'Kohl & Partner' Managing Partner Andr? Gribi: Lack of Brand Bulgaria's Biggest Problem
An interview with Andr? Gribi, Managing Partner of Kohl & Partner Sofia EOOD, Hotel & Tourism Consultancy International, for "International Survey: Bulgaria-Austria" of Novinite.com (Sofia News Agency) and Novinite.bg.
How long has Kohl and Partner been active in Bulgaria? What is the scope of your activity on the Bulgarian market?
Kohl & Partner has been active in Bulgaria since 2007, and in 2009 opened a branch office. Personally, I have worked in Bulgaria since 2005 and merged my activities from my own company with Kohl & Partner in 2008.
As an Austrian investor, how would you describe the Bulgarian business and investment environment? How do they compare with other CEE countries, i.e. from Austria's region?
The investment of a consultant company is very different from financial investments. We invest in people, education and the development of our services and market adaptation. This is a long-term issue, and the investment is not only related to money.
The development in Bulgaria is much different from other central European countries.
At the moment, consulting services in Bulgaria are not so much accepted; however, I expect a much higher growth in Tourism consultancy in Eastern Europe than in Central Europe.
Bulgarian tourism enterprises are often criticized for paying little attention to quality. Do you believe this is fair? What kind of clients do you have in Bulgaria that use your services for the hotel and tourism industry?
Yes, the quality must definitely increase on all levels. Most importantly, is the management quality, and they must understand that tourism is a team game. They have their players (employees) which must be managed and formed into a team, but only together with other teams (tourism enterprises) they can win a championship (tourism) which is interesting for spectators (tourists). The staff's potential is much better than Bulgarians believe. There is a lack of mutual respect between employee and employer, which does not allow long-term relationships and educational programs. The employers often treat their staff as something, which can be easily replaced and the employees leave their employment for a better offer.
We did consulting services for the hotel industry such as: pre-openings, financial reconstructions, many feasibility studies, and operator research.
Our second field of business, where we are internationally very successful, is with our consulting services for regional development. So far, we did not realize any Bulgarian projects in this field yet.
How would you describe Bulgaria's tourism industry from your point of view as a consultant? What are its strengths and weaknesses?
The strengths are clear: various anthropogenic, natural resources, a very favorable geographic location, winter and summer tourism, a rich cultural and historical heritage, a traditional hospitality with great wines, and a delicious national cuisine.
The main weaknesses in Bulgarian tourism are the lack of brand definition for Bulgaria and the inability to work together. Professional organizations (hotel associations, restaurant associations, spa associations...) are not strong enough and are often created around one person/group and have more of a political goal. This prohibits democratic processes and development of the National Tourism strategy.
Furthermore, very often in Bulgaria, people do not know the difference between tourism and real estate business. They are only interested in a quick return on investment from real estate but tourism is a long-term investment. The industry should soon come realize that it is easier to attract an existing customer than to find a new one.
What trends do you see in Bulgaria's tourism and hotel sector? Do you have observations – respectively, do you see major differences in the summer Black Sea tourism, the winter tourism, and the so called alternative tourism?
I cannot predict the future; however, it also depends on the development of the economic crisis elsewhere. I strongly believe that Sofia could become a more interesting place for tourism but they would need to start working in leisure tourism. The government and the hotels have yet to realize Sofia's great potential.
Some of the over developed markets (Sunny Beach, Bansko) have a positioning problem. Customers do not really know what to expect and there is a big difference between the hotels in terms of quality, entertainment, and services. The success of the next season also depends on the political stability in other markets. Bulgaria lost a lot of visitors from Central Europe and the UK but compensated them with Rumanians and Russians. For the further development of destinations, it would require a mix of tourists.
On the other hand, there are many opportunities in rural/alternative tourism. There are regions in the country which are unexplored, authentic, and culturally rich; this is exactly what people are looking for. Destinations like Hissaria, with their natural mineral water, should not miss this opportunity! Furthermore, the more historical regions (Veliko Tornevo ...) are not exploring their potential.
What are your recommendations for the Bulgarian government and its policies?
I have spent quite a lot of time in Bulgaria and have seen the ups and downs, I do not wish to give them advice on their policy matters however, I would love to consult them on Tourism matters.
Some of your services feature the audit of tourism destinations and drafting projects for tourism infrastructure. What are Bulgaria's greatest issues in these areas? Do you have specific examples you can mention?
As I already mentioned before, working together, working together, and working together. Kohl & Partner has extensive experience with many different destinations in the world and as a result, deal with many cultures but we focus mainly on the product and the target group, which need to be reached. A Master Plan is needed for the regions. Right now, the most important thing for Bulgaria would be that the internationally known brands (Bansko and Sunny Beach) recuperate and do not attract any more negative international news. A clear concept for the different levels of hotels and the control of the real estate business would be the solution.
Presently, I mainly focus on Health tourism and the Spa Business in Bulgaria. We will assist in the newly built cluster for health tourism in Bulgaria. In addition, Kohl & Partner is working at the moment, on a medical spa project and is searching for its Bulgarian client, a professional partner. This project has a great potential for our client, the country and us.
What is it that Bulgaria needs to learn from Austria and the other European countries you are active in when it comes to your field of operation?
This is a very good question, especially since I am Swiss and working for an Austrian company in Bulgaria and in other Eastern European countries. Swiss and Austrians are probably the biggest competitors in winter tourism, and they successfully work together. We try to bring in our knowledge and experience; however, culture and language, is at times a handicap. So finally, we mainly help when clients want to get international attention and acquire new clients. We understand how to reach potential clients, and we have the necessary contacts to not only be consultants and but to also really help in operational matters.
What are your plans for your Bulgarian operations? In other words – are you optimistic about the Bulgarian tourist sector and would you advise it to resort to consultancy services more often?
Personally, I like Bulgaria very much, it is my second home, and I will always keep a foot in the door. Professionally, it all depends on the future development of the country and the EU. In the last two years, Kohl & Partner limited its investment to a level which permits us to remain here.
Financially, I don't depend on Bulgaria, however; it is my personal goal to help this country progress. In regional development, I think Bulgaria is far behind most other countries, and I am very positive that this will change soon.
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