The Handa family on tour in India - Nina, Inder, Alex, Tanja & Erna – enjoying chunks of sugar cane.
Inder & Alex on tour in India.
Imagine having India as your part-time classroom! Alexander Handa of I Love Travel chats about his father, the always active and interesting Inder Handa (known to all as Mr. Handa).
Some of us got lucky: our parents would take us out of school for a week at Disney or a sunny all-inclusive. So how lucky does that make Alexander Handa? From kindergarten to grade 9, his parents, Erna and Inder, would take him and his sisters out of school for 3 monthsevery year.
Mind you, it was hardly one big amusement park bash. During those years, Mr. Handa senior was escorting groups of Canadians throughout India, and the family got to tag along. “My earliest memories are of being a tour rat with me and my dad wearing matching safari suits. I don’t think I realized how crazy our childhood was, riding elephants, speaking Hindi, learning about cricket and calculus.”
“Each year we would visit Mother Teresa's Orphanage in Chandigarh. We would always fill as many suitcases as possible with donations for the orphanage. It was always a special experience. We learned that happiness did not come from possessions. The children of the orphanage were happier to have visitors than to get 'things'.”
To this day Alexander feels that travel is the best education you can provide: “I firmly believe young people learn so much more about art, history and math compared to sitting in a classroom for 9 months of the year. We learned how to sew! My mother would say, ‘Let’s write a story about the Taj Mahal’!” The family would return to Ottawa each year for fall and spring terms, but the unconventional routine clearly had no ill-effect on Alexander: he skipped grade 7 and later went on to university in Switzerland.
How Mr. Handa got into tour escorting was as unusual as his family’s annual routine. Life-long believers in healthy living, he and his wife (“She was born in Switzerland and he was born in India, so you can imagine a little bit of chaos in our house”) opened a health food store in the late 70s in Ottawa’s Glebe neighbourhood, back when tofu was definitely on the hippy-dippy spectrum.
“They’d both been teachers and had travelled a lot. Since so many of their clients asked them for vacation recommendations they started slide-show travel nights in the back of the store, and by 1980 my dad started selling travel and escorting tours full-time.”
The 1990s saw the explosion in the package market business and Mr. Handa embraced it with open arms, ensuring his agency was known for great service and unbeatable prices. From the age of 6 or 7 Alexander got involved, stamping brochures. “We used to have a whiteboard outside the office with the latest prices – Cancun for $399, say – and people would line up around the block. Heaven help you if you had to go out and erase a price because it had sold out, people would shout at you!” he recalls.
Working Saturdays, Alexander closed his 1st sale, to St. Martin, at age 13 and soon had his own clientele of young people. Carlton University nearby also provided a steady stream of customers; and for his high school graduation Alex organized his 1st group trip to ACA. By 2003 they were booking over 2,000 students on sunny breaks down south.
Handa Travel has diversified over the years and now includes Taj Tours, a consolidator, and more. After leaving the industry to travel, young Alexander returned to Canada to earn what he calls back-packing money, but that never happened. "My best friend from childhood days Eugene Winer, Justin Van Camp and I now operate I Love Travel with 7 youth and student travel brands, 180 staff and 500 guides running trips as diverse as summer festivals in Europe and travel for students from Down Under (the Unleashed Schoolies brand).”
“My father and I are still very involved in each other’s businesses and I speak to him a couple of times a week. All the time I hear suppliers say how much they respect him for his loyalty and honesty. Suppliers and clients are his friends, and his staff are like his godchildren. At 79 he’s still fanatic about eating healthily and is super fit. Why not keep enjoying coming to work?”