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Wednesday, 16 November 2011

From lunch with Audrey Hepburn to prison time in Senegal, travel agent Walter Verzuu has many stories to tell from his 55 years in the industry
Zachary-Cy Vanasse

L to R: Jamaica - 1980; Bermuda - 1974; Australia - 2000

The walls of Walter Verzuu’s office on Lawrence Avenue in Toronto are lined with shelves supporting hundreds of travel books. The long-time travel agent says he has “another couple thousand,” along with 55 years worth of National Geographic magazines and a host of other travel magazines at his home. He still consults them on a regular basis when putting together itineraries for clients.

Walter Verzuu, travel agent, Avenue Travel Limited, Carlson Wagonlit Travel
In his 55 years in the travel industry, he has collected enough stories to someday add his own book to his sizable collection and - at 80 – writing a book isn’t something he has ruled out for his retirement, whenever that happens. 

“Everyone wants me to write a book,” he says. “So hopefully someday I will look after that, which gives me something to do.”

Born in Holland, raised during WWII

Verzuu was born in Apeldoorn, Holland in 1930, the second of 11 children, and he was raised in Bilthoven, located just a little northeast of Utrecht.

“I had a fantastic childhood,” he recalls, “although I was brought up in the worst years of the war.“

He was 10-years-old when World War II broke out and 15 when it came to it end. Had the war lasted any longer than it did, even by a few weeks, Verzuu feels there is a chance he and his family could have very well starved to death. Living in western Holland during the war meant that the Nazi forces had cut off the food supply into the region. Verzuu remembers eating cats, rats and birds for survival. They lived without electricity for years and there was no way to get to school. 

In the Dutch military, circa 1954
“It was a tough time, but other than that, it was a fun time growing up with so many siblings,” he says. His was one of several large families on his street in Bilthoven and Verzuu recalls that in those days it was quite normal to come down the stairs on a Sunday morning and find five people who had visited late in the night sleeping in the living room. 

Military years and KLM

In his youth, Verzuu wanted to be a doctor and attended the University of Utrecht for a year with that goal in mind. However, in Holland at that time, it was compulsory for the first three boys of a family to serve time in the military. The military picked him for officer training and he soon became an officer for artillery, a position he served for two-and-a-half years before being demobilized on July 1, 1953.

“The problem is, after you’ve been in the army, to go back and study for a medical degree – which took ten years in Holland – there was no way I was going to do that,” he says. 

Instead, he applied for a job with KLM where he was hired and spent the next two years working at the Amsterdam Airport.

“That, of course, was still a novelty at the time; flying. There were no international flights or anything like that. As a matter of fact, I think one of the first intercontinental flights was with Canadian Pacific Airlines from Vancouver to Amsterdam. I was involved in handling that at the airport. It was a once a week flight, it was quite nice.”

L to R: In Ecuador - 1999; South Africa - 1970; Germany - 1982

Because flying was such a novelty at the time, those that could actually afford to fly were often the rich and famous. On more than one occasion Verzuu had the opportunity to encounter some of the biggest stars of the era.

First FAM trip to Hong Kong - 1974
“If you were doing a good job for (KLM), you would become the official greeter. So when a VIP would come in you would go out to the plane, because at that time you had to go out to the plane, introduce yourself and take the honourable guest into the dining room if there was time for lunch.

“So I happened to be the official greeter for one week and the first day Audrey Hepburn arrived. And Audrey is the exact same age as I am, she would be 81 now. And she was a gorgeous girl, who was born in Holland. I had to go to the plane, introduce myself, take her in and I had lunch with her.”

Verzuu’s week as official greeter also had him meeting the likes of the Ethiopian Emperor and god of the Rastafarians, as well as a drunken Errol Flynn with Miss Denmark and Miss Norway on his arms and Thor Heyerdahl, the Norwegian ethnographer and adventurer who became notable for his Kon-Tiki expedition, which sparked Verzuu’s interest in travel further.

Moving to Canada

In 1955 Verzuu married his first wife and  decided that he had had enough of Holland in large part because of his “meagre pay” at KLM. He used a contact he had made with a Canadian man at the Amsterdam airport to gain sponsorship in order to immigrate into Canada.

Verzuu and his siblings - 1970s
On Oct. 31, 1955 he arrived in Canada and settled in the Niagara Falls region where he worked for his sponsor. After a few months, he began looking for a way into the airline or travel business and soon took a job with an agency called Matthews Travel where he booked tours on Cunard Line and Home Lines steam ships bound for Europe, as well as train journeys across North America.

He worked there for six months before leaving in the interest of finding a job where the compensation was better. He would work a series of jobs unrelated to the travel industry for a few years including work at a vineyard in Niagara Falls, selling bibles and encyclopaedias door to door as well and land surveying. 

It was while serving as lineman and party chief for a surveying crew that Verzuu started taking on a nightshift at a small shopping centre in the newly developed Elliot Lake, selling travel for Needs Travel. However, when the bottom fell out of the uranium industry in 1958, the small town was all but abandoned and Verzuu, now out of work, headed to Toronto.

L to R: At Bayreuth Wagner Festival - 1984; Bermuda - 1974; French Pyrenees - 1992

Return to Toronto

“Again I started working first in construction,” remembers Verzuu. “I was on the Don Valley Parkway where I became an asphalt superintendent. But at night I started working at Donway Travels in Don Mills, which was a brand new agency that had only been in existence for about two years.“

First computer at Donway Travel
At that time, Verzuu recalls, there were only about 60 travel agencies in the Toronto region compared the couple thousand that there are today. Donway Travel dealt with large commercial agencies, booking travel for companies such as IBM, Canadian Tire, Canadian Westinghouse and some of the area car companies.

“I think I was on the first flight with Aeromexico. I was on the first flight to Moscow with Air Canada, because when we were a commercial agency, everybody was after (us). Every airline was offering all sorts of things; free trips here and there. But I seldom had time to take them up on that sort of thing.”

The first group Verzuu took was a hunting and fishing group that travelled to Finland in 1959. That was followed by a trip to South Africa with Holstein Friesian dairy farmers and little by little, he began developing small groups that he would take himself. In or around that same year, Verzuu took his first FAM trip to Jamaica.

“I remember being back at the airport in Kingston and I rode in Cadillac limousine from 1932 – it was about a mile long – on the way from Kingston to Ocho Rios. The driver was a very likeable chap. He stopped and said: ‘Would you like something to drink?’ And I said ‘Sure. What have you got?’ He said: ‘I’ve got some very nice rum here except we need something to put in the rum.’ So he stopped somewhere, where they had palm trees, he saw a young boy there and he said: ‘Hey, why don’t you get me a couple of coconuts?’ The fellow had a little axe in the vehicle so we put the milk in the rum. We arrived half-sloshed in Ocho Rios,” Verzuu laughs.

Land Rover used on early Donway Travel adventure tours
In the late ‘60s the idea was proposed that the Donway Travel create its own adventure travel company.

“We ended up buying a couple of Land Rovers and we drove the Land Rovers from Amsterdam to Kathmandu and we sold three-week segments,” explains Verzuu of that first venture into adventure tours.

“We took only four or five people. It didn’t really pay. It was too expensive to operate, but occasionally a driver would be ill and I would have to jump in and do my own driving.”

On one such occasion, Verzuu received a telegram that had been delayed by three or four days indicating that his drivers were ill with malaria in a hospital in Rawalpindi. Because of the delay, the telegram finally came to Verzuu the same day his clients were set to leave from Toronto and make their way to Delhi.

“So I had to go myself. I had to get a visa for India and Pakistan. How I got that I don’t even remember. But I got it. And I flew to Rawalpindi, went to the hospital there, picked up the two drivers, put them in the back of the Land Rover and drove... Meanwhile I had been in touch with an agent in Delhi who had received the five people who had been booked on this tour... then I drove around with them four or five days and by then the drivers were okay and they did the driving.”

L to R - Selecting the wine; Air Canada Millionaire Club, Donway Travel - 1979; First Kenya FAM trip - circa 1970

Worldwide adventures

Starting in the mid-1970s, Verzuu began taking guests on wine tours through France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand. Since then he has travelled to every continent – including Antarctica – and, by his count, at least 100 countries.

Tangiers - 1972
Of his worldwide adventures one journey in Western Africa stands out for the particular set of circumstances he would have to overcome in order for it to be a success.

The CBC was filming a documentary on the historic Salt Caravan, which ran from Timbuktu to Taoudenni in Mali. Verzuu flew over to help with the necessary arrangements and to aid with the logistics that go into making such a journey.

He had made a few unsuccessful attempts to connect with a travel agency in Bamako by mail and by telegram in order to rent some jeeps. Finally he decided to call the company and he was told that all he had to do was show up and they would work out all the necessary details.

“So I flew out there,” recounts Verzuu. “I was still travelling on a Dutch passport and you needed a visa for Senegal and I didn’t have one, so they put me in jail for the night at the airport. The next day I flew to Bamako and I flew on Malian Airways and they only had one plane. I got into the plane and some guy came and sat next to me and I saw flees jumping off him and onto me and I was itchy like hell.”

Mali - 1977
However, a night in the clink and an encounter with fleas – for which he had come prepared with flea powder - were just a sign of things to come on the journey. Arriving at the travel agency with whom he had spoken, Verzuu came to find out that the jeeps he had been told could be arranged on site simply did not exist.

“As luck would have it, two years before, a colleague of mine who worked in this adventure tour business had run out of money in Timbuktu and he sold his Land Rover – with my permission – to the mayor of Timbuktu.”

Verzuu contacted the mayor of Timbuktu, who still owned the Land Rover, and allowed the company to rent the vehicle, however; this still left Verzuu one jeep short for the tour. Having heard rumour of a Land Rover in Mopti, which is halfway between Bamako and Timbuktu, he set out into the West African desert hoping to stumble upon the second necessary Land Rover.

“It was nothing but mud huts at the time. I had to hitchhike there, which is a normal thing in that country. There was one car there and I had been told that in the desert there was a garage where they had two Land Rovers. I asked the man with the car if he would take me there.”

Rumours of a pair of Land Rovers in the desert had been accurate; however said rumours had ignored the pertinent detail that these Land Rovers did not in fact function. The first of the Land Rovers simply had no engine, the second was without wheels.

“It was a real disaster. But again, as luck would have it, the next day the Paris to Dakar Rally came through and I talked to a Frenchman who was driving a Land Rover and I got him to lend us the car. So that was one of my more adventurous trips.”

L to R: Portugal - 2002; Lisbon - 2002; Chile - 1986

Verzuu's forte

Back at home in Canada, the 1960s had seen the birth of four of Verzuu’s children, but in 1968 his marriage ended in divorce.

Wine tour in Spain
Through the 1970s he began organizing wine tours through France, Italy, South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Australia and New Zealand while continuing to develop his strength as a designer of FIT tours.

“That’s my forte, individual tours whereby I decided individual itineraries geared to the people that are travelling," Verzuu says. "You have to find out what their interests are, what they can afford to pay, whether they want luxury or whether they want to see how people live. So I’ve done hundreds of those... I’ve drawn up long itineraries. Some are 15-20 pages. This was before we had all of those modern things. Now all you have to do is go to a computer and find out, but in that time, if you wanted to do something in Papa New Guinea, it could take weeks before you get an answer.”

Leaving Donway Travel and going it alone

Spanish border - 1996
In October of 1984, Verzuu left Donway Travel and started out on his own in Rosedale. Armed only with five individual phones and his own work ethic he slowly began to hire help including his second wife.

“She was an absolutely top-notch technical agent,” said Verzuu pointing to a picture of her on one of the shelves in his office. “She worked with me for about 35 years. Unfortunately she died two years ago. She was a real wizard with the computer and I am not. I am very poor with the computer.”

In his 55-years in the travel agency, Verzuu sees the Internet as being the biggest change he has encountered.

“It’s the biggest problem because everyone has access to pretty much the same information. Quite often you talk to people and they say: ‘Well I saw the same hotel for $10 cheaper’.” He shrugs, as if to say: “What can you do?”

The writing was on the wall

In the late 1990s, Verzuu says he could see the writing on the wall for his agency as airline commissions fell and when Carlson Wagonlit approached him in 2000, he sold the company.

Table Mountain, South Africa - 2001
“So I’ve been here since 2000," he says sitting in his book-filled office on Lawrence Avenue. "This is my 11th year here and I’m still working on what I call Freedom 85. So I may stay for four more years.”

Or longer. When pressed on whether or not his Freedom-85 plan is concrete or not, he admits that nothing is written in stone.

From 1990 to 2000, Verzuu hosted a radio program on CFMX every Friday and Saturday night: “Globetrotting with Walter Vazuu.” The idea was to use the program as an advertising feature for his agency – “I gave up on it because it cost me more money than I made in actual business” -  and despite the fact that it didn’t necessarily pan out, it left him with hundreds of hours of his travel stories recorded and saved for that eventual book.

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