A useful tool for sales and a deeper understanding of clients. This was the experience of a Ukrainian businesswoman who took part in the Women in Business programme.
A Google search on any company will often provide you with an interesting fact about it. In the case of Zabugor.com, a travel agency in Ukraine, the fact is that it is run by a woman. This really is an interesting fact. For almost a decade and a half, the company has been run by Julia Alekseeva, founder and co-owner.
When asked whether gender has any effect on business, Julia just shrugs: “There are a lot of women working in tourism. It’s quite normal for us,” she says with a smile.
Ms Alekseeva’s company has been in the premium travel business since 2004. She was the first person to take Ukrainians to the exotic Maldives on a direct charter and to sell round-the-world trips on a private jet.
On the eve of the 2014-16 economic crisis in Ukraine, Zabugor.com was able to create a new website thanks to Julia’s participation in the EBRD’s Women in Business programme. The project has been funded by the European Union through the EU4Business initiative, which operates in every country of the EU’s Eastern Partnership and supports business by offering financial support to the enterprises they run.
The EU grant covered half of the costs for the company’s new website and this helped Zabugor.com not only survive in a difficult situation, but even grow by almost 30% annually. The process of developing the site became a fully-fledged consultancy project that helped Julia learn more about the habits and needs of her clients. The company continues to use this knowledge today. “We were given a fishing rod, not a fish,” Julia says of her experience.
As I start my interview for this article, I apologise in advance to Julia Alekseeva for having to ask questions that she has probably answered many times before. In response, I get a dazzling smile. “I worked as a tour guide in Crimea for six years,” she reassures me, “and every summer, for three months in a row, I told the same story about 540 times.” So, as Julia explains, she is very adept at finding new nuances and shades to familiar information. Repetition, she adds, enables a deeper understanding.
From Kyiv to the Maldives
Julia Alekseeva ended up in tourism by accident: she applied for a university course for which there was little competition for places – ‘Hotel, Resort and Tourism Management’. From the very beginning of her studies, she spent the summer giving tours around Crimea. The next step in her career was when she started working for a company that organised holidays and work trips abroad for students.
Julia became the director of Zabugor.com in 2004 at the age of 24. Three years later, she and two other partners bought the agency from the owner.
Her most memorable project around this time was arranging the first charter flights to the Maldives. It was difficult for Ukrainians to get to this particular holiday destination during the high season.
It may have been a memorable project, but it also had its risks. Few people in the country had any idea about the Maldives and they had to sell 500 seats. “I only found out where the Maldives were when I signed the contract,” Julia laughs. “I went to have a look at the map and thought: ‘Ah, so that’s where we’re going!’”
Ms Alekseeva says that there were about three months when she never seemed to put her calculator down or even sleep. The destination started becoming profitable from literally the second charter programme organised by Zabugor.com around three months after the first one.
Never Look Back
Julia and I are chatting in a bright office in the centre of Kyiv. There are large paintings on the walls and orchids on the tables. When the photographer asks Julia’s employees to pose, they are not very keen. They have a lot of work to do. The Christmas holidays are just around the corner and they need to prepare client accounts and other documents.
It wasn’t always this way. Fairly recently, the tourism sector in Ukraine experienced difficulties when the cost of travel rose as a result of the devaluation of the national currency. This was the very moment that Zabugor.com launched its brand new, luxury website. Half of the development costs were financed by the EU under the EBRD’s Women in Business programme.
“It was a signal to the entire market that we are here, that we are developing and moving forward,” says Julia, referring to one of the outcomes of the website’s launch. Another much more profound outcome was the wide-ranging study of consumer behaviour that they carried out to develop the most effective business site possible. “We discovered more about our clients, and why the previous site hadn’t worked,” says Julia, “and this knowledge has stayed with us.”
Julia recently developed another project that she believes could be of interest to the EBRD: the creation of 300 tourism clusters in different parts of Ukraine, some of which are already up and running. One is in the former Cossack capital of Chyhyryn in the Cherkassy region, another is in the small town of Khust in Transcarpathia where there is a ruined medieval fortress, and there are others in various towns and villages.
It is the beginning of a new period in Julia Alekseeva’s business since tourism trends in Ukraine are starting to change.
First of all, there are new clients – employees of agricultural and IT companies, for example, which make up the most rapidly developing sectors of the country’s economy.
Second, their travel requirements are different from those of previous tourists. “They take more frequent holidays, but shorter ones,” Julia says, “and their holidays are less about the beach and more about activities.” Today’s Ukrainians are worried they might be missing out on something, she explains. “Everyone is running marathons, they are constantly learning, they want to be as effective as possible.”
To keep up with the trend, Julia’s agency has developed a new service that optimises travel expenses. Alekseeva lets clients put together their own calendar of trips for up to eighteen months or even two years ahead. The agency can then use this to pre-purchase tickets or accommodation with the best possible discounts. As a result, travellers receive the same service, only cheaper.
In an era of high competition, the main aim of modern business is to fulfil client expectations as much as possible and more effectively than anyone else. Programmes such as Women in Business help small companies cope with these challenges more successfully.