In 1988, Natalia Vorobyova graduated with a degree in economic forecasting from the Applied Mathematics Faculty at Moscow’s Aerospace Institute. Four years later, as the Russian economy wallowed, Vorobyova applied her analytic skills to her family’s personal situation. She quickly realized that her and her husband Vladimir’s careers in science could not support their young family.
So, in 1992, Natalia and Vladimir decided to set up a travel agency—a risky venture in any country, and doubly so in Russia, where private tour companies were only just getting started, most founded by former employees of large soviet-era providers like Intourist.
Today, nine years later, Natalie Tours is Russia’s leading operator of tours to Spain and sends over 110,000 Russian tourists abroad each year, making it one of the top five tour operators by volume. What started out as a “mom and pop” firm now employs over a hundred staffers in three offices (Moscow, Yekaterinburg and St. Petersburg), and has received numerous industry achievement awards.
This success is particularly interesting for the couple’s complete lack of training or experience in the travel sphere before 1992. “Business begins with contacts,” Natalia said, “and we had some private connections at a [Black Sea] health resort in Adler. We knew the directors of these health resorts through our parents. Previously, it was impossible to buy accommodations at these resorts—they were all distributed via the trade union network. But in the summer of 1992, for the first time, these resorts were allowed to sell a percentage of their rooms on their own, on the nascent free market.”
Sensing the opportunity, Natalia and Vladimir took out a personal loan, secured only by their word, from their former institute. Sales were good. They repaid the loan in three months and the business began to build. By 1994, they had made contacts with firms in Spain’s Catalonia region and in Thailand, allowing them to offer attractive, year-round outbound travel destinations to generations of Russians who were able to travel abroad freely for the first time in over half a century. Tours to Cyprus and Andorra (ski tours) soon followed. Today, according to Vorobyova, Natalie Tours works with over 3000 Russian travel agents and organizes some 50% of all Russian travel to Spain and 25% of travel to Thailand, two of Russians’ hottest foreign destinations.
According to Vorobyova, the secret to Natalie Tours’ success is technology—the company prides itself on its near paperless operations. “No one carries around papers here. In principle, papers are forbidden in our company,” Vorobyova said. “Well, not forbidden, but if someone really feels like writing something on paper, they can do it on their free time.” Most bookings are made via the company’s website or via email.
“We truly have a small staff for our scale of operations,” Vorobyova continued. “This is possible only because we pay attention to computer technologies in travel. We are often accused of working like a production line. But I see nothing wrong with this—after all, no one accuses Mercedes of assembling its cars on a production line.
“Our [technical] background helps us,” Vorobyova said. “It means we know what is possible and we can keep pace with new developments … I believe the higher education our country provides is very good, especially in the technical field. A person who can find their bearing in a technical profession has no problem working in tourism.”
Perhaps Vorobyova’s greatest accomplishment to date was steering the company through the 1998 financial crisis, which sank so many travel firms. “Yes, we lost money,” she said, “but still we had a profit at the end of the day. No one was fired. And we fulfilled all our obligations to our customers and our foreign partners ... As mathematicians, we never looked for easy money and never experimented with pyramid schemes … we never trusted Russian banks.”
At 35, Vorobyova said that “today we have reached the stage where we are no longer interested in business only for the money ... now we no longer see the company’s revenues as money that can be spent on personal needs ...The notion of ‘New Russian’ has changed. A few years ago, there was the desire to spend a lot of money without counting it. But this period has passed. Now those who are operating a normal business are counting their money more carefully. Sure, I can spend as much as I want, but I have no desire to do this.”
For Vorobyova, it is a time to invest in the future. And for Natalie Tours, this has meant a focus on inbound travel to Russia by foreigners. “Present prospects are not very bright, due to the general situation in Russia,” Vorobyova said. “Russia may not be on the list of countries where persons are not advised to travel, but we are rather close to those countries.” Nonetheless, Vorobyova, whose firm presently hosts come 8,000 foreign travelers to Russia each year, said she remains “cautiously optimistic.” If her past economic forecasts are any indication, that means boom times are just ahead.
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