Wolfgang Brunner
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Wolfgang Brunner

Wolfgang Brunner As Regional General Manager of Grand Circle's numerous travel offerings in Latin America, Wolfgang Brunner has some big responsibilities—but for him, the biggest of all is making a difference in the small communities of his native Costa Rica. For Wolfgang, leadership is about more than being successful in business: it's about creating success stories in communities that may not otherwise have opportunities. And for his colleagues around the world, the difference he's made serves as a shining example of how Grand Circle Foundation truly does change people's lives.

Wolfgang didn't initially plan to work in the travel industry, though his own travels began at the young age of five when his family moved from Germany to Costa Rica. He was following in his father's footsteps and studying law when his multicultural background—more specifically, his ability to speak five languages—caught the attention of a major cruise line. "I was recruited by Princess to work as a trip leader," he remembers, "and I did this while still going to university."

As it turned out, Wolfgang had a knack with travelers. He was invited to join the Princess team full-time as a cruise ship director. "I realized then that I liked tourism better than the law," he says. "You're working with travelers on their holidays—their very best days. The best pay you can get is those smiles." He rounded out his international experience by working for American Airlines, as well as two other Caribbean cruise lines that operated out of Miami. Experience in the hotel business brought him to Ecuador, Chile, Panama, Colombia, and Argentina as a director of sales and marketing.

Risking it with Grand Circle

Wolfgang was back in Costa Rica, working as co-owner of the country's first boutique hWolfgang in Panamaotel,
when he learned about an opportunity with Grand Circle. "I had taken a few sales trips to Boston, but never visited the building," he remembers. "Other people did, though, and they told me that I would like the travelers and the company." In 2004, when he saw in the newspaper that Grand Circle was looking for a Regional General Manager, he thought, "This is it." He sold his share in the hotel and accepted the position.

Wolfgang learned quickly that taking risks is a way of life at Grand Circle. After successfully managing Central America, he was asked to oversee other regions—including northern Mexico, which was an entirely new part of the world for him. He accepted the challenge, however, and it paid off: today, Grand Circle's Northern Mexico & the Copper Canyon vacation boasts one of the company's highest excellence ratings from returning travelers.

Wolfgang also made the risky decision to launch a brand-new small ship adventure in Panama. Based on his firsthand experience working in the country, he designed an adventure that he believed travelers would love—and he loved taking the risk. "These opportunities are not common in other companies," says Wolfgang. "Every day is an adventure. I show myself how far I can go."

"My Country is Special"

MicrofarmWolfgang has certainly gone far in making a difference in the Costa Rican communities supported by Grand Circle Foundation. He has been instrumental in launching the microfarm project at the San Francisco school, which has become a model for the Foundation's new Invest in a Village program. "Alan [Lewis] asked me to sit down with him and explain our success in Costa Rica," says Wolfgang. It's a big project—around $175,000, when all is said and done—but Wolfgang was confident in its success from the very beginning. "All of the components were there," he says. "We had commitment from the principal, the community, and the village leaders. Everyone agrees on the goal, and the whole community is dedicated."

Wolfgang takes great pride in the smaller projects, too. At the San Josecito School, which is also funded by Grand Circle Foundation, he remembers being brought to tears by a song the students had written to greet visiting travelers. "The song is called 'My Country is Special,'" says Wolfgang, "and Costa Rica is." He encouraged the Foundation to donate funds to send the children to a recording studio—and now travelers can purchase the song on CD to help support the community. "Best of all," adds Wolfgang, "the tourism board of Costa Rica now uses the song for their international marketing."

He has also helped 25 women from the San Josecito and San Francisco communities learn to generate their own income by making souvenirs for travelers. "Before, they were housewives," he says. "Now, they have their own projects, their own money. It's amazing to see how they've changed."

A Brighter FutureWolfgang with Students

It is equally amazing to see how much the two communities have changed. When Wolfgang joined Grand Circle five years ago, 30% of students from San Francisco and San Josecito went on to high school. Today, not only do 80% continue—they also graduate. Wolfgang hopes to boost this number even further by planning scholarship funding for the poorest students, who are often forced to drop out because their families need them to generate income.

As it turns out, the families, too, are learning marketable skills thanks to Wolfgang's perseverance. "I was recently in San Josecito and it was nighttime," Wolfgang remembers. "I noticed that two of the classrooms we built still had their lights on." Upon investigating, he found 40 of the students' parents engrossed in computer classes and English lessons—skills that are necessary for many of today's jobs, especially with international companies.

For Wolfgang, it was a profoundly beautiful sight. "They are different people with brighter futures," he says, "and we are giving them the opportunity."