Tourism in Bulgaria: Watch the Birdie & the Marketing Tip
Novinite is publishing an article by Yoav Chudnoff on tourism in Bulgaria and on where he thinks the problems actually are. Contrary to what many say, he believes the government is not to blame.
You can read more by - and about - Yoav Chudnoff by clicking here.
Every year, there are ‘Watch the Birdie’ scenarios popping up concerning the horrible state of Bulgarian Tourism. They are in panic: “There is a free-fall in the amount of foreign tourists visiting Bulgaria;” “The government is to blame;” “We need public subsidies and etc. Every year, like clock-work.
Last year in 2014: “Western Europeans are not coming to our ski resorts;” People are waiting for hours to use our low number or ski lifts;” In 2013 ... The same panic.
Definition: ‘Watch the Birdie’ is a phrase which is based on the magician’s sleight of hand magic trick: "the use of dexterity or cunning, especially so as to deceive.”
Watch the Birdie Tricks
The first trick and the Summer Season along the Black Sea coastline; loss of Russian tourists due to EU sanctions; Bulgarians going to Greece and Turkey rather than enjoy the wonderful Bulgarian Coast Line.
The second trick and the Winter Ski Season; limited, or lack or lifts, British and other skiers going to Northern Italy rather than the ‘Cheap’ alternative found in Bulgaria; Bulgarian Skiers going to Italy, France, Austria, Slovenia for a better alternative.
On August 14,The Sofia News Agency (SNA) published the recent interview with the owner of Bohemia travel and Chairman of the Association of Bulgarian Tour Operators and Travel Agencies (ABTTA), Bayko Baykov. The article seems to say that there is a failure by the Bulgarian Government to correctly forecast the direction Bulgarian Tourism is taking and wants to be compensated for the lack of foresight by the government. SNA quotes him: “Baykov stated that the sector's expectations for compensating the withdrawal of tourists from the east with more visitors from western, northern and central Europe and the Balkan countries has not materialised.”
There is a problem here. Is he stating that there is drop in tourism from Eastern Europe since the fall of Communism in 1989? Is it that he does not welcome guests from Poland, Ukraine, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Romania?
I think that one has to look closer at the situation from both a marketing/economic point of view as well as issues that may have affected this ‘drop.’
According to the ABTTA website: ‘The main aim of ABTTA is to actively support the sustainable development of the Bulgarian tourist industry by improving tourism legal and business environment, by enhancing the interaction between the business and the State and by encouraging the professional growth of Bulgarian tourist agencies towards achieving a modern, competitive and attractive vision of the Bulgarian tourist destination.’
One of the major activities of ABTTA is (rough translation): ‘ABTTA participates in national tourism fairs which promotes the activities of its members, contributes to the realization of useful business contacts between members of the Association itself, including members of Bulgarian tourist based NGO’s and, through its membership in EKTAA - with more than 80,000 travel agencies in 30 European countries.’
ABTAA also proudly displays that they receive funding from the EU programme ‘Eco-innovation Initiative of the European Union.’
Just from my brief research, I come away with an understanding that he is responsible to keep his membership happy. A membership which pays annual dues which goes to the marketing and information dissemination throughout 30 European countries (from a total of 50 European countries and 6 sovereign states which receive limited recognition). These are 30 countries which have been targeted by ABTTA in which he wants their citizenry to visit Bulgaria.
Maybe I am wrong, maybe I am right in my understanding of ABTTA’s role.
But to ask, if not blame the Bulgarian government for marketing errors, I must disagree. I think, and even believe that the Bulgarian government has been doing an excellent job passing this information along. The mass majority of vacation savvy Europeans (East, West, North and Central) are extremely familiar with Bulgaria as a great tourist destination. After all, where can you visit a country 2 to 3 hours away that has everything a tourist can want: Natural beauty and wonders, Sea Coast, Mountains, History, Archaeology, great cities and so much more.
I decided to be a ‘savvy’ European tourist who wants to visit Bulgaria. I decided to go on-line. I typed ‘Bulgarian Tourism Government website,’ as my first and only test.
As a ‘savvy’ internet tourist, this is what came up (minus the references to the Ministry of Economy) on the first web search result, in order:
First Place: The Official tourism portal of Bulgaria provides useful information and rich multimedia galleries about over 400 tourism destinations in Bulgaria;
Second Place: The Bulgarian Association of Alternative Tourism;
Third Place: The European Travel Commission, in which the Bulgarian government is actively involved. This site links to the Ministry of Tourism . This website provides the surfer with even more links to tourist portals.
So where is this failure from the Bulgarian Government? On the very top of the first search engine result!
I personally began to think a little more deeper, where is the problem. Is it that foreigners are just plain stupid, or is there something else, more sinister involved here? I might as well take the second road and check out the sinister.
Over the past several years, newspapers, television, radio news programmes have been busy advertising the Bulgarian Tourist season pitfalls: I will focus on two seasonal examples, since that is all Bulgaria seems to be focusing on “Winter and Summer Tourist seasons’ as, so it seems there is a non-existent Spring and Autumn Season (Big Marketing Error).
Example One: Winter Season and the drop of both foreign and Bulgarian tourists.
- The people that run the lifts in Bansko/Pirin Mountains complain that there are not enough lifts to carry skiers up the mountains and this is the reason there are long queues of people waiting to get on the lifts.
I personally visited the lift system in Bansko last winter, and found that the operational lifts operated quite efficiently and quickly. Friends from France, Italy, Germany and Portugal also found that to be true. The main problem, and we all agreed, is the long wait and queues in buying tickets for the lift(s). Marketing lesson: Increase the number of ticketing outlets which in turn decrease wait time makes for a happy client.
But I am not a partial writer. So, I checked the ultimate ski web portal, Skiresort.info. This portal is the God of Gods of all ski portals and it gave the Bansko/Pirin ski resort a high rating of 3.9 Stars. With a total of around 75 km of slopes and runs. You can read the report at: http://www.skiresort.info/ski-resort/bansko/test-report/.
Key Star Ratings that are most important to Skiers: Bansko/Pirin received 5 Stars in the category of: 1.Lifts and Cable Cars, 2. Slope Offerings and Variety of Runs and 3. Slope Preparation. However, 3 Stars were given for: 1. Access, 2. Environmentally Friendly Ski Operation, 3. Friendliness of Staff and 4. Not Family friendly.
What does this tell me, or tell you? It tells me that Bansko/Pirin rates quite high. But with a serious problem: SERVICE is stuck in the middle - Not bad, but not good.
The owners of Bansko/Pirin ski resort like to point out that in order for Bansko/Pirin to be a better resort, it needs to expand the amount of ski runs, overall area and (redundancy) more ski runs and lifts and government subsidies.
I do not think that this would help a ski industry with a 3 Star rating when service needs to be improved. I looked deeper and found a ski resort in the Italian Tyrol: Carezza Ski. In 2015, it received the coveted ‘Leading ski resort with up to 60 km of slopes medal.’ A smaller place than Bansko/Pirin. Why?
The major differences are found when servicing their clientele (they are not tourists, they are clientele - marketing error on the Bulgarian side - tourist is a one time deal - clientele are people you want to come back again and again). These folks in the Italian Tyrol know that these clients are environmentalists at heart, they love nature and want to be in ‘tune’ with nature.
What are the major differences between Bansko/Pirin and Carezza Ski you may ask?
5 Star ratings for Friendliness of Staff (Bansko/Pirin with 3 Stars), Slope Preparation (on par with Bansko/Pirin with 5 Stars), Families and children (Bansko with 3 Stars); 4 Star Ratings for Environmentally Friendly Ski Operation (Bansko/Pirin with 3 Stars), Lifts and Cable Cars (on par with Bansko/Pirin with 5 Stars).
- High marks for Lift and Cable Cars, Slope Preparation for both Carezza and Bansko/Pirin.
- Bansko/Pirin receives low marks for Environmental protection, friendliness, and Families with children.
Just to make sure, I checked another more ‘comparable’ European Ski Resort: Zell am See/Schmittenhoehe, in Austria, with 77 km of Slopes and Ski Runs. Just to make it fair for Bansko/Pirin:
- 5 Star Ratings issued for Lifts and Cable Cars, Slope Offerings and Variety of Runs, Slope Preparation (The same ratings given to Bansko/Pirin), Cleanliness and Hygiene (Bansko 4 Stars);
- 4 Stars for Environmentally Friendly Ski Operation (Bansko with 3 Stars), On Par with 3 Stars for Access. Again Bansko/Pirin has its advantages when compared to 4.3 Star Zell.
This tells me, as someone who knows maybe just a little too much when it comes to marketing, that people go to these resorts, not because of price of going there, rather they appreciate the variety of services being offered and how these ski resorts integrate themselves, and most importantly PROTECT the natural wonders that their resorts lie in. Marketing lesson - Protect Nature, provide friendly and excellent service and your clientele will come again and again, no matter the cost.
The Birdie effect comes into play here when the Owners complain that there are not enough ski lifts where reality shows that the problem is found elsewhere. Marketing Lesson: As shown with the comparison of two ski resorts in Italy and Austria, Bansko/Pirin’s problem is with its servicing of clientele. Provide and train service staff, your first line of greeters to the resort - the face of Bansko/Pirin. Simple and cost effective.
Where is the problem: SERVICE Management: Long queues are for buying tickets not waiting for the lift, NOT family friendly; not environmentally friendly. Some key factors. By thinking that more is better, these folks are still in the dark ages. The focus must be SERVICE, SERVICE, SERVICE with what one currently has. Without this key element, Bansko/Pirin will remain a 3.9 Star Resort with no hopes of increasing that rating above the coveted 4 Stars!
Example Two: Summer Season along the Black Sea along with the drop of both foreign and Bulgarian Beach goers.
This is even a more interesting case. Again Baykov is wrong when it comes to the government not doing enough. Rather there is an underlying issue at hand; the illusions being presented to the 30 European countries ABTTA is targeting.
Lets start with the first illusion, what tourist destinations are ABTTA members promoting on the home front?
Again, being the savvy Bulgarian tourist researching places to visit, I went to the Bohemia travel website (I was curious). On their home page, there are offers for excursions to, in order going from Left to Right: Puglia, Switzerland, Sicily, Santorini (Greece), Prague & Vienna, Spain, Rome, Paris, Zakynthos (Greece), Dracula, Italy, Rome, Dubai & Abu Dhabi, Ohrid, Romania, Balkan Kaleidoscope, Rhodopska Tale (first and only Bulgarian mention on the home page), Belgrade and Croatia. I saw a Hot Offers section, there must be some Bulgarian destinations mentioned. I click and... Nope, no mention of Bulgarian destinations. I saw a lot of fantastic destinations in Turkey, Greece, Italy and etc.,being promoted, but no mention of a single Bulgarian destination on that page!
Justby looking at the head of ABTTA’s business website, I found an underlying problem as well. Lack of internal promotion of Bulgarian Black Sea vacations by an important ABTTA, the spokesman of the Bulgarian Tour industry.
I have to thank a few friends for this line of thought: Do not believe what you read; read between the lines; what are the reason(s) behind what is being written in the press, aired on television and radio news.
I have broken down these points to make it quite simple: On the top of headlines - Bulgarians holiday makers are going to Greek and Turkish beach resorts and refusing to go Bulgarian ones. The reasons that seem to be given are (and there always are interviews of Bulgarian tourists going Turkey and Greece), in no particular order: 1) Low level, and lack of service employees in the large hotel complexes, 2) People in the service industry in Greece and Turkey know what they are doing, 3) Continual promotion in the Bulgarian mass media as to the high levels of pollution found in the water along the Bulgarian Black Sea Coast, 4) Ice cubes manufactured in, or around former pig pens and delivered to resorts - sad, but true according to the Bulgarian mass media published [BG] at the beginning of the Beach season - July 28.; 5) Massive number of ‘pay-for-shade’ umbrellas and lounge chairs which are blocking the view to the sea, 6) Lack of Protection and drowning deaths, 7) Mega hotels hugging the beach destroying the view, and the list continues. (Marketing tip: Do not bash your own tourist trade.)
Here Baykov, again, blames the government. He claims that there is a “lack of marketing, advertising and the corresponding stimulating measures towards the final customers in Germany, the UK, Sweden, Italy, Spain, France, Serbia, Greece and Macedonia.” With the aforementioned counter marketing found in the mass media... well another Marketing tip should be included - Marketing Tip - Internal press always disseminates externally.
Again, I wish to point out the savvy intuition of today’s well rounded tourist and how they research where to visit. Of course, there are those less adventurous who wish to stay in the large mega resorts found to the north of Burgas: Sunny Beach, Golden Sands and Albena to name a few. There are well oiled marketing machines promoting Bulgaria’s mega resorts to people of all ages, with or without children and even participating in the great television programme on the British television Channel 4: “What Happens in Sunny Beach” brought to you by the bars and night clubs of Sunny Beach and the many alcohol brands being marketed there. Here there is no direct marketing, places find a niche and they promote it and, of course, there is no shortage of tourists found on ‘Reality Television.’
Now there are others, more important clientele who have been coming to Bulgaria for a little something on the wild side: stretches of Open beaches, camping, small villages with their family run bed and breakfasts. In other words they come are looking for something on the quieter side. They head to the far south, or to the far north Bulgarian coast lines. They do not want umbrellas, disco, super loud chalga (I like chalga, but not too loud), 24 hour parties. They come to Bulgaria for Relax time!
Again, the business mentality has messed up. No forward thinking, no marketing thoughts, no long term planning. The business mentality is based on continual building without concern of what the client wants. They build upon what they personally like: (Marketing tip - Market the actual market, not your internal fantasy of creating a new Reality Television show called ‘What Happens along the Bulgarian Coast Line.”)
So, what has the Bulgarian mass media been advertising and what are people complaining about: The people that service them are not well trained in the service industry; the difficulty in finding an open spot on the beach under the ‘pay-for-shade’ regime; the amount of unprocessed pollution being dumped into the Black Sea in or around the small villages and towns (I would be worried more about the petrochemical and agricultural fertilizer runoff than the biodegradable mass).
All of this subliminal advertising has added up to going to the next best thing - Greece and Turkey. Bulgarians do not go there because it is cheaper, in many cases it is not, they go there because they believe that the service provided provides the best cost-service ratio. Marketing Tip: Equal or Tight Cost-Service Ratio is more important than Large Spread Low Cost - Low Service Ration.
I have a friend who is in the know as to how the Bulgarian government spends millions of levs in subsidies for hotels to hire Bulgarian high school and college students. These funds are allocated each year to hotels of all sizes in order to help train seasonal hires. These funds can also be used to help offset their wages. This programme was put in place because of the yearly problem of too many open places in the service industry and too few people to fill them. In reality, my friend told me, is that these students are never, or hardly, trained in service field, they are not made aware of the branding of the hotel they are working in, and even worse, they are rotated out between the hotels every two or three weeks. No incentive for the student, lack of interest by the management with the end result being: Lack of service savvy personnel. Marketing Tip: Too many open spots in the Service Industry may mean an over saturation of the Market.
Again, the savvy foreign tourist, with their auto-language translators see the following message coming from Bulgaria: ‘If Bulgarians don’t go to their own Black Sea for the aforementioned reasons, why should we?’ How true.
What I think is most awkward, is that the very same people, who claim that they are experts are asking to be subsidised by the government because of their own marketing failures. The failure to prepare for possible changes in the market.
Why did Bayko Baykov point out that “Bulgaria has not managed to establish its presence as a destination in the web pages of European tour operators, while its presence on social media was only symbolic.” I found that this is not the case. When I looked at the website of his agency, Baykov seems to be the one promoting destinations outside of Bulgaria on the one hand (Watch the Birdie) and wants to be compensated by the government for his promoting of the very same destinations outside of Bulgaria that he is against (That does not make sense... But then again it does).
A few quotes on the travel destinations that he promotes, and I quote (Correct me if my Bulgarian translation is a bit off): “A 4 Star resort ideal for families and those who want to enjoy an unforgettable vacation ... Wonderful beaches... Umbrellas and sunbeds free of charge” or maybe “sandy beaches ... Parasols and sunbeds on the beach and around the pool are FREE,” or maybe you want something ‘out of the way:’ “sandy beaches and Mediterranean turtles.” To be fair, I did see a link to vacations in Bulgaria on the Bohemia.bg website and I did click through. There are several excellent packages and tours of Bulgarian places to be visit.- Maybe, they should be a very prominent spot on the home page.
Thus as was written in novinite.com: “Baykov pointed that all main competitors of Bulgaria, including Greece, were investing significant efforts and funds and were constantly improving their performance.”
These investments which he is talking about are done as an informal joint public-private venture.
The government provides the sell of the country and the businesses in question provide the sell of their offerings.
The government is not in the business to promote individual business interests, rather it is in the business to promote Bulgaria as a whole.
Kudos to the Bulgarian government and Minister Nikolina Angelkova and her proactive work in promoting Bulgaria to not only Europe but to all four corners of the Globe!
The answer to Baykov’s woes is not construction of mega hotels on pristine coastline, more lift construction and more ‘watch the birdie’ tactics. The focus must be on improving what is currently in place, increase of service and care of the tourists that live not only outside the borders, but those ever so more important Bulgarians who want to stay and vacation in Bulgaria. Marketing Tip: There is a ratio that one has to work with in the tourist industry: 70% local 30% foreign. The 70% local will not only promote their stay(ies) in Bulgaria to their friends in Bulgaria, but they will eventually be mentioned in the mass media, which in turn will be disseminated internationally. The 30% foreign tourist ratio also provides an important role as that of the local: If they are happy, they will not only return but they will bring others with them as well.
Here is a recent example from the last Marketing Tip: I wish to end this critique with the recently published Wall Street Journal article from the 13th of August. “Bulgaria: A Travel Bargain for Luxury Lovers: For good wines, intoxicating scenery and spoil-yourself spa hotels at unbeatable values, this Eastern European country is a no-brainer.” There is no mention of them staying in mega hotels, rather, they visited Bulgaria’s strongest asset: Its nature! Such a simple concept. Word of mouth goes a long way. You can read the article yourself: no negatives, no government advertising needed - simple word of mouth - the best marketing campaign that money can not buy!
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Interesting point of view indeed.
In recent years the funds spent by the Government for advertising Bulgaria abroad increased if I am not mistaken 4 times! Obviously the new Ministry of a Tourism is acting more proactively than ever before. Is it enough? No. Can be done more? For sure. But Bulgaria is more visible for the entire world now.
I think the answer of the question of Mr. Baykov why the number of tourist from EU countries dropped down in 2015 is not related with the lack of advertising. There are some other reasons and only a deeper professional and honest analysis can give the answers.
Maybe the text of Mr. Chudnoff can be regarded as a start point for such analysis?
Hi Jack - I agree with your point as well. There is movement by the municipalities concerning infrastructure. As you point out: 'the local taxes seem to be getting spent on tourism instead of being used to improve the infrastructure ... the landslides and flooding of last year and no signs of any repairs being done as the second winter approaches speaks for itself.'
Unfortunately, there is a local tax distribution system in place. For example, Tsarevo Municipality which also incorporates villages such Rezovo, Sinemorets, Ahtopol and Vararva to the South.
All hotels (big and small), restaurants pay a yearly tax based on the number of beds, restaurant seating and etc. The funds go directly into the municipality fund and then distributed back to the villages. Not the 100% goes back to these villages, rather, most of the funds are, in theory, used for infrastructure development. In most cases, funds may be used to prop up the municipality first, then trickle down from there.
I have found that service has been better in the smaller villages in the family run hotels and B&B's. May not be perfect, but these small establishments operate seasonally and there are those more service oriented than others. Of course there are establishments that you do not want to go back to, but that is found everywhere. I think that there is more control with the smaller establishments than with the larger one, when their livelihood is on the line.
However in some tourist areas, the local taxes seem to be getting spent on tourism instead of being used to improve the infrastructure for the people paying the taxes - the landslides and flooding of last year and no signs of any repairs being done as the second winter approaches speaks for itself