A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, said the Оld Chinese Мaster Lao-Tzu. The first step for Vlatko Sulev is the desire to plunge into the world of tourism since second year of gymnasium. Even at that age, he realized that the world is full of beauties and adventures, which should be searched with wide open eyes. And he started, step by step, always striving to take another step more. Today he is the general manager of Balkan Prime Tours and president of the National Association for Incoming Tourism of Macedonia (NAITM)...
Who is Vlatko Sulev, how would you introduce yourself?, we start the conversation with him.
I always wanted to explain myself with three words, but somehow that's difficult for me, he says, adding: I think that I would succeed with five. Although nowadays it's not trendy, but frankly, the first two words I want everyone to say about me are that I'm a good person. Third word is integrity. Than worker and honest. I think those words, plus dedicated (already become six)... let’s go up to seven. Let it be love, because everything I do, I do it with lot of love or I don't do it at all.
The desire to study tourism has crystallized since he was second year at secondary school, natural sciences and mathematics gymnasium. He has always been fascinated by history and geography, but learning new languages was attractive for him, as well. Certainly, in combination with youthful understanding of tourism, which at that time of life is synonym for adventures and trips. He already had the right direction.
History, geography, trips and languages... I think that this juncture directs me to study tourism. In that time my parents had no resources. However, my determination was stronger and I was one of the few Macedonians who made an analysis where to study. The oldest university for tourism in the Balkans is in Zagreb, but then, in 2001, Yugoslavia no longer existed. After that university, the second is the University of Economics in Varna, Bulgaria, with the second oldest department for tourism in the Balkans. That was my choice, I decided to enroll.
Today Vlatko has passed all the exams of postgraduate studies in tourism in Sofia, he just has a master's thesis remained. His second passion after tourism is management, especially human resources management, so he passed all the exams of the postgraduate studies at the Faculty of Economics in Skopje, with the already given thesis: "Strategic Management in Tourism".
According to Vlatko, besides the formal education, a huge role in the construction of his personality plays informal education as well, respectively all the books he has read.
Annually I read at least 40 books, read or listen to audio books. I read only literature related to business, marketing, management or tourism. Recently my favorite author is Robin Sharma; I have read many of his books. Now I read "Strategic Management in Tourism" and I'm finishing "Onward: How Starbucks Fought for Its Life without Losing Its Soul" by Howard Schultz, one of the most important books for leadership and the alteration of our time. It's a book for every generation of leaders.
His day begins at 5 am, the most beautiful hours of the day that he adores. The day begins with learning a new language:
I'm currently learning Italian with a help of an online applications. Before promotions, depending on where I'm going, I always learn the language so that I can at least greet the people in their mother tongue and understand something basically. It's strange how much influence you have if you listen to the language for one month.
After that meditation, and exercise (with headphones) or reading a book. Finally, he begins preparation for the current day and everyday obligations.
Vlatko's day-to-day work responsibilities include the performance of two important functions – general manager of Balkan Prime Tours and chairman of NAITM. However, he admits that he is not imagining himself neither as a general manager, nor as a president.
Frankly, I do not feel like a general manager of Balkan Prime Tours. Of course, there should be someone in that position who will represent the firm, but that means responsibility. Somehow, the word director (on Macedonian language) does not sound good to me. Leader sounds much better, person who leads ahead and shows how to move forward. And the biggest satisfaction for me is when I see that others follow that way. I could say that I am successful, only if someone else follows the example I set. And I want people to follow it, because I think that’s right. We suffer from being too much selfish. I am disappointed by the people who were supposed to be leaders (they were lucky, they worked hard...) and instead transferred it to others and drag them ahead, they want to cut them off from the start and not give them the opportunity to progress. I think that nothing disappoints me more than that, point out Vlatko.
Regarding the other function – President of NAITM, he says he always emphasizes that he is a member of the Board of Directors, but very rarely states that he is president.
The strength of NAITM is in the compactness of the Board, which is its driving force. For now, I have that honor to get the confidence from my colleagues and be president, but my mandate will pass and somebody else will be. That's why I was insisting for professionalization of NAITM. I was insisting for appointing operational manager of NAITM, who will work operatively, because all members of the Board have business that we need to lead, but we can give him a strong wind in the back to lead NAITM forward.
A mosaic of experiences decanted into stories
Before becoming part of, as Vlatko says, the Balkan Prime Tours family, in 2007, he entered the regional project Go Balkans, which included successful activities and experiences of more than 30.000 tourists. The firm Go Balkans began as Macedonia Viaggio (from the Italian word viaggio, meaning travel) and was originally designed to serve Italian tourists.
We asked him at what moment he realized that it was time for transformation and what was crucial to make the move further.
In the season 2012/2013, we have already made a transformation and we decided that it is time to go step plus, to the internationalization of Go Balkan. It was an invaluable experience for me, I am very grateful to my mentors Fabio Cotifava and Emilia Kalaydjieva, from whom I have learned a lot. It was a fantastic experience, a really great school for me. But, you know, there is a moment in your life when you feel that you are ready and that it is time to make your own step, to build something own, to play according to your own rules. It was time for change. I decided to go on my own way. From today's perspective, I think it happened at the right moment. I still think we are on the right track. We are building our philosophy, our way of working, which is different... Go Balkans will remain a nice memory. I am proud of what we did; we had really many successes... Go Balkans will always cause positive emotions in me.
Balkan Prime Tours has three locations at the moment. The headquarters is in the center of the Balkans – Macedonia, with new offices in the strict center of the capital Skopje, above the Swedish Embassy.
Macedonia is strategically placed in the heart of the Balkans and is great for managing several destinations. Serbia, Bulgaria, Northern Greece, Albania, Kosovo ... – we are away from all 200 to 250 kilometers, and thanks to the better roads, we are maximum 2,5 to 3 hours to all destinations, says Vlatko.
The other two strategic points for the Balkans are Tirana and Sofia, so Balkan Prime Tours has chosen to have operational offices in these strategic positions.
We are getting to the moment with the Balkan Prime Tours philosophy, which is currently based on five key points. The first are the meetings and the associating with the locals, the second is the authentic experience. Following are the additional values that are Beyond ordinary experience and the promotion of Macedonia as a life-changing destination (National Geographic, April 2016). And the last, fifth point is the elevation of Macedonian tourism to a higher level, which implies the application of the principles of responsible and sustainable tourism.
Our philosophy tells our whole story – values, destinations, the team, which we can (not) do, says Vlatko.
The whole Balkan Prime Tours philosophy is implied in the tagline, composed of three simple words:
Beyond ordinary experience. Thanks to our marketing director and team around him, through these three words, the brand finally sends the true message and the way the company works. For the first time, that is simply presented from inside, what we literally represent. From the whole philosophy, to the firm's target... The name says everything!
Beyond ordinary experience is a reflection of the "obsession" of the Balkan Prime family to go a step further. We are all preoccupied by allowing our partners and their clients to experience an experience plus what they expect. We are always exceeding the expectations, says Vlatko, adding: Actually, it's a little more oxymoronically that we take that step forward by returning a step back. We do not go to point out classical or commercial things that can be experienced, but we go a bit back – to highlight what is local and most basic. What would have been experienced by someone who has friends in Macedonia and come to visit with them after a while. Only then they would experience beyond ordinary experience. It's the originality, which makes us really good hosts.
In general, according to Vlatko, the Balkaner is a good host. He believes that customers do not have to go outside Europe to experience an experience that will change their lives. It's enough to come to the Balkans. And, in Macedonia and Albania, the change will surely happen to them.
Making the program, for us, is always an act of writing a story. We always pay attention to having five points, which when the guests return home, they will never forget. When we are choosing hotels, which by the way are fantastic and have the standard 4-5 stars, we always look to be managed by a local family, to have that local... We care to bring tourists to the best restaurants with local people... To have transport that meets all European standards.
He is decisive that there is no exception from the basic standards, but he is aware and knows that those things will not return the tourist back and will not make him to store them in his memories. According to him, for modern tourists these are minimal expectations, the details should be maximally elaborated.
Most of our guides lived in the countries where tourists come from and they know their culture. For the tourists, they are the best; they will directly present the culture of a destination. However, even then you will not be able to return tourists back. There must be five points that they will never forget, and this can only be achieved with personalized contact, by meeting ordinary local people. Organizing lunch in a local family, introducing local heroes, people that society did not recognize and never managed to reward them for all the work they devoted. We want to reward their dedication and work, to remain enrolled in history, to be mentioned and live.
Simply, Balkan Prime Tours returns the enthusiasm to the undiscovered local heroes. In doing so, the main heroes do not do it for money, they need only a little professional help and organization to be seen by someone that what they have and want to show.
This is the benefit that makes us different and better than the others. And above all, it makes us pioneers in this activity, because we are all the time focused on finding new channels, people and activities that will continue our philosophy, Vlatko points out, and reveals one of the secrets how they achieve it. One small detail: The driver from Resen, when transferring tourists from one destination to another, stops at street apple sellers and fills two bags with fresh apples. He gives everybody one juicy Resen’s apple, whose aroma spreads through the bus... It's a story for them, and it's not in any program.
People that are chosen by Balkan Prime Tours share the same passion, sensuality and they are proud of what they have. And, most important – nothing is commercially, but real. A story, but true, Vlatko proudly points out.
From all that he has said so far, it is clear that responsible tourism is at the top of the agenda of the Balkan Prime Tours.
Our goal is to make a contribution as much as possible. To involve as many local people as possible. To change the life not only of customers, but also of local people. In one way, to succeed in creating entrepreneurs from people who have not even dreamed of it. To help them realize their dreams and change their destiny.
For Vlatko, this is the right path, another does not exist. But, although he is very proud of the diversity of the Balkan Prime Tours, he would still be even gladder to share experiences with any colleague who will show interest.
We do not hide and store our experiences only for us. Absolutely, they are here and are available. We have built and worked on them, and when we share them, that is a special satisfaction. We transmit customer communication to suppliers, he says, adding that since the product is complex, consistency must be imperative. If you want to attract people and "infect" with your philosophy, you have to behave as you do to clients. And demonstrate it in every possible way. Philosophy is widespread and accepted by all members of our team and I think it is successfully implemented.
That world is constantly expanding. Vlatko modestly admits that he may be the holder who set the road, but points out that if he was alone, he would never get anywhere.
It's like a mosaic, but it's strange how the cubes are matching. Someone constantly enters and complements the mosaic, and the story spreads and grows... Just like in a fairy tale...
The big Balkan Prime Tours family
Although travel and research are part of a donkihote aspiration towards dreaming and adventurism, however, as Vlatko points out before, a person can not do anything on his own. The team, actually the family that enables Beyond ordinary experience, absolutely has the biggest credit in the story.
I always emphasize, and I mean it sincerely – everyone invests heavily in Balkan Prime Tours. Everyone believes in our ideals and in the path that is traced. They follow it, and the results inevitably come, he says.
Much of the success is due to the fact that there are many polyglots in the company, which in all markets that they represent, are communicate in respective mother tongue:
If we target France, the whole communication is in French – from the first email to the last telephone conversation when the group is confirmed. The same applies to Italy, Germany, Spain...
Generally, the structure can be divided into management, operations, promotion and marketing. The organization of the game is the "burden" of management, but responsibility often falls from one to another.
We are not strictly determined on what we are doing. As a mid-size company, we still have the ability to be more homogeneous, to know what is happening in any sector. This is mostly due to the good communication, primary among people, and then between the sectors, Vlatko explains, emphasizing that there is no vertical hierarchy in the Balkan Prime Tours, but rather linear: There is no strictly hierarchy, the leaders appear on the surface by themselves. Everyone is a leader and strives to stimulate that leadership – first to take the maximum out of himself and then from others. Our aspiration is every employee to be a self-management manager, with help, a kind of managed self-management manager. I think that way is the right one and I see the motivation. Whenever there are different views, it is discussed openly. Everyone can tell everyone everything, while he says it is humanity and with respect. I think that model works flawlessly. We are careful to suppress the ego and maximize the general interest over the personal. In any case, we all have a positive influence one on another, because the team is the soul.
And the way small successes are celebrated is special. There is no member of the Balkan Prime Tours family who keeps the success for himself, but immediately shares it with others. For Vlatko, the biggest success is when you are followed by young people – only he and the marketing director are veterans in the work, everyone is younger than 30 years.
I always say: think that we are building something, it is ours, and it is at least mine. Sometimes some colleagues have a greater benefit than I am, because I invest. I want to implement everything that I've learned. My colleagues are rewarded with lifelong bonuses, for performance... Soon I plan to implement awards in a more modern way – parts of the company for those who are most deserving. We are not a family in which I only collect the curd. If we eat caviar – we all eat caviar, if we eat burek – we all eat burek.
Vlatko is strongly convinced that Balkan Prime Tours sets global standards and builds on solid foundations:
My vision is big and will be beneficial for many people. Direct or indirect in the firm. It builds on a sound basis and there is no compromise in it.
The frontmen (guides) on the stage of the Balkan Prime Tours at each destination are people sharing the same philosophy, educated, ready and open minded, most of whom lived in the country where the tourists come from.
Tourists who want to get know another country have more confidence if people who meet them have something close to their culture. So, if they say to them: I've been drinking coffee every day in that coffee bar in Milan... And the guest returned with: I'm living on two blocks from there... It breaks the ice, it's easier to build trust and it’s easier to transmit the story.
Despite the importance of each element in a complex team product called a tourist tour, the guides are key to its success, as they transfer the philosophy, warmth and immediacy of the Balkan Prime Tours. Due to the complex reality of the Balkans, the principle "from border to border" is practiced in the home country, and in other countries, the guide is the leader of the tour. In doing so, sometimes, the guide is the one who has to make a decision and then he has untied hands.
We know that they will make the right decision and therefore we carefully choose them. They have a great responsibility to cope with small, unforeseen situations, because when they are already guiding the tour, they are our eyes. It's very different to sit in the office and make the program, and another is what they can tell you from the spot...
(Un)discovered sacristies of experience
According to Vlatko, Macedonia and the Balkans as destinations are huge challenges for management. At the moment, these destinations are desirable and trend in the tourism world, but it is a pity that the Balkan countries are not better organized to better use the moment and make a bigger boom.
What happens to us is thanks to the global trend, which does not actually surprise us. We work all the time, we promote destinations, but we do not have any targeted policies and results. For our luck, we are part of the trend, the cubes have matched. In Balkan Prime Tours we are experts and we can give the maximum for the whole countries of former Yugoslavia, in addition to Northern Greece, Bulgaria, Albania and Romania. Here we close that circle of destinations that we are working on.
Balkan Prime Tours operates various types of tours with great passion and dedication, but is the most proud of cultural tourism, for what the firm is absolutely expert.
Most of our work is related to cultural tours. Within cultural tours we also work with groups of tourists who come from religious motives or are admirers of cultural religious heritage. That's the so-called pilgrim tourism, from the French word pèlerinage, meaning pilgrimage, a kind of religious tourism. This type of tourism is especially related to the Catholic world and Mother Teresa. There is also gourmet tourism, which also belongs to cultural tourism, explains Vlatko.
They also have a department that operates with adventure tourism, or as Vlatko would prefer to call it – active tourism.
Our strong side is the connection of the active with the cultural tourism. Adventure combined with the introduction of culture. It is a current trend in the world of tourism – people want to move, to be in the nature, but at the same time, to visit cultural and historical monuments. Active tourism includes hiking tours, cycling; ski tours... and is largely related to the trend of incentive tourism (team-building).
According to the tour, Balkan Prime Tours also has a different type of tourists. Since the focus is on cultural tourism, most of the tourists are from that category – people who are mostly high-educated, have visited many destinations, with an open mind, but with high expectations.
I am very happy when such a profile of people, who were on 70-80 destinations around the world, will experience something different. We manage to impress and surprise them. It's strange that most of them do not come up with any special expectations, but they leave with extra impressions.
The majority of tourists come from European countries: France, Italy, Spain, Germany, Austria, Scandinavian countries, Belgium, Switzerland. And new markets are opening up daily.
Depending on the type of tourists, accommodation is different. Advantageous are quality hotels, managed by local people, which, naturally, tell a story, says Vlatko, and concludes:
In few words, we work with people who have a vision, who manage hotels with family spirit, but at the same time, in none moment are not deviating from modern European norms.
Smaller, adventurous tours are accommodated in smaller hotels or specialized houses who has not more than 6 or 7 rooms. Some of the pilgrims are accommodated in the monastery quarters that are suitable and ready for welcoming.
Once up to twice a year, the Balkan Prime Tours team makes one tour of all accommodation complexes.
The goal is double. The first is to visit people, to announce what we plan for the next year and normally the second one, to see if everything is taking place properly. The visits are in order to check the quality, but also to build closer relations. I believe that somebody first needs to be a friend, then give him the confidence and work with him. If you do not trust someone, how will you give them a group of people to feed and accommodate them?!
And of course, there is the inevitable authentic gastronomic story of Macedonian cuisine, which will be recounted during a fine meal in some European country. The essence of the conversation could be reduced to the enjoyment of the taste of Macedonian food, reminding of the dishes that were tasted on the previous journey and those who will be tasted next.
We want to present this fragment maximum authentically and originally. We organize lunch for our groups in a modern Macedonian family. Here we have a fantastic collaborator, the local heroine – Sandra. She has incredible energy, and the way she cooks, is a story in itself. She manages to present our traditional Macedonian dishes in a modern manner and to collect all superlatives. One real experience. People feel that hospitality, combined with our food – fresh products, freshly prepared and nicely served…, narates Vlatko.
Particular attention is paid in selecting menus, to the detail, but still it should be acceptable for the client. Something can not be enforced if the customers do not accept it.
Superb Macedonian food goes with superior Macedonian wines, of which, as Vlatko often emphasizes, some have already been recognized and established by world wine experts, and some are still to be discovered.
In aspiration to tell the story of Macedonian wine more authentically, Balkan Prime Tours does not organize classic wine tastings, but in cooperation with wineries organizes wine education.
To organize wine education in Macedonia for the French and the Italians is a real enormous challenge. However, we really believe in the qualities of Macedonian wine, we know what kind of wine we have and that we will offer something different. We know that our wine is different from their, we place emphasis on autochthonous varieties, present them in combination with Macedonian food, and the results are incredible. We get greetings.
However, the story would not exist without the partners-professionals from "Popova kula", "Stobi" and "Tikvesh": With these three wineries we have fantastic partnership relations, whose teams are ready to respond to the challenge.
To round off the Macedonian gastronomic moment, Vlatko recommend to tourists:
Here you will eat fresh, beautiful and original food. In Macedonia you can not expect Scandinavian fine dining. This is where the philosophy "time and place" rules. Admixtures of fine dining are only found in the wineries. Macedonian wineries have this moment of serving and presenting food. However, you are in Macedonia, and especially the Macedonian requires fresh food and meat, prepared in a nice traditional way, as he himself wants to consume. And it is normal that in most of the restaurants you will be served that way. You can experience it only in the Balkans. We are maximally trying to adapt to your taste, but we need to present our cuzine. I think we are perfectly accomplishing this. The balance between these two things is very successful.
Authentic print on business relations
Balkan Prime Tours is an incoming tour operator, which is constantly growing and expanding. In other words, it has developed an effective methodology for getting in touch with new B2B partners. Before switching to the personal or e-mail contact, Vlatko mentioned that for new partners who are interested for cooperation, they make information tours twice a year:
We invite some of them to come here for 3-4 days and we make tours, we present the activities that we would offer to their customers. To see what is about, to get familiarize with the destination, to see the way we work.
However, before contacting potential partners, when they are making a selection who to be contacted, the philosophy of Balkan Prime Tours comes on the scene again.
We do not contact every company, but only companies that have a similar product with ours. We are analysing. Very rare happens to contact a partner who has no interest. Further, I would not go into details.
Apart from the fact that some of the company's employees are in charge of searching for new customers, Balkan Prime Tours has several external long-standing associates, who help to acquire new customers.
Hiring an in-house marketing director is a big step forward, by which we absolutely offer added value to our customers. As a truly oriented B2B firm, we do our best to protect the brand of each partner. Branding, starting from the tables, to t-shirts and flags... with the logos of our partners, shows how important they are to us, Vlatko points out. Our logo is nowhere. Because we do not want to tell our clients: Next time, call us. No, we want them to be as much as satisfied and to contact our partner. We want to impress them and when they return to the agency to say: This was a really fantastic experience, give me another destination. And believe me, they understand the value that we give them.
Balkan Prime Tours is part of NAITM, respectively, the Association of tour operators for incoming tourism, a tourism branch, which is slowly moving towards its adulthood. What is the position of the Macedonian tour operators on the international tourist markets?
Thanks to the dedication of the teams working in Macedonian tour operators, I can say that they are one of the bright spots that are happening to us. Most of them have an increase, and almost all nonstop are talking about employments. According to my information, we currently have 500-600 people working in the tour operators. It's like in a mine. The growth is obvious, but it can be much larger if tourism as a sector is better set in the state, says Vlatko.
According to him, NAITM is the nicest thing that happened to the incoming tourism, which finally got a representative who manages to hold 130 members:
Absolutely, the general interest comes on the first place, and therefore the results are positive. That's why we manage to sit on the same table despite being competitive and talking, sharing, learning from one another. That's the way forward. We openly have the initiative to unite the entire tourism sector. The changes that are happening in other chambers go in that direction that we will soon be partners with more of them. We want to cooperate and build together, to improve the conditions for working in tourism. NAITM worthy protects the interests of its members...
In the endeavors to bring the members closer together, the Association will soon begin with the organization of afterwork parties – "NAITM get together", whose goal is to meet more often, to get to know each other, share and present the stories in a beautiful and more relaxed way.
I desperately want to change the image of tourism as a branch in Macedonia. We are working exclusively in that direction. This is the purest business that can contribute to the development of entrepreneurship; young people can stay here and develop their own business, to be part of that tourist product. And not only that, we want to promote Macedonia in the best possible light.
NAITM is the organizer of the Tourism Exchange, which will be held for the fourth time this year:
Tourism Exchanges have contributed for participants in the sector to better know each other, affirm Macedonian tourism, make the majority of our suppliers more visible, present themselves to tour operators on one side, and, on the other hand, gave the opportunity to tour operators to get know new suppliers. Although the tourist market in Macedonia is small, every year we have new acquaintances, new business deals that are happening on the Tourism Exchange and that trend will continue. The Tourism Exchange is like a crown of the season. It's organized in December to bid farewell to previous season and to get prepare for the new one. To share with our partners what was good, what was not so good and we can do better. It is a fellowship that is really necessary. It is warmly accepted by all members. To gather two hundred people from the tourism sector in one place is really success. We go a step further with education, lecturers with practical background from our sphere, who share their experiences, give us directions where to continue. We cover essential topics.
Every year the borders of the Tourism Exchange move, raising the level. Eight months before the organization, it is already known that the big event will take place on December 12 and 13.
Before the end of the conversation, we asked Vlatko how in today's global world we can remain worthy of originality and authenticity and how to preserve them. His answer was that there is no other way.
If we are not genuine, we will not survive. I do not see how we can be competitive. Simply, I do not know otherwise. Something that irritates me most is acting, and tourists now recognize it. Today they are so subtle that if you try to play and do theater, they recognize it and despise it. You must present yourself in a worthy and original way. That's what you are. They do not expect to change anything, nor do they want it from you. Simply, they want to to see you in the right light. And you should to do it with real passion, no otherwise. To a certain extent, today in our country the responsibility is on tourism to search for opportunities for promotional and tourist purposes in segments, in which people absolutely do not even think. In this way, we will maintain the originality and authenticity, and at the same time we will go forward and be competitive.
The most important thing for Vlatko is never to make compromise with your own values. Never for any price. Going ahead with continuous learning, maturation and growth, but never compromise with the values.
In the end, probably Henry Miller was right when he said that a destination is never a place, but a new way of seeing things. We believe that this story will open a new perspective. Or, as Vivek Thangaswamy said:
When I travel, people say: Yet another place in this world. But I see another world inside every place I go.
We would just add that this world is worth and should be narrating.