Colin Hunter's musical performances regularly earn him thunderous applause.
But it’s his multitude of passions, including his dazzling career as a travel industry pioneer, that deserves a standing ovation.
Looking back on all that he has accomplished, one might wonder what the 84-year-old founder of Sunwing Travel Group, which now sits under the umbrella of WestJet, has to say about his illustrious life and career.
In this exclusive one-on-one interview, PAX speaks to Hunter to get his side of the story, and pay tribute to a career of personal and professional achievements.
Boxing his way to the top
Colin Hunter was born in Bombay (now Mumbai), India, in 1939. Few people know this, but in his youth, the future businessman and singer first distinguished himself as a boxer.
He was captain of the Cathedral Boys' School boxing team, then captain of the St. Xavier's College varsity team.
He even won the championship in his weight class for three consecutive years, starting in 1956.
The Beatles, then Cupid
The Hunter family moved to London, England in the 1960s, and Colin lived there for ten years – “the years of the Beatles!" he said.
Working in the control centre for British Airways, he regularly visited his brother in Toronto, where he, during one visit, met the woman who would soon become his wife, Joan.
It’s fair to say that Cupid had a hand in Colin Hunter's decision to settle in Canada in 1970.
Starting small, dreaming large
Hunter initially worked for tour operator Sunflight Holidays. At first, his salary was modest: $90 a week – less than that of his girlfriend (who earned $100). "I married her for her money," he jokes.
In truth, Hunter was as ambitious as he was talented, with an innate sense of business.
From being a booking agent, he rose through the ranks at Sunflight to become Vice President, distinguishing himself as a specialist in all-inclusive holidays in sun destinations.
In 1983, he became CEO of the Canadian subsidiary of Adventure Tours in Toronto but, towards the end of that decade, the tour operator's airline partners ceased to offer charter flights.
Thus was born Canada 3000, after Hunter and partners signed an agreement with the British company Air 2000.
It was an exciting few years as Canada 3000, in its heyday, rivalled other major players in Canadian aviation, such as Air Canada, WestJet and Transat.
(The airline would eventually fold in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks in the U.S.)
"Doing nothing drove me crazy!”
It was in 1996, however, that Hunter, now in his sixties, sold his Canada 3000 shares to his partners, and seemingly retire.
He was set up for a comfortable retirement. But idleness – even golden idleness – didn't suit him at all.
"I spent three years doing nothing, and it was driving me crazy!” Hunter told PAX.
Apparently, his wife also found the situation difficult. "One day, she told me 'You must go back to work'... And I couldn't agree more!"
Never waste a good crisis
The terrible attacks of September 11, 2001 did not demotivate Colin Hunter.
On the contrary, taking advantage of the maxim attributed to Winston Churchill, to “never let a good crisis go to waste," he launched Sunwing Vacations shortly after the disaster.
By 2002, the newly-formed tour operator was flying customers on a variety of carriers.
But Hunter had a bigger dream of one day owning an airline – a dream he'd cherished since his days with British Airways.
The stage was set for the creation of Sunwing Airlines in 2005.
While the company started out with just one aircraft, it grew rapidly, first in English Canada, then in Quebec, where Hunter called on Sam Char to develop the market there.
Over the years, Sunwing continued to be daring, under the impetus not only of its founding president, but also of the talented people Colin Hunter chose to support him – including his son, Stephen Hunter, who is now CEO of the WestJet Group's vacation business.
Sunwing eventually launched its services in regional markets, and has a tour operator and air carrier, the company ventured in other verticals, including a hotel division (Blue Diamond Resorts), a destination representative (NexusTours), and a retail division (SellOffVacations.com).
The company would also go on to acquire a U.S. tour operator Vacation Express, further refining its vertical integration strategy.
At the same time, the company has gone on to support the communities where it operates through the Sunwing Foundation, a charitable initiative focused on youth support and development and humanitarian assistance.
And then, COVID
Of course, over the years, Sunwing has also experienced its share of challenges and setbacks. But the fact is, the family business managed to remain profitable, year after year, for almost 20 years.
That is, until the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in 2020.
On the pandemic: "There was nothing sadder than seeing the world shut down like it did during COVID,” Hunter said.
Emerging from it all was like "coming out of a communist camp.”
The Sunwing founder makes his disappointment known that the pandemic forced him to join a competing company, WestJet, which finalized its acquisition of Sunwing earlier this year.
Without the pandemic, the transaction, to our understanding, would probably not have taken place.
It's a sensitive issue, as one might expect, and it’s one that Mr. Hunter, today, modestly refrains from speaking openly about.
Goodwill on both sides
Nearly three months after our interview with Colin Hunter, a new chapter in WestJet’s purchase of Sunwing was revealed – a newly-created Sunwing Vacations Group, encompassing five brands, including Sunwing Vacations and WestJet Vacations, U.S. operator Vacation Express, and travel retail businesses SellOffVacations.com and Luxe Destination Weddings.
The move is poised to “unlock more value for Canadians and provide customers from coast to coast with more affordable vacations to more sun destinations than ever before,” the company said in a statement on Oct. 12.
At the time of our interview, Sunwing's Executive VP in Quebec, Sam Char, stressed that there was a great deal of goodwill on both sides of the acquisition agreement.
"Since it's in the interests of both parties, everyone is pulling together to make this merger a success,” Char told PAX in July. “It's clear that the attitude is positive and open on both sides.”
Both Hunter and Char agree that WestJet and Sunwing are different companies – if only for the fact that 90 per cent of WestJet's revenues come from its airline division, while 90 per cent of Sunwing's profits came from its tour operator side.
But in their view, it is precisely this difference that makes the two companies complementary of each other.
“We think it will be a good combination," they said, jointly. “We think that, together, we'll be a stronger entity, capable of achieving greater things. We believe in this. We're actively working on it, and we think things are on the right track.”
Thinking outside the box
When asked about what he's most proud of after all of these years, Hunter’s answer is marked by modesty.
"I'm proud to be healthy. I'm proud to have achieved what I wanted to achieve. I'm proud that I still love what I do," he replied.
Char noted his colleague and friend's reluctance to self-congratulate.
"Colin created a different business model, one that didn't exist anywhere else, with a tour operator, an airline, a tour operator in the U.S., a full tour operator in destination, a hotel division...Nobody has done the equivalent in North America!" he said.
"Colin always encouraged his team to take a creative, innovative and original approach. He encouraged us to think outside the box. That's what has made Sunwing a success story across the country and in Quebec.”
Love what you do
With a touch of philosophy, Colin Hunter explained that, in life, if you love what you do, you'll do it well.
And the reverse is just as true: if you don't love what you do, you won't do it well, he added.
"Everyone has to find their niche,” he said. “Everyone should love what they do... and do it passionately!"
Hunter, for his part, has found two niches in life you could say – the second being his love for jazz music and performing.
We asked: what's more difficult? Running a travel company, or pursuing a career as a jazz crooner?
The question amused him, but his answer was serious.
"Shows are generally predictable. In the travel industry, however, nothing is predictable!” he said. “Every season has its own challenges. Right now, we're in hurricane season, which can always bring surprises. Then there's winter, which never comes without weather-related complications.”
The recipe for success?
Colin Hunter has weathered many storms along the way. To say he’s worked his butt off would be an understatement!
We asked him if he had any advice for travel agents.
"I don't think the travel agent community needs advice,” he told us. “They generally do very well for themselves. I find that advisors have a good knowledge of products, destinations, rates, promotions. And they're very good at passing this on to their customers.”
A few ingredients in the recipe for success, perhaps?
"There's no recipe,’ he said. “Other than knowing how to recognize and seize opportunities. Then, you just have to be lucky enough to be able to convert these opportunities into concrete results."
We asked him what he’d like to be remembered for, and his answer, once again, was imbued with modesty.
"I don't think I'll be particularly remembered,” he said. “In life, there are always new 'flavours of the month' to capture attention."
With all due respect, Mr. Hunter, please allow us to disagree.
We will remember your suave voice singing “Come Fly with Me” or “Fly Me to the Moon” for a very long time – in the tradition of greats like Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Tony Bennett.
And in the same way, your success as an entrepreneur, and contributions as an industry pioneer, will live long in our memory.
For all of your work, we take our hats off to you!