How to Promote Bulgaria Better to the World?
Armin Zerunyan - General Manager, Hilton Sofia



It 's very easy and yet it is so difficult to do it right.

Firstly, Bulgaria has to fish where the fish is! This is one of my favourite proverbs and I'll come back to what I mean by saying this during the course of my presentation.

Secondly, There are no virgin markets. The reality is that the travel and tourism market consists of consumers strongly or weakly held by a range of competitors (in our case countries). Marketing and promoting a country therefore, consists of holding on to the existing markets while at the same time attempting to take customers away from competing countries.

And thirdly, there is no fancy way or miraculous formula to achieve success. Success in marketing a country, as in everything else, requires careful planning, know-how, effective resource management, strong commitment and resolve by all parties involved, respectively, the private sector as well as the government and bureaucracy. Success comes gradually, therefore, there has to be a lot of patience to see through initiatives and projects.


So after these "cliches" and words of wisdom, you must be wondering what's news? You'll probably say we all know about these things, tell us something new...

"The first rule of Marketing Planning: Always start at zero."

I have been in Bulgaria for almost 1.5 years. I've been around the country a little bit and have seen and discovered some of its beauties, which I call Bulgaria's well-kept secrets.

I'd like to list some of my impressions as a foreigner in Bulgaria and from these I will draw on the strengths that I believe Bulgaria can use in addition to those that are already used in marketing the country as a travel destination:

- First let me briefly share with you how foreigners and visitors that I have met over the past 18 months perceive Bulgaria and what are the so-called icons that are still defining Bulgaria's image today. Before we try to create a new way of marketing Bulgaria, we should establish what is the status quo, what do we have in inventory, what are the assets and the liabilities? When doing this we have to be very objective and accept the fact that we will not like everything that we'll get to hear. I'll be very blunt with some of my feedback; at the same time I'm not claiming that my observations are based on any scientific research. My views are purely based on feedback that I can recall from conversations with people from several countries and different backgrounds.

*A good number of people who have never been to Bulgaria know very little about the country. Most of these people classify Bulgaria under the same rubric with other Balkan countries, which went through the worst times in the last decade. Additionally, Bulgaria is also classified as an Eastern European country. As a result, people automatically attach in their minds all negative attributes that have been created by the international media over the past ten years. I don't think I have to dwell further on the details, we all know them well. In a nutshell, Bulgaria is thrown into the same pot with all Eastern European and CIS countries and we need to deal with this fact effectively and professionally. In the East and Orient, however, the image of Bulgaria is not so much dominated by the same attributes attached by the West. Here, the image of Bulgaria is based more on the common history that it shares with countries in the region as well as more recent relations developed during the last 50 years.
* Bulgaria's best-known region is the Black Sea coast. Most of the people I have met have been at the Black Sea Coast in the late 60s and 70s with their parents (I'm one of them).
* Bulgaria is known for the valley of roses and rose oil.
* People in Great Britain and Scandinavian Countries know the Bulgarian wine. But unfortunately as a relatively cheap table wine (what an unfair way to describe Bulgarian wine).
* A limited number of people in Western Europe know and appreciate the opera talents and classic music performers of Bulgaria.
* Bulgaria is known for having world-class wrestlers and weight lifters.

So, these are the icons Bulgaria was known for in the past. I'm sure some of you might say that there are many good things that I have missed; others may say that my analysis is too superficial. But I would still insist on my opinion and go one step further and say that this is the way Bulgaria is still known in most places even today.

There is only one icon that has been added to that list in the last ten years. And that is, as you all know, Bulgaria's Prime Minister, the first monarch in history who made a comeback from exile as Prime Minister elected by popular vote.

"Updating heritage". If we don't count the latest addition, Bulgaria is still using the same icons it used 20-25 years ago. I think it's high time to change some of the heritage. When I say change, I don't mean abandoning the good values Bulgaria has created. The good ones we'd like to keep, perhaps some need some polishing. But first and foremost, we need new icons, new ideas, new markets and new strategies to promote this country in the region, in key markets and in the world.

Where to start?

"Instead of starting by re-positioning Bulgaria's image, we could perhaps start by leveraging the position the country has. If the gap between our positioning and the position in the minds of potential visitors is too big, people won't make the leap. At this point our steps should be kept small."

- Let's start with things I mentioned last. I just talked about the hurdles Bulgaria has to overcome in order to brush up the country's image. I think we'll all agree that among the main obstacles Bulgaria confronts-including the fact that many people know nothing about Bulgaria-is the country's position in the minds of people who claim to know Bulgaria. Unless Bulgaria spends probably something like $15m a year on international TV advertising for the next 15 years, that is the position it will occupy: "another Eastern European, Balkan Country with all known attributes and prejudices attached to it". Given that, perhaps the most effective thing that Bulgaria could do to attract tourism would be to begin with that position, and make it a benefit.

For example, if compared with the west, the less manicured cities and nature of Bulgaria can be turned into an asset rather than liability if it could be promoted as part of a more relaxed and less stressful lifestyle. Why not to promote the relaxed Bulgarian lifestyle smartly in a more positive way? The same principle can be applied to almost everything Bulgarian daily life offers, we just have to wrap it properly before we put it on the shelf. I admit it's not very easy and it needs to be done by professionals in a very smart way, but it could certainly work.

Why not to start from here.

- "We shouldn't just think better. We should think different." At this point I'd like to share with you my personal impressions that I have gained over the past 1.5 years. Bulgaria has great outdoors that are more versatile than Switzerland's with the additional benefit of having the Black Sea coast. I have this crazy idea that when we start designing new marketing strategies for this country we should first start with creating two Bulgarias. One with and the other without the Black Sea Coast. Then start developing strategies for the Bulgaria without the Coast and finally combine both regions into one country again. I think if we would think for a moment that there was no Black Sea coast and we still had to sell this country as a destination, then we would become a lot more creative in finding new ideas, icons and ways of marketing Bulgaria. See what Switzerland has done without a Black Sea Coast. They have created the best winter resorts that can also be used in the spring and summer. They have mountain climbing, tracking, camping etc. In addition they made very good use of their lakes and cities so that people go there 12 months a year from all over the world. And look at the differences between the two countries, Switzerland has no beach, no great history, it offers no surprises, Bulgaria grows better food, vegetables, fruit, has much better wine and is certainly a much more fun place to be and last but not least Bulgaria is a lot less expensive than many places. Yet, I was there over X-Mas, the airport of Geneva was bursting from every corner with people from all over the world who came to Switzerland to spend their Holidays. On the same day when I left Sofia I was almost the only person at the airport! What is the learning point here?

- "We shouldn't just create what the current market needs or wants. We should create what it would love, but doesn't know yet." In other words let's think about some of Bulgaria's not so much promoted features: Bulgaria has nice and smart people who are friendly in a natural way and most importantly not arrogant. Overall the country has a well-educated population that can easily adopt new ways of doing things and adjust lifestyles relatively quickly. The modern Bulgarian women and men especially in cities are very smart. They have style are smart and enjoy life although there is not so much money around as in other places.


"Good basic communication is good basic marketing." Why is it then that all marketing collateral about Bulgaria only shows pictures of Bulgarians in folkloric outfits? Yes this is part of the culture and as every country Bulgaria is also proud of its traditions, which is perfectly fine, but you cannot only use one type of pictures to create an image. In Bulgaria people are not anymore walking in their traditional outfits. The only time when you see them is in tourist restaurants. We should urgently find new styles and images for the people of Bulgaria, showing the smart, good looking young Bulgarians who have in my opinion much more style than the same generation in other more affluent countries. One of the most important points in marketing a destination is promoting and selling a lifestyle. There is a lot of it here and people when they come appreciate it and are positively surprised by the many cafes, restaurants, and relaxed lifestyle in general. But this is not promoted at all, instead you only get to see men and women in traditional outfits dancing in the fields or collecting roses in the fields!

- "Offer Choices-the more the Merrier". Bulgaria can easily diversify its markets and extend the season beyond the traditional 3 months at the Back Sea. Geographically Bulgaria is situated in a very strategic location. Its culture combines the best aspects of both worlds, the Occident and the Orient! I'd like to stress this point in particular because I believe Bulgaria can really built on this aspect and shine with its true identity in the region. Currently my impression is that Bulgaria's short and mid term strategy is too lopsided. I have the impression that the country has turned its face only to the West and is not doing enough to develop opportunities in the region in the East and the Middle East.

And I'd like to remind you of my starting line, fish where the fish are. Let's take a few quick examples. I strongly believe that Bulgaria can develop in a relatively short time the following three markets and spread and double it's income through tourism: The three markets which I see as underdeveloped are Greece, Turkey, Russia and the Gulf Countries. The good thing about the Greek and Turkish markets is that they wouldn't come when Bulgaria's tourism Season is at its peak during June-August. As you know both have they own beautiful beaches. They would rather come during absolutely low demand periods such as Christmas, Easter, on Weekends during autumn, winter and spring. Most of the tourists could come by bus, thus the trip can be much cheaper than flying. The citizens of Gulf countries, however, would come with their families during July and August but prefer the less crowded regions of Bulgaria during that season, such as the mountain resorts where they would find fresh and cool air and a clean and unspoilt nature. This would be an ideal way to generate extra business for the otherwise dead winter resorts during summer.

Another very important segment that Bulgaria can get a lot more out is the "third age tourism" or in other words get senior citizens from other countries to visit Bulgaria. Again, this could e a great opportunity for all regions to extend the tourism season and get business during off peak seasons.

- "Build niche markets". Bulgaria's cultural heritage encompasses much more than what visitors get to see or hear. Why not taking better advantage of it? Bulgaria has a rich heritage and history that it shares with its neighbours. A lot of the common history has taken place in this country. Each of these places can attract many visitors throughout the year. Bulgaria can develop this type of tourism in a very short time and I don't think there is any other country in this region that can manage this better than Bulgaria. Think about today's Europe. Take Germany as an example. There are thousands of people crossing borders daily between Germany-France, Germany-Holland and Germany-Poland. Not so long, 50 years ago, Germany was the archenemy of these countries. Today, school tours, weekend excursions, holiday traffic between Germany and all these countries are part of everyday life. And believe me their history was not less painful than in the Balkans. Another neglected part of Bulgarian history is the time between 1945-1990. This period has so much to offer and it's so recent. Why does a visitor to Bulgaria not get more insight into the socialist period of this country? Why is there no museum, where is all the artwork that was created during that time. What's wrong with creating a centre that displays all sorts of artwork, books and other relics of the socialist era. There could be an institute of socialist studies attached to this centre and believe me, many visitors, academic staff and students from other countries would come to Bulgaria to visit this establishment.

- "Charm visitors with what you do best, e.g. Bulgarian Wine". Bulgaria has excellent wine and good food. Unfortunately the wine also has an image problem. Instead of enjoying a prominent position in the league of "new world wines", it is still trying to find its way to the supermarket shelves in Europe. Unfortunately still as a cheaply priced table wine. I think changing this extremely unfair image about the Bulgarian wine is a project in itself and must be taken very seriously. The image of an "excellent wine producing" country can take care of many of the image problems we are facing today. Wine can also create its own niche of tourist segment. Wine tasting tours, wine discovery tours, vine harvest tours are common in places like France and Italy for example. Why not here?

- "Familiarity breeds business. Bulgaria should spread the word about the country and it's successes however it can." Bulgaria is not getting enough credit for having weathered the worst times in the Balkans after 1990. Bulgaria chose reconciliation instead of civil war. The country's economy is making good progress. It's the only Balkan country that made the transition peacefully, why not tell the world what Bulgaria has achieved? "Saturate the international media with information".

"Every act, from education to transportation, foreign affairs to agriculture is a marketing act. Every Ministry and Industry in Bulgaria -regardless if private or state-is directly involved in promoting and marketing of Bulgaria and has a role to play."

In conclusion, I believe that promoting Bulgaria better in the world can be easier than it has been for some other destinations that count today among popular travel destinations in the world. Competition is tough and there is no time to waste. Image can play a very important role in the decision making process of the travelling public, in particular, during difficult times.

Thank you.