Colin Hunter, second from left, founder and owner of the Sunwing Travel Group, performs with his Jazz group at the Maison Boulud restaurant in the Ritz-Carlton Hotel in Montreal on Sunday, August 14, 2016. DARIO AYALA / MONTREAL GAZETTE
Crooner Colin Hunter puts the swing in Sunwing.
Not only is he the founder and chairman of the Toronto-based travel group, he’s the in-flight entertainment.
Hunter, 77, has fashioned a busy sideline as a jazz singer and recording artist, travelling across the country as well as performing at his own jazz club in Toronto. Last week he was in Montreal for shows at the Upstairs jazz club and Ritz-Carlton Hotel. He’s appeared three times at the Montreal International Jazz Festival.
Not bad for a guy who honed his style with a karaoke machine bought for him by his wife.
“In 2005, when we started our airline, one of our managers joked that I should sing Come Fly With Me in a commercial. He’d heard me singing in the washroom. I said ‘I could do that’. I told a musician friend I wanted to do it and he said you might as well record a bunch of songs at the same time, ’cause you’ll have to hire a band and pay for studio time anyway. I picked out 15 songs. We did 11 in three hours. It happened to be the 35th anniversary of the day I landed in Canada. That’s where it started,” he said in an interview.
In the end, he wasn’t used in the commercial, but a CD was produced, the first of many, and Hunter’s second career was launched. His music is featured in-flight on Sunwing. “They need to change the music regularly so I do a new one every year,” he said.
A show for travel agents got him out in front of the public, and now he performs live upwards of 30 weekends a year.
“It’s something I needed to do, an itch that needed to be scratched,” Hunter said.
“He did it his way, he’s still doing it his way . . . and it’s working,” said Sam Char, Sunwing’s executive vice-president for Quebec.
Born in Mumbai, India, Hunter moved to Britain with his family when he was 21. His introduction to the airline industry was at British Airways, where he landed a job after completing his studies at the Institute of Transport.
In 1970, he pulled up stakes and moved to Canada. “I’d travelled to Canada and liked it. I met my future wife here.”
His first job here, handling reservations for Sunflight Holidays, paid $95 a week, but he worked his way up the ladder and evehntually headed the Canadian operations of U.S.-based Adventure Tours.
“I liked the travel industry as soon as I got into it,” he said. “I could think of nothing better than to just get on a plane and go see the world . . . without having to pay full fare.”
Hunter was a co-founder of discount airline Canada 3000, but cashed out in 1995, six years before its abrupt and messy bankruptcy in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attack.
It was supposed to be his “freedom 55” moment, but he soon realized retirement wasn’t for him.
“It wasn’t how I envisioned it. I don’t recommend it for anybody active. Your brain kind of shrivels up and dies. I went to the doctor more times in the six months after I retired than I’ve been since. When you’ve got nothing to worry about, you worry about your health.”
His antidote to retirement was Sunwing Travel Group, launched in 2002. “It was the right time to start expanding. All capacity contracted after 9/11, when everybody was too afraid to fly,” he said.
From the start, Hunter envisioned a different, vertically integrated company. It launched its own airline in 2005, expanding into Montreal and Quebec City shortly thereafter.
“We started with two airplanes,” he said. “Last winter, we had 40.”
Sunwing today is a combination of tour operator, airline, travel agency and hotel manager/owner.
“We weren’t satisfied being a retailer or wholesaler,” Hunter said “We set out to control the business of packages from beginning to end. What is normally a very thin margin (of profit) increased because we were in more aspects of the operation than old-time tour operators used to be.”
Now 49 per cent owned by international tour giant TUI, Sunwing has grown in leaps and bounds and ranks among the largest leisure travel companies in North America. Annual revenue snowballed from an initial $15 million to more than $2 billion. Hunter’s son Stephen is now the chief executive, but Hunter remains chairman of the board.
It’s not an easy business. Sharp swings in the Canadian dollar can mean the difference between a large profit and small one, and overcapacity in the market is a continuing issue. But Hunter said Sunwing has a viable model and “there are lots of things we haven’t got into yet which we will, at the right time.”