irlines justified the cutting of base
commissions by imagining travel agents as mere "order-takers,"
forwarding along business that came in over their brick-and-mortar
Yet it's been my experience that travel agents not only add
value to most consumer transactions, but are among the most
creative entrepreneurs I've ever encountered. Last week in this
space, I wrote about one agent, Linda Raymer, who, 20 years ago in
Nashville, founded the International Church Music Festival,
bringing choirs from every continent to sing in European
About the same time Linda looked east from Nashville to grow her
business, Othmar Grueninger was looking west from Indianapolis. He
was handling travel arrangements for some local high school bands,
and it occurred to him that they might enjoy playing in parades in
other parts of the country.
He began sending bands to play in the Rose Bowl parade and,
after doing some research, discovered the Kamehameha Day parade,
held in Honolulu every year in honor of the Hawaiian monarch
credited with uniting the islands.
He contacted the organizers and started sending bands to march
in that parade -- not just Indianapolis-area bands, but ones from
West Coast states, as well.
"Pretty soon I was sending 1,500, 2,000 people a year. It wasn't
just the band members but their families, too," Grueninger
But in 1995, when he called to get the dates of the parade, he
got some bad news. "They told me they were canceling the parade. It
had been funded by the state, and the state pulled the
Grueninger found out details about the cost of the parade, and
called the organizing committee with a proposition: He would fund
the parade to the tune of $25,000 if they would continue to hold
"At the time, I thought I could find some other sponsors to help
me share the costs -- perhaps some of the hotels where I put the
bands and their families." He laughed. "I was wrong."
Hawaiian Airlines has since become a parade sponsor, though it
hasn't defrayed Grueninger's financial commitment -- he has, in the
past six years, given more than $125,000 to keep the parade going.
Call it enlightened self-interest.
Grueninger has never seen a travel agent's role as a passive
one. During Expo '67, the Montreal World's Fair, he found it
difficult to get hotel space for his clients. So he bought a couple
of train cars -- four Pullmans and a diner -- and put together a
rail tour to Montreal. The train cars doubled as both
transportation and accommodations.
"Even after the fair was over, I ran rail tours all over the
country for about seven or eight years, until I couldn't get spare
parts any more," he said. "It was great -- they always sold
Grueninger also has, in the course of his 48 years in business,
bought buses -- "There's big money in the motorcoach business if
the bus is full" -- and even, 25 years ago, a DC-7 airplane with 96
Somehow, during all this, Grueninger found time to be present at
the founding of ARTA, and was its first full-term president.
Today, his company, Grueninger Cruises and Tours, still
organizes 60 tours of one kind or another each year, from Branson
to Honolulu to his native region in the Black Forest in
Though it sounds as if he must be terribly busy, Grueninger says
he does what he does because he doesn't want to work too hard.
"They made me grand marshal of the Kamehameha Day parade one
year," he said. "Now, that was hard work. I had to walk five miles
and wave for three hours. My arm was so stiff the next
So stiff, in fact, that he couldn't take any orders for the
airlines: He hasn't sold a walk-in airline ticket for 15 years.