Thomas Tait: Bulgaria Needs Diverse Portfolio of Products

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | September 15, 2002, Sunday // 00:00

Thomas Tait, Vice President, Lake Las Vegas Resort, Nevada Tourism Minister (1989-2001). He has worked in 67 cities in 45 countries during the past thirteen years. During the last eight years of his tenure as Chief Executive of the Nevada Commission on Tourism, becomes involved with another aspect of foreign service. He assisted in specific tourism development projects in conjunction with Bulgaria's emerging private sector. Most recently he assisted in the organization of the First International Conference on Tourism in Sofia, Bulgaria. As part of his regular duties with the Nevada Commission on Tourism, Mr. Tait opened and managed foreign offices in Japan, the United Kingdom, Taiwan and South Korea.

Q: Are there similarities between Nevada's and Bulgaria's tourism?

A: Certainly there are many similarities among Nevada State and Bulgarian tourism, but it is the differences that will make Bulgaria more appealing to western visitors. Bulgaria is rich in culture, scenery, history and recreation -- the four principal ingredients for successful tourism. Nevada and many other tourism destinations have taken the recreation component and expanded it to include virtually all forms of entertainment, including shopping. Bulgaria is in the process of making its basic infrastructure (roads, airports, signs and facilities) more tourism friendl. As that happens, it will make the tourist visit easier, allowing less time in planning a trip and using lengthy transportation systems to arrive in your country and more time in enjoying Bulgaria's fun tourism products. Bulgaria's pricing for tourism is also very appealing to countries within the European Union and to Americans. There is excellent value for the expenditure -- be the product a hotel room, a meal, entrance to a museum or other attraction, or the purchase of cultural goods.

Q: What do you think about Bulgaria: Is it fun, good for business, friendly...?

A: When I teach tourism to professionals, I state at the outset that all aspects of my presentation will lead back to the axiom 'there is no second chance for a first impression.' This means to me that if you can demonstrate successfully to a customer that you are prepared to do business with him, the customer will likely be satisfied.

My first impression of Bulgaria can only be told in a short story. I was asked by the United States government to provide a survey of Bulgarian tourism in 1994. After flying and sitting in airports in three cities for 23 hours, I found myself circling Sofia airport while we awaited landing instructions because that airport was covered in fog. After some time, the pilot announced we were diverting to Burgas.

The airport in Burgas was also closed, but not because of fog, it was out of season. So there were no customs or immigration officials on site and they had to be brought in to the airport. After waiting in the arrivals area for a couple of hours, we were processed through and sought our bags. My bags (for a three week visit) were no where to be found.

Because the airport was closed, there were no airline representatives available, so I asked a customs agent to help find a lost luggage form to fill in and bring to Balkan airlines in Sofia. After a lengthy search, one was found, completed, and I was ready to exit the terminal building.

The buses that were to transport the passengers to Sofia, unfortunately, had all departed. I and one customs official were the only people left in the airport -- but, astonishingly, there was a taxi parked outside!

I went to the taxi driver and asked to be taken to Sofia. He wasn't very pleased about the prospect of driving almost 400 km in the middle of the night, especially in the fog, but agreed to do so, and at a very fair price.So, off we went. The roads were not in as good condition as they are today, the fog was thick and the traffic, both oncoming and ahead of us was mightily unpredictable.

The driver was very safe, however, and even though he didn't speak much English and I spoke no Bulgarian, he smiled frequently and listened to good music on his radio.

About 100 km from Sofia he asked if I was hungry and offered to buy me breakfast. What a surprise that was. I accepted (I had no Leva anyway) and he pulled off the highway and stopped at a small roadside building. We entered, and the scent of chicken soup, freshly baked bread and strong coffee hit me at once. I had some of each -- a lot of each.

We departed and arrived safely in Sofia. Not knowing the city, I asked the driver to take me to someplace where I could find help in contacting the people who were to meet me the night before at the Sofia airport. He took me to the Sheraton Balkan Hotel (I was to stay in an apartment for my visit). I thanked him very much and entered the hotel.

Upon approaching the front desk, the young woman working there looked at me and her first words were "You must be Mr. Tait." I was taken aback by that statement, but answered that I was, at which point she went on to say, "Your colleagues have been worried a great deal about your whereabouts. Allow me to get you a Cappuccino while you relax, and I will call them for you."

My bags, lost by another carrier, were returned to me two days later.

My first impression of Bulgaria was that the people were considerate, hospitable and kind. What better impression can you have? With that impression is it possible to have fun and conduct business? Absolutely.

Q: Can tourism be Bulgaria's #1 industry?

A: Tourism can ultimately be Bulgaria's number 1 industry, but that will take some time to achieve. Only two states in the USA count tourism as their number 1 industry. Nevada and Hawaii are those states. Even the very popular tourism states of California and Florida have not elevated tourism to number 1 status economically. And rightly so. For a country or state to perform well in the world marketplace, it needs a diversified portfolio of products. These include agriculture, communications, manufacturing, mining, and the service industries. Bulgaria excels in several of those, and is working to excel in the others. I suggest that it is better to take the path of diversification than to place all economic strategies in one category. Tourism will be a mighty economic force in Bulgaria, and a respected one, perhaps sharing number 1 status with one or two other industry sectors.

Q: If you were Bulgaria's Tourism Minister what three steps would you take to make significant changes?

A: Without over simplifying my response to the point of absurdity, I would 1) Organize the tourism leadership as a 'Bulgarian Visitors Bureau' focused upon the accomplishment of short, mid- and long term marketing, promotional and event-based goals; 2) Gain a complete understanding of Bulgaria's tourism strengths and weaknesses and build a EU-enticing market strategy around its positives while working to lessen its shortcomings; and 3) Encourage through government incentives, mechanisms to incent foreign investment through lessened short-term risk.

Q: What is the general perception of Bulgaria in Las Vegas?

A: Bulgaria is largely unknown to the US public. It is certainly not known as a tourist destination to all but a very small portion of the population. In Las Vegas, except for the people that Governor Miller and I speak to about Bulgaria, the general population would not consider Bulgaria as a place at which to spend their vacation. Few people in the United States would be able to describe the geographic location of Bulgaria. But, don't feel too badly about that -- few people, if asked where Barcelona was, would be able to identify it as a major city in Spain that hosted the Olympics just a decade ago.

Q: What points would you change in the 2nd Bulgarian International Tourism Conference.

A: Fortunately, our Bulgarian partner, Max Behar, has months ago organized a planning committee of tourism professionals to review the strengths and weaknesses of the first conference and recommend the necessary modifications. That process is ongoing. Max has produced many, many conferences in Bulgaria, as have I in the United States and in other countries. Together, our organizational strengths are much more powerful than either one of us operating alone. Add to that mix the political talents business acumen of our partner, former Governor Bob Miller, and you have an unbeatable team of professionals. With the planning committee's crucial input, this will be an extraordinary conference, not only for Bulgaria, but for the entire Balkan region.

Q: Are there parallels between Nevada / Utah and Bulgaria / Greece as Olympic neighboring states?

A: Absolutely! This similarity cannot be overstated. It is imperative that Bulgaria learn from the Nevada / Utah marketing experience. Fortunately, I was the Minister of Tourism in Nevada during all of the planning stages of that major winter event. At the conference in November we intend to have a high ranking Utah Olympic official present his perception of the regional aspects of tourism promotions related to the games, and I will be available to explain how we capitalized upon the games' proximity to Nevada.

Q: Can you describe Bulgaria in three words.

A: I love it.

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