock after those events,” Hundt recalls.
However, the Hundts were able to turn those setbacks into opportunities, finding high quality, well priced, pre-owned motorcoaches to expand the operation’s fleet.
During that difficult time, a major operator in Toronto lost most of its business. Great Canadian was able to secure some large international inbound operations that came to the Toronto market and buy some of that carrier’s coaches to help accommodate the additional business.
Another significant turning point for Great Canadian happened in 1995, when residents of the province of Quebec were considering a referendum asking whether they wanted to secede from Canada and become an independent state. As a result, the carrier participated in a rally, which led it to a decision that may have gained it more exposure.
With polls showing the week before the deciding vote that Quebec was favoring separation, rallies were held in Montreal and Toronto, Larry recalls. The Hundt family, along with friends and neighbors, participated in that rally with a specially decorated coach.
Deeply affected by the issue, the couple decided to make a statement: they hired an artist to paint one of their coaches with scenes representing Canada from coast to coast and dedicated the vehicle to Canadian unity. With its patriotic décor, the coach drew the attention of a prominent Toronto politician, who amassed 80 buses to go to the rally, Larry says.
“Every other politician was doing the same thing, [with] school buses, trains [and] planes. We ended up being the flagship coach, with all the VIPs and staff on board and a lot of flags flying, people showing a lot of emotion,” he recalls.
The Great Canadian coach led 35,000 marchers on a parade to Toronto’s City Hall.
The following day, as the votes were coming in and it looked like the separatists would win — the vote ended up swinging the other way, by less than one percentage point — the couple decided that all of Great Canadian’s coaches would be dedicated to Canada. They hired a local artist to paint different Canadian themes, and, as Larry put it, “to instill Canadian pride, awareness and everything great about Canada.”
To this day, Great Canadian’s coaches stand out, painted with a prominently featured Canadian flag and the carrier’s logo, which features a red maple leaf.
“Wherever we travel, people take pictures of the buses,” Larry says. “They instill a tremendous amount of pride in our clients and the people who see them.”
The artist also created a mascot that Great Canadian named Corporal Mackenzie, a seven-and-a-half-foot tall beaver that wears a Mountie costume, that is featured in promotions and the operator’s marketing material.
“I’m very proud of the impact we made with our themed coaches and dedication to Canadian pride,” Larry says.
What has made Great Canadian successful, Larry says, is diversification and the work Lorna did to develop the tour business.
“We make sure that every year we adapt [tours] to the different and changing needs of the traveler, because the average age of the traveler is going down,” Lorna says. “With that comes a whole new set of experiences they want on motorcoaches. It is very different than it was 20 years ago.”
A critical aspect of Greater Canadian’s success has been its ability to constantly be innovative in creating new tours to adapt to its customers’ ever-evolving interests.
Larry and Lorna worked with travel agents to develop a variety of products to appeal to people in different age groups and with a variety of interests.
For example, Great Canadian offers multi-day Independent Getaways, a series of tours to many major cities in North America, including New York, Chicago, Boston, Quebec City and Montreal. The tours are popular with all age demographics, Michelle Tupman, director, tour operations, and daughter of Lorna and Larry, says.
“People want to go to those cities, but they all have different interests and want to do their own thing,” Lorna adds. “There are so many different options for what to do once they are there. The getaways give them a lot of free time but within the space of the group.”
Travelers can experience the city on their own, which is a deviation from the traditional structure of the motorcoach tour, Michelle points out.
The Getaways, she adds, make it less intimidating for people to go to a big city, because they don’t have to drive or figure out how to get to the subway or where to stay.
“It gives them a worry-free and comfortable way to get there,” Michelle says. “They [can] still have that family experience and there’s a tour director on board to help them.”
Great Canadian has a diverse mix of local and international tour companies renting its motorcoaches in addition to its own tour business, ranging from Jonview Tours, a major inbound tour operation from Europe, to the Canadian Automobile Association and Your Casino Express, forming lasting partnerships with at least 35 different tour companies over the years.
“Great Canadian has been able to work with a number of tour companies that have come to us because of the quality of our coaches and drivers,” Larry says. “Working with the competition is not a concern of theirs.”
The carrier diversified its business into a number of other areas to keep from depending too heavily on its tour and coach business by moving from an 11,500 square-foot building where drivers had to park coaches on the street at night to three-and-a-half acres of property, bought with the intention of building a new facility, in 2008.
While expanding business during the market crash was scary, Larry says, Great Canadian was fortunate enough to have understanding bankers who bought into the idea and helped with renovations, funding and the other businesses they created within it.
Another stroke of luck happened before the operation started building the new facility: an 81,000-square-foot factory right next door to their new land purchase closed. Great Canadian bought the factory.
The larger space enabled the carrier to merge with an auto repair business and provide parking and a fueling system to sell fuel on site, which provides another source of revenue. Since the operator’s mechanics are licensed to repair motorcoaches and trucks, Larry decided to diversify into truck repair.
The operator also offers truck detailing and works with local truck dealers to clean their new trucks and do collision, body and paint work for a variety of vehicles.
“These businesses are starting to gain some traction now,” Larry says. “[It] takes a little longer than one would expect but we have been able to make this work. If there is any message here for other operators it’s that diversification in your business is a good thing. I had a vision [that] all kinds of other businesses that would develop here and have synergies with related businesses.”
Moving forward, Lorna and Larry are grooming management staff to take care of the day-to-day responsibilities as they assume a bigger picture view of the business, and hope to continue to adapt their tour products and roll with the challenges in a business they still enjoy after more than three decades.
“When we began this business it was very all-consuming. Looking back, what has been interesting is it has and continues to transcend my goals. We are enjoying seeing all these business dreams come to fruition and thrive,” Lorna says. “We keep doing more in the travel industry. [It has] never been boring [or] the same from one year to the next.”