In October we covered the news of Russia’s $12 billion dollar travel and tourism revitalization project. Since then we have seen significant initiative taken by Russian Federation officials, as well as travel businesses within Russia. Argophilia Travel News had the opportunity of talking with one accommodations player there, Welcome to Russia, last week to gain insight into the Federation’s road ahead.
Just a couple of days after the To Russia With Love article, we were contacted by several hoteliers and travel businesses inside the Russian Federation. One executive at Welcome to Russia, Director of Business Development Olga Timofeeva, agreed to answer a few questions about where Russia stands now, and where logically these new initiatives should take the travel industry there. Below is the Q & A.
Argo – Welcome to Russia is one of the only (maybe THE only) accommodation provider that offers all the services visitors would likely need when visiting the Russian Federation. Visa help, translators or interpreters, and an economical alternative to expensive hotels – how do you see WTR changing to improve on these great services?
WTR – Our priority task in improving services is a maximum expansion in the number and variety of apartments our site offers so that clients with different tastes can satisfy their preferences. We also try to scale down the prices for apartments keeping the same quality. Competition in the travel market for tourist services is very high and reasonable price often influences the choices of tourists.
There are plenty of deluxe apartments on the market but there are very few low-end variants of the good quality. We do our best to fill our catalog with offers in various price ranges beginning with inexpensive flats of the small areas and ending with luxurious apartments. At present, our prices for apartments in St.-Petersburg (image of churches below) start at $58, and in Moscow – at $80. In comparison with competitors these prices are much more than just favorable.
Also, several months ago, we launched a service for air ticket reservations that’s already became popular among our clients. For the most part the prices for the tickets do not differ from those of the competitors, but our discount program enables the clients to save on the accommodation when ordering a flight together with an apartment.
Another step in improving our services is taking care of clients not only at the stage of planning a trip, but also upon their arrival at the destination. For this purpose we offer such services as a transfer from the airport and back, an interpreter and a recently introduced service – a rent of mobile phones which makes it easier to use telecommunication in countries we serve.
Argo – One of the biggest obstacles for tourists visiting Russia is the very high cost of hotels there. WTR made a great name offering a logical and economical solution to this problem. Are you seeing an increase or decrease in apartment rentals lately? Do you think apartments will always be cheaper than hotels?
WTR – The market for daily rent of apartments is influenced by a great increase in online systems for hotel reservations. These online companies’ advertising campaigns are really impressive. And hotels are not so pricey any more – more and more cheap hotels appear in the larger cities. However, renting an apartment has little in common with staying at a hotel. Our clients appreciate fireside comfort and also eagerly use the opportunities which are offered for them in comparison with hotels: they can bring friends, cook food in the apartment and get rid of concierge supervision. Meanwhile they keep most of the hotel services – all the apartments are clean, so is the linen, the towels and all the necessary personal-care products – we take good care of the client in these and other regards.
On the issue of the prices: despite the reducing cost trends the cost of staying at the hotel will never catch up with the price for renting an apartment as the hotel maintenance expenditures are definitively higher. Moreover the market for daily rent apartments is growing really fast, the appearance of new competitors obviously reducing prices even further.
Argo – The Russian government’s suggested plan for revamping the travel industry there includes improving the infrastructure, how will WTR help, or what is your best advice for doing this?
WTR – This plan includes: a development and improvement of the infrastructure quality “hospitality industry”, works on the construction and reconstruction of the objects of the hotel and tourist complex, a creation of new pedestrian and bus tourist routes. among other forward moving initiatives. We encourage all the undertakings of the government in the sphere of the hospitality industry and we understand that we’ll have to work hard with officials in this direction.
In its turn “Welcome to Russia” intends to improve the image of the country among western tourists. We try to make the stay in Russia the most comfortable, to break the perception that Russia is a gloomy country with a high level of crime, and etc. Our guest’s comments show that after visiting Russia most foreigners change their opinion about it for the better. This is what we seek.
Argo – WTR has apartment and travel offerings all over Russia and the surrounding countries. Interestingly, most people traveling there only visit Moscow or St. Petersburg. Do you think the government changes, and Russia’s leaders promoting travel will help visitors to see the other fantastic places Russia has to offer?
WTR – Russia has a huge potential in the tourism industry. I’d like to mention that Russia ranks No. 5 in the number of unique natural objects and No. 9 in the number of cultural sights in the rating of the World Tourist Organization (UNWTO).
At present the government does some active work in the sphere of popularization of domestic and inbound tourism. In the beginning of the year Prime Minister Putin, addressing a conference of the party “United Russia” concerning the development strategy of the Volga region, called it one of the most perspective tourism centers in Russia. He also reported that in the next 3 years more than $1 million dollar will be committed for the development of tourism in this region.
I’d like to mention too; that not only the government, but also tourist organizations are engaged in solving the problems in this sphere. We shouldn’t be afraid of offering new directions for tourists; we should be braver and try to attract the tourist with other remarkable places. For example, our site presents more than 20 cities each of which is unique in its own way, of course, the most interesting places for tourists are Moscow and St.-Petersburg, but other cities such as Kazan, Odessa (top), Sevastopol, Kharkov are also very popular.
In the nearest future we are planning to show potential visitors such regions as Altai, Baikal, Karelia, Kamchatka – wonderful places which are definitely worth visiting.
Argo – Which city or destination in Russia do you feel more visitors should see, but don’t?
WTR – There are many of such cities and destinations, but due to the underdeveloped infrastructure in these regions they remain closed for mass tourism. The first place that comes to my mind is Azov city in Rostov oblast – a city with a great history, a mild climate and a good location in the delta of the river Don, not far from the Sea of Azov (above).
It is also worth mentioning Krasnoyarsk city (below), located on the banks of the river Yenisei, to the north of the city the tops of Drokinsky and Arejsky mountains are rising. Amazingly beautiful places. We can list endlessly as the territory of Russia is huge, here you can see mountains and seas, steppes and woods. Everybody can find here something to love.
Argo – How important is WTR’s online presence? Will WTR be revamping and adding online services, social media aspects, video and other cutting edge technologies to help travelers?
WTR – The project “Welcome to Russia” is an online project, that’s why we try to use all the services and technologies which the Internet affords us. We have an excellent team of technical specialists who make the interaction between the tourists and our site as much as possible convenient, there is also an of online support service for our clients.
As for online presence we have a Twitter presence, Facebook space devoted to tourism in Russia and Ukraine so travelers can compare notes and get the necessary information. We also co-operate with many online publications and large international tourist portals. We try to be aware of what is going on in the market of the online services and we eagerly realize new technologies and developments in our project.
Argo – If you could tell everyone who has never been to Russia one thing about the country, what would that be?
WTR – Russia is a great power with a tremendous history which you can feel everywhere! More importantly Russia is famous for its kind and hospitable citizens that foreigners often call: “a wide Russian soul”. Come to Russia, and I am sure you will never forget it!
Reflecting the same sentiment we have come to expect, Welcome to Russia’s Olga Timofeeva expresses a lot more about Russia than a casual Q & A might suggest. In my view, Timofeeva’s answers show a genuine pride in country and positive attitude on top of practicality. This is actually, how Russia’s people are. As for the government’s initiatives to expand travel and tourism, it seems clear a lot of resources has been directed at this – I see no reason why success should not be imminent.
In conclusion, Welcome to Russia as a business is also quite “Russian” where practicality is concerned. When hotels showed their limitations, a business sprung up to fill the gap. As you can see by Timofeeva’s answers, adaptation is still written all over their business model. If there is one aspect Welcome to Russia might be missing, it would be true Web 2.0 brilliance. One look at the website reveals a digital footprint a bit out of time.
This was an interesting take on Prime Minister Putin’s initiative to re-introduce Russia to the world too. Let us know your thoughts.