M. Kolb, Radisson SAS: Bulgaria Has Everything to Offer

Novinite Insider » INTERVIEW | January 10, 2006, Tuesday // 00:00
M. Kolb, Radisson SAS: Bulgaria Has Everything to Offer Martin KolbGeneral Manager of Radisson SAS Hotel and Chairman of the Bulgarian Convention and Visitors Bureau (BCVB). Photo by Yuliana Nikolova (Sofia News Agency)

Martin Kolb, half Swiss and half Austrian, has been General Manager of Radisson SAS Hotel for the past one and a half years. He is also the current Chairman of the Bulgarian Convention and Visitors Bureau (BCVB). Before coming to Bulgaria, he has worked in different hotels all over the world, including cities like Germany, Dubai, Austria, Hong Kong and Lebannon.

During Bulgaria's key annual tourism event, Bulgaria Dream Area, Mr. Kolb, who is one of the co-organizers talked to SNA Editor Petya Sabinova about Sofia's place in the world of convention tourism.

Q: Let's start with the whole idea of Sofia as a convention tourism center. It's new to most people here, and the city's currently not a hot destination for such events. So is there hope and what are the possibilities before Sofia?

A: Sofia is a city that definitely has a potential for congress tourism because it's first of all the capital city. Secondly it's an ancient city that has a point of interest for tourism and city visitors. It will be part of the European Union, it will eventually become more accessible by air. It has NDK as a big convention center, even though it is currently in a bit dilapidated state, but this could be easily fixed.

Sofia has nice weather in the summer and in the winter. You can combine business tourism with skiing, not many cities have ski slopes more or less in their middle, like mount Vitosha. Sofia has an advantage before some other destinations now, price wise. However this is not necessarily true for the airfare, and this is a big issue. Bulgaria Air could do something about it. There should be some discounts for weekend business travelers. The hotels, for example, we give less than half price for weekend corporate business groups during the weekend. If the airlines would do something like that it could help. But all the rest services are at a price advantage over other destinations.

Q: So what does Sofia need?

A: Sofia needs some quick fixes - the cleanliness, the taxis and that's about it. They have now fixed the price issue and don't charge double prices to foreigners and we have beautiful restaurants, we have nice nightlife for whatever you want, which goes from A to Z, we have more and more shopping. The attempt to make Vitosha Boulevard a bit more attractive is good, to get the little streets rid of all the parked cars, to fix the sidewalks. But there is a lot of shopping, especially in the summer time, it's a very green city and this is something that surprised me very much. All the streets are lined with trees.

The people in general are very friendly and very hospitable but you have to make sure that especially in the tourism sector everyone speaks English, which is still a big issue. It is absolutely necessary. Not because of America or because of England, but because it has been acknowledged as a common language in the world, that's it.

The signs in the city have to be both in Latin language and Bulgarian. I agree that the Cyrillic has its place and Bulgaria will continue to write in it, but we have to be open-minded that for a person that is used with Latin letters, it is absolutely difficult to read Cyrillic. I have been here for one and a half years now and I try to manage, but think of the congress tourist who has come here for three days. He will not learn a new alphabet just to understand the street names.

We got a new airport which is good. We have some new five star, four plus star hotels. There is big potential to renovate the old style hotels, the big ones like Park Hotel Moskva, the Hemus Hotel, the Princess Hotel, you name them. So when all this is done, we will be able to produce about 3,000 rooms in the three plus to five minus star hotels range.

Q: Why convention tourism?

A: We want congress tourism because it is anti-cyclical, it happens on the weekends when we have space for them. They come during the wintertime when the coast has space. They come during the summer time when the mountains and the city have spaces. So it is really something that helps us to balance these peaks and lows of occupancy.

Q: Why would people choose Sofia?

A: All these people have been to London, Paris, Vienna, Barcelona, and now they want something new. They are fed up with going to the same restaurants, and they are ready for the exotic. There are some other exotic destinations that are our competitors.

Q: Who are the competitors?

A: Our competitors are not Vienna or Paris or Madrid. Our competitors are Ljubljana, Zagreb, Belgrade, Bucharest, Warsaw. And we have to be there on the spot and tell people that there is also Sofia, and it is in Bulgaria. If you go to ITB Berlin [global tourism forum] or any of these shows you will see Poland with big big stands, waving their flags and showing what they have. And Bulgaria has still not come out yet.

Q: Could Bulgaria's biggest problem be that it's not advertised properly?

A: The country needs to go to these exhibitions and fairs and there are about 20 you have to visit a year. And one person could not organize it, you need a whole structure to take care of this.

The country really needs to do two things - have the product and advertise it. The good thing is that the product is already here and it just needs to be fixed. Normally you may have a problem creating a market, but the market is here, the demand is here. Now you have to adjust the product to meet the demand and just tell the people that there is a product to buy. Its much more difficult to create a product if you have nothing to offer. But this country has everything to offer.

Q: Does Sofia need more congress centers of the NDK type?

A: I think we have enough. What we might need are more hotels with big function rooms. Sofia does not need to build new things, it needs to fix the things it has. It is cheaper, it is faster and this is the great advantage - we can be ready in a year or two if we start now.

Q: What about the government's involvement and the fact that there is no Ministry of Tourism and the Tourism Agency has no head assigned?

A: As a non-Bulgarian I could not give advice to a foreign government, but as a professional in this business I think that tourism, as an industry that represents about 12% of the GDP, needs to have representation or a governing body. We need a body that is up to the size of this industry. Unfortunately this shows the government's attitude towards the industry. They still haven't learned from other countries what it means to Bulgaria to have successful tourism. Bulgaria needs to have a ministry of tourism that needs to have the money to support the sector. An investment should come from the government itself to encourage private investors to put their money in as well.

Q: Do you think that Bulgaria needs more foreigners in key places until it gets its facilities organized better?

A: Yes, absolutely. Not because Bulgarians are not intelligent enough, this is another misconception. But because they do not have the experience and the knowledge that you acquire when you have traveled the world. And for the time being the Bulgarians tend more to go abroad then to come back. So as long as there is a brain drain, you need foreigners to replace them. We have to encourage foreigners to come and make sure that the Bulgarians understand that they are not taking away their own jobs, not at all.

Q: Any other problems that need fixing?

A: We need to establish a better training system in the hotel and tourism industry. What we have here is absolutely horrendous. All these hotel management schools here are not the right thing. They teach people good things but not the whole concept. It's very hard to find qualified staff in any area. They have to be trained in hotels. We have established an internship training just to overcome this problem.

Q: Do the work abroad programs that Bulgarian university students go to so often help with this issue?

A: Absolutely. I know some people that come back and tell me: "Listen, now I know what you mean by sufficient work. I have been doing three times as much as I was doing in Sofia. I didn't know I could do it but they made me, it was tough but now I know I have more to give."And so it opens their horizon and their view.

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