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Harmeek Singh: St. Petersburg is a pearl

Mr. Harmeek Singh, a founder of “Plan B Group” will start his activity as a head of the office Visit St. Petersburg in UAE (in Dubai) in October.

Prohotel interviewed him to give some information about his bright personality, about the office operation and the future of the travel market of St. Petersburg.

Prohotel Our readers know already about the activities of the offices Visit Russia in Dubai since 2015. Do you work in cooperation with them?

Harmeek Singh No, we are not partners. I am working for “Visit St. Petersburg”.

This office is opening now, in October. But we partner up when we see how we can support Visit Russia as well.

At the end, the objective of us, what we are trying to bring on the table is what has not worked earlier and what is probably still left. So many things that are not happening is because the strategy is not clear, the communication is not clear. First of all we want to focus on St. Petersburg. “Visit St. Petersburg” then will lead us to Russia as well and that is how we benefit from it.

Prohotel: I see, St. Petersburg it’s a gate to Russia.

Harmeek Singh: So, my objective is because as “Plan B” has opened up our business in St. Petersburg now, so “Plan B Russia” exists. What we are trying to do now is to see that when we are over here we are going to make sure that we are connecting the dots for “Visit St. Petersburg” working with the tourism department over here. We assigned all of the documents and made the office as well. So, we are in operation from October.

Prohotel: It is a very good time to start. Did you hear about the coming launch of the biggest jet of Emirates with 519 seats from Dubai to St. Petersburg? There will be 5 flights from 25 by 29 October 2018.

Harmeek Singh Yes, I’ve heard.Also in July Russia signed the treaty for the visa relaxation. It also helps Emiratees, the locals, which is a good feature to look at the positive start to the good relationship between UAE and Russia because I think, tourism is one of the key features that brings people to people together, people to people connection. So, we understand that. And I feel that probably St. Petersburg and including Saint-Petersbourg in Russia as the whole has a lot of potential which is untapped. People misunderstand, people do not have the right information. And that is very important for us as a company, as an agency to work towards what we can actually start connecting. And we had a great start with the World Cup just recently finished which was like flawless. We are now looking at that we promote St. Petersburg in the Middle East and beginning probably in UAE is the initial point that we are looking at. We are not only targeting UAE because there are 200+ nationalities of expats over there. So, I am trying to tap onto those nationalities being our brand ambassadors for two hundred countries that we can target all together.

Prohotel: I see. UAE is a really unique place especially because of its huge modern airport that is world's busiest airport by international passenger traffic and probably one of the biggest airports in the world. And we know about the plan of the government to develop its capacity up to 250 million passengers per year.

Harmeek Singh: The airport in Dubai and UAE is none of the biggest, but the best. We do not look at the second place or the world record and we are proud of the current state.

Prohotel: You mentioned the new visa relaxation pact signed recently by the Russian and UAE governments. Explain the new procedure for tourists, please.

Harmeek Singh: According to the new pact, the Emiratees, the people who are the UAE nationals, they will get the visa on arrival. And the Russians also have the same right. But there is another one thing. It is possible to get the Indian visa on arrival. There is a big Indian contingent in UAE – it is a roughly 20% of its population. It is a big volume of itself.

Prohotel: How are you going to promote St. Petersburg on your market? With the help of the local tour operators, with the help of the Russian ones from St. Petersburg or another way?

Harmeek Singh: Promoting to tour operators from Russia and from UAE is something that used to work in the past, not anymore. When we are trying to promote allocation we are looking at promoting it from B2B and B2C angle. B2B is Business to Business and B2C is Business to Consumer. So, we are looking at tour operators that they will be a part of us. I see it on a lot of data on tour operators, on people who are decision makers or corporates. And decision makers for coming up and certain promotion campaigns for different regions. I worked before on Georgia so, we understand how the market works. And as you understand now market does not work based on an advertisement or activer commercial that people will make the choice. Because the world now is connected on the digital platform so everybody wants just to get the right order. We are going to create this kind of vibe connecting on the digital, we connecting on ground, we connecting with the consumer itself. If I create a want amongst the common people they want to come to St. Petersburg. Then people will be coming over here. They are the ones who will go back with memories which will multiply not add, multiply by ten times because what they share on the social, the family, the friends would be looking at they will also try to see that probably St. Petersburg becomes the choice of destination.

Prohotel: Is it a B2C way, or C2C, or mouth media?

Harmeek Singh: It is a B2C, but we are not forgetting B2B. So, we are having seminars for local and regional tour operators, and for tour operators we are on a network in India and even in London. We have got the massive reach. When it comes to how we can connect them because the people are talking about business for eternity even if they are not our target audience. We would require that we connect that world with the frequent travelers. And how to tap into that?

What is the way we probably can reach them and pass on the message to them? I was interviewed this morning what is a simple valid reason if somebody has got a power, somebody has got money you don’t go and give him a leaflet or a pamphlet “Come and Visit St. Petersburg”.There’s another way. Targeting the luxury market is a different approach, targeting the mass-market is a different approach, targeting the investment market is a different approach.

Prohotel: It is time to invest now because this corner of the world is out of sanctions.

Harmeek Singh: Yes, we are. We are also welcoming which is good.

Prohotel: What about your requirements to the tour operator?

Harmeek Singh: If I go to the tour operators and ask him about tour to Russia I will get the package. The tour operator is promoting Russia. That needs to be a circuit as well. The tour operator has probably got the circuit that we announce and bucket up with the marketing plan. Because the market changes. To create a want for tour operators we also have to create a want for consumers. The consumer asks and he will also be interested in what we are asking him to do.

Prohotel: Do you use the same scheme like Visit Russia or not?

Harmeek Singh: No, we are more experiential, we are looking at creating avenues where we would like people to experience St. Petersburg with technology of 3 to 4 minutes campaign. Then we are going to bring them Virtual Reality (VR) angle with experience of St. Petersburg. VR lets them experience and creates a want from them. What Visit Russia does automatically it will support Visit St. Petersburg, but again we will also support Visit Russia. Our campaign is much more different to what the Visit Russia does.

Prohotel: I ask about it because some offers from Visit Russia could show the visitors everything they want through the information channels. Will you also use the information channels?

Harmeek Singh: The information channels have to be there, but again, the way of passing the information is gonna be very different. So what we are trying to do is not to get the approach to world’s generic information. We’re gonna have a spoken information, we are going to create the data.

The data we get is going to increase by the hour, by the day, by the year. Because somebody who comes gets an information from us must be interested. If you kill that interest, you will not get your client. It’s easy. Our approach is going to be very aggressive then only putting up the information.

Prohotel: I understand because St. Petersburg is some kind of pearl and you can attract people showing the pearl to experienced visitors and travelers.

Harmeek Singh: It is. It is a pearl, but unknown, untouched.

When the communication is proper, then we can create a legacy. If we create that, marketing is a tool. Marketing is like car which is standing. And then, when it is not starting, you have to push it. Push it hard. Once it get started you can push it with the finger. So, we are planning to go very aggressive at the beginning, and when the market will get to know about St-Pete, it will be easy for us to sell it.

Prohotel: How do you cooperate with the air companies connecting your country and St. Petersburg?

Harmeek Singh: The companies which are present in Russia and present in UAE they would be also working. It also brings the support from that fact that they have a business in trust from people who are having business in UAE and they have business in St. Petersburg. It is easier for us to promote the positivity of setting up or probably investing in St. Petersburg. So, that part the adventure is going away when we look at the credible deals. That the money is not going to go anywhere. I can ensure you that there is a lot of negativity and grey and people have in their mind “if I invest in Russia, when I get my money back?” That would need to be changed. Once the groups who looking for the new market, because businesses require new market. Businesses when we are getting in to appoint with the expand. Expansion happens vertically and horizontally.

So horizontally needs that you have to get more territories. More territories for the businesses it is important for the growth. If this becomes an origin where we can start and build the trust and credibility then it is easier for you to see that you probably have more tourists. But you will also bring and investors, who are investing in offices, investing in businesses over here, buy houses, they will generate the employment and they’ll bring funds over there.

Prohotel: Yes, of course. I would like to ask you: investing means acquisition as well?

Harmeek Singh: Acquisition of what?

Prohotel: Hotels in our market in St. Petersburg for example because there are a lot of different good hotels here and some of them are for sale.

Harmeek Singh: Exactly, that is what I’m saying. The brand like Emaar (Emaar Hospitality Group) has got the own hotels which are under the department called Emaar Hospitality. They are very aggressive on hospitality. So, if things which probably are at a value over here. The businessman looks in for an opportunities, the businessman looks in for when the people say the market is down and when people are looking actually at that there is a slam, there is a recession, that’s the time when the investor and the businesses come in.

Prohotel: There is very good exchange rate for the foreign currency in Russia now. It is time to acquire here something.

Harmeek Singh: Acquire – it will not happen in one day. It takes more. Emaar comes over here. If they come they can become a brand ambassador because they have a 20 years of experience. That is whole objective of creating credibility. The first one is very important and the rest will follow.

Prohotel: Do you have any preliminary research about the demand of tourists from your side to St. Petersburg?

Harmeek Singh: We have done a research. This research has showed for us some very surprising results that the market possibly had very little knowledge about St. Petersburg.

Prohotel: It is a good situation for us!

Harmeek Singh: Yes, this is an opportunity. Russia is none for Moscow. People know St. Petersburg from U.S. side. They don’t know much about this. People know Florida, but they don’t know St. Petersburg like many. But this is the educational work so well. Some years ago nobody knew Georgia as well. Now, if you look at the market, Armenia has relaxed visas. Armenia is trying to promote a big region for exploration of tourism from the Middle East market and being also started to do well. The Middle East might bring you the quantity of people maybe less than China, less than India. But they will beat India and China’s spent because people from this region left in the retail sector of economy up to 20% in London during the summer months when everybody sparked in London from Middle East. It is a huge number.

Prohotel: Do you know about the spreading of the Tax Free shopping possibility beginning from St. Petersburg to entire Russia?

Harmeek Singh: Yes, I know this backing up of the new policies of the government will only help. The ease of business, the ease of travel is important. Why would anybody want to take a hassle? Why the people think that Russia is a hassle? Who will go for a visa, who will come over there people are not very polite, people not welcoming, so that is something that people have to see, change and experience. Once they have an experience the change will happen also.

Prohotel: St. Petersburg has very big advantage – this is a rather high level of the foreign language knowledge, higher than around. How do you will use it?

Harmeek Singh: Because it was promoted and used as atool of destination. So when the exploration of foreigners coming you will have the language being spoken better and a higher order. Like when you going to China: When you go to Guangzhou there are a big number of English speakers growing every year. When you go to Shanghai you will have worst English speakers. But if you go to different provinces of midland China apart from these destinations there will be very little people speaking English. That makes the place not welcoming to the foreigners.

Prohotel: What are your expectations about the activities from St. Petersburg side and from Mr. Pankevich namely?

Harmeek Singh: To be having support being providing to us, every talking to bringing people will have to be a little leaning with packages, will have to be a little leaning with services, will have to be a little leaning with arrangements to be done. So, I think it is gonna be again a support system that could make sure that the people are gonna be arriving at this destination. When they arrive at the destination and we give them the experiences they will become our brand ambassadors and we will make it going to a point that people are having the best compliment that you can get. It is a repeat visitation. So, we are looking at that compliment. And when somebody comes they want to come again. We are looking at from Mr. Pankevich side a provision for bigger groups that we can bring in. But we have to get the support of how we can encourage them to come, how we can entice them to come for be higher income from the people who have the money, and to the experiences. For the masses it will be the packages and economical side of this and still the experiences would come. These are things probably from here that are going to generate the awareness from here as well. We want people when they are leaving, they leave at this moment.

Prohotel: It sounds good when the people are experienced. But it is also a risky thing. They can compare the travel services offered by St. Petersburg with the services they experienced in the other countries. What do you think about it?

Harmeek Singh: No, the comparison would only be drawn if we create our own USP – unique selling proposition. So, when I am talking what experience is, I am talking about creating packages, creating avenues. When somebody comes over here they look at what they will got extra. Extra – that we are something looking at! May be the luxury accommodation. You can’t compete with those luxury what kind of we have in Dubai. You can’t compete. What again the experiencies… When I come here, I see the Four Seasons hotel. Is a good hotel? It is a standard hotel, I think the people are welcoming, the services are prompt. That’s what matters for us, for probably experience which is about services that can be enhanced if you can build the infrastructure.

Prohotel: What is your vision for work of your office for short-term and long-term period?

Harmeek Singh: The short-term vision is to let the people to be aware of St. Petersburg and what St. Petersburg is offering. The brand St. Petersburg is something that will communicate to people start moving the brand. This is in the shorter vision. On long-term vision we want to make St. Petersburg as a destination of choice. We want to bring the new sectors which you don’t have here now. We want to bring Bollywood over here. We want to bring the stars that come here and shoot because anywhere they have gone – Switzerland became that land of choice destination for Indians. Now in Switzerland they are reaping the benefit, where Shah Rukh Khan was doing that. Over here Raj Kapoor was a big hit with the Bollywood in the 60-70-ties. He is forgotten now. India is a big market for you.

We should not forget about people to people connection.

Then I want also to look on the new sector that you don’t over here. It is a destination weddings .Thailand is reaping the benefits, Georgia is reaping the benefits. If you have thousands people come to have a wedding in your place, a multicultural. I think, it would be very big message for the world from it and a very good benefit. Hotels will benefit, the wedding planner will benefit, everybody will benefit from that. But this is a huge market. These are the new things that how we can bring it. The first one can be very difficult, but we hope Mr. Pankevich will support us with the bringing of Bollywood with all the facilities for them to shoot. Because it is something that brings the benefit for the region. If you bring the destination weddings we need to give them probably the services. Once it is happening you bring the thousands of people for that wedding, and those thousands will bring billions. So you are getting more and more penetration into this market.

Prohotel: It sounds very interesting. I have never thought about Bollywood here.

Harmeek Singh: You will be surprised by what they do. There are the people there looking at St.Petersburg. Oh, we wanna go there because Salman Khan have been there, Shah Rukh Khan have been there. It is a beautiful location.

Prohotel: But we have an old fashioned technical facilities for movie making.

Harmeek Singh: It is, but you have a history. You know, Georgia did not do this. They want to do this. Chech Republik, Prague. They did it and benefited hugely.

Prohotel: By spy’s movies mostly?

Harmeek Singh: There are a lot of spy’s Bollywood movies and they benefited big time. They benefited so people have opened the arms and doors that Bollywood can come in because it brings a lot of things. They give them all facilities and something else that we would like to see that Russia or St. Petersburg to begin with adapts.

Prohotel: I remember that several decades ago the annual production of movies in Bollywood exceeded that in Hollywood. What is the current state of this competition?

Harmeek Singh: Today Bollywood is much bigger and much richer than Hollywood. We have the numbers. That is why we would like to see when we have the joint promotion, joint production. Raj Kapoor brought Russia and India to make movies together. That became something that connected people to people together and then the people wanted to go to each other’s places as well.

Everybody benefited from that. But it was since last 30-40 years. And what I like that India is a big friend of Russia. We have always been friends with Russia. It is a big opportunity for us to tap into which has never been done.

Prohotel: Thank you very much for the interesting conversation.


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