We are The Great Canadian Travel Group, a full-service travel company with both retail offices and a wholesale division. Our head office is located in Winnipeg, Manitoba with a branch office in Edmonton, Alberta.
Our tagline is “Creating Your Best Days Ever!” How do we do that? We specialize in designing customized, tailor made programs for our clients to areas we specialize in including, but not limited to, Africa, Arctic Canada, Iceland, Greenland, the Faroe Islands, Scandinavia, Scotland and Ireland, cruises including expedition and river cruising and rail journeys. We also focus on experiential and transformative travel experiences: safaris to see wildlife in Africa; polar bears and belugas in Churchill; historical and ancestral travel to places like the Northwest Passage, Ireland and Scotland; Northern Lights viewing in a variety of locations. We’re always searching for new, exciting and unique places for our clients to experience and are happy to research any travel request.
That’s who we are today. But, how did we get here?
The company’s history began in the late 1970’s. Our founder, Nigel “Max” Johnson moved to Canada from London, England and settled in Winnipeg. Already bitten by the travel bug he ran the student travel office while attending U of Winnipeg. He and two partners cooked up the idea of starting a travel business and on November 21, 1980 The Great Canadian Travel Company, Inc. was born! Within a year Max bought out both of his partners, forging on as a “one-man band”, so to speak. It was a rocky start with few clients and little money.
The real start for the company came after Max visited Churchill MB and headed out onto the tundra on one of the first tundra vehicles, to see polar bears up close and personal. “How cool would it be to offer this to other travellers?”, he thought. So, he set about designing some tours to Churchill. He took his proposals to a variety of wholesale travel companies, all of whom said, “Who on earth would want to spend that much money to see a polar bear?” Oh, how times change! Curiously it was Qantas Vacations (the touring branch of the Australian airline), that was the first company to offer the Great Canadian Travel’s polar bear programs for sale in 1983. They readily admitted they were only doing so to make their Canada product line seem more exciting. To their astonishment, they sold about 40 trips the first year, more the second and then the flood gates opened. Within a few years Great Canadian Travel was sending hundreds of tourists to Churchill, the Polar Bear Capital of the World, each autumn and a good number in the summer to see beluga whales. The demand became so great the company eventually purchased their own hotel in the town.
From a humble beginning, struggling to find clients and make ends meet, Max gradually expanded the company’s travel offerings to include Top of the World destinations, Arctic Canada and Iceland. At that time, Iceland was a country people had to be convinced to visit, as it was basically known as a gas station for trans-Atlantic flights, not the red-hot destination it is today! Something else was needed to fill in the off-seasons in between the Churchill and Top of the World programs, which were basically summer and fall. So, what’s opposite to Top of the World? Well, Downunder, of course! He began partnering with companies in Australia and New Zealand; then added Southern Hemisphere destinations like Chile, Argentina and Antarctic cruises. An Africa specialist came onboard in the mid-1980’s, designing customized African wildlife safaris and we still deal with many of those preferred safari operators to this day, offering top-notch wildlife viewing experiences. Because our clients were travelling to some “off the beaten track” places we began specializing in Round the World airfares. From there the company took on a life of its own, steadily growing to include a division dedicated to selling international airfares on KLM Royal Dutch Airlines and others, to such far away places as Kathmandu, Nepal and Timbuktu, Mali and creating custom-tailored travel programs encompassing destinations around the world.
The company’s focus was always coming up with interesting ideas, trying to stay one step ahead of the next “big thing” – long-stay Australia, tours to Cyprus, small-group flights to Greenland, ancestral tours to the Orkney Islands in Scotland, escorted tours of Georgia…any new idea had a two or three year shelf-life until companies much bigger than Great Canadian Travel would swoop in, commercialize and mass market it, changing the sales cycle forever. When that happened we would move on to the next “off the beaten track” travel destination or unique product.
Max decided to bow out of the commercial side of the travel industry after 34 years and sold the company in August, 2014. He now spends his time travelling around the world and blogging about his escapades, doing consulting work as well as taking time to relax with family and friends at his home in France’s Languedoc wine country.
Our current owner, Ian Kalinowsky, purchased the company on August 1, 2014. Since then lots of exciting things have happened! We welcomed Concourse Travel into our family December, 2014, as they moved a block down Marion Street and merged their office with ours. The next step was a big one when, in August, 2016, the leisure division of Continental Travel merged into ours. In this process we also acquired their agency in Edmonton, Alberta. February 2018 brought River East Travel into the fold. Through all of the mergers and acquisitions we grew substantially, from one office to two and from 9 employees to 21. 2018 saw both offices move into new digs, which meant for a few months, Ian was more of a contractor and handyman than a business manager and spent a lot of time on airplanes flying back and forth between Winnipeg and Edmonton. But, both projects were completed and we have two beautiful new offices in two great cities.
Social media and online marketing, of course, plays a much larger role in our business today than it did even 10 years ago. We currently have 19,500 Facebook followers, 2,850 on Instagram and we blog on a consistent basis about our own, amazing travel experiences. We also use blogs and posts to provide useful information and travel tips as well as updates on our What’s New page. These are featured on our website which offers lots of travel ideas for individual and group travel. Our company newsletter goes out to nearly 9,800 subscribers, is well received and enjoys an open rate of twice the industry average.
Ian continues to encourage the company’s team members to seek out new and interesting travel experiences for our clients. “Creating Your Best Days Ever!” is what we strive to do, and we hope to do exactly that for our clients for many years to come!