Biting Questions with Baldwin Verstraete, Verstraete Travel, Aurora & St. Catharines
Where were you born? In Zoole, the Netherlands - I moved here when I was 11, arriving by ship in Montreal. I was born “Boudewin”, a Flemish name, but that was Canadianized to Baldwin here.
How long have you been in the business? Since 1970.
How many people work for you? In our 2 offices we have a total staff of 12.
Tell me about your first airplane ride. It was in 1970 when Lucy and I got married and went to Europe on our honeymoon. It was a CP Air Charter.
How has the business changed since you got into it? That’s a loaded question! Probably a large part is the relationship with the airlines. For many years I considered airlines as our partners, but by dealing direct they have now become our competitors. We used to have 90% commission revenue and now I’d say that’s zero.
What was your best FAM? Many years ago I went to Greece and the Greek Islands. I loved the history, the culture, and the airline and tourist board were exceptionally good hosts.
What drives you crazy? My biggest frustration I’d say would be getting the right price for large groups.
What was your biggest individual sale? One back in the 1980s when we sold a couple on a private jet charter around the world for $75,000. Also a corporate client who took his family to the Greek islands on a private yacht which cost about $100,000.
Do you have a specialty? Yes, for many years now we have been organizing groups for Canadian WWII veterans and their families to travel to Holland to commemorate the liberation of the country.
Why did you get involved in such tours? For several reasons. In Holland you grow up very much aware that it was Canadian soldiers who liberated the country. My father was in the Dutch army, and my father-in-law was in the Dutch resistance throughout the war, hiding Jews, helping downed British pilots and getting ration (food) coupons to Dutch people.
When was your first group tour? In the 1980s we were approached by several organizations in Holland to set up such a tour, and Veterans Affairs was very supportive. There are events every year to commemorate the anniversary of the Liberation (May 5th), with significantly larger ones every 5 years. It’s set up so that each Vet is allowed to bring a guest – traditionally that was the spouse but now we’re seeing more adult children as the companions. They stay with a Dutch family, which goes to show just how strong and personal the connection still is between Holland and Canada.
What was your largest group? For the Golden Anniversary in 1995 we brought 4,000. Since then of course the numbers sadly drop each year as more Vets pass away or are unable to travel. Last year for example the veterans numbered only 100. So we have expanded our tour offerings to feature Battlefield Tours of WWI and WWII sites.
What’s the best piece of advice you ever received? “Don’t give up. Don’t give in. Don’t be intimidated by people who are bigger than you – particularly in the travel industry.”
If you had to spend 6 months in a destination, which one would you pick? I’d travel around Europe, spending serious time in France, the Netherlands and Italy. But I should add that every winter we go to Naples Florida to recharge the batteries and I really love that area.
If you weren’t doing this, what would you be doing? This is it. If I weren’t doing this I’d be more involved with children and grandchildren. But I have no intention of retiring!
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