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It’s hard to imagine booking a trip to the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics without the guidance of a travel agent who has the expertise to navigate his way around Russia. Born in Moscow to a father in the airline industry, Andrey Zakharenko has been working at San Francisco-based travel agency Russian Connections for more than 15 years.
Now as a part-owner of Russian Connections, Zakharenko has booked countless clients on successful trips to former Soviet Republics and throughout Russia — even to Sochi for the 2014 Winter Olympics. Zakharenko shares his thoughts on the Olympics’ media coverage, what went into making a successful Olympics booking and misconceptions that Americans have about Russia.
First, can you tell me about Russian Connections?
Russian Connections is a San Francisco agency that was started more than 17 years ago. When it first was formed, the main focus was exchange groups between Russia and the United States for both leisure and corporate training.
After a few years, an opportunity opened up to become an airline consolidator with a focus on Russia. At one point, we were one of the largest airline consolidators to Russia in the United States.
When airlines started to consolidate, staying in the game was too expensive, and slowly we moved on. The focus became “Everything Russia” and especially having to do with visas, which seemed to be a very complex process and a big road block to those interested in Russia.
Today we process a lot of entry visas to Russia and send many Americans to Russia. Along with that, we have agencies in Russia that use us when they send their clients to the United States.
How have your duties changed at Russian Connections?
At first, I mostly applied what I learned in my college classes to my job at Russian Connections. I developed processes, created financial reports in Excel and figured out ways to do everything better and faster.
Especially when we were an airline consolidator, the margins were controlled by the airline contracts and were not very big, so volume and efficiency were very important.
With every year, I became a bigger and bigger part of the company. Once I was done with my MBA, I was selling a lot, running the finances, creating the marketing for the company and managing some of the staff.
I have been running the company for more than a year. It is a lot of stress but also a lot of fun.
What is the agency’s focus in terms of travel to Russia?
Russian Connections’ focus is still “Everything Russia” with a goal to make visiting the country as easy as possible. I want the company to be the agency you go to when you think of or decide to travel to Russia and former Soviet Republics.
I book a lot of trips to Russia, and this is a real specialty for me personally. Having been in the travel business for more than 15 years, I have many clients who first used me to travel to Russia and now use me for all of their travel.
Before the Olympics, had you ever booked Sochi? If so, what kind of trip?
Before the Olympics, very few people traveled to Sochi. For us, it was mostly family members going to visit their relatives. Krasnaya Polyana resort was around before the Olympics and is a favorite of President Putin, especially after Sochi won the Olympics nomination. The problem with it for many people is the cost. Even avid skiers living in Moscow — a little more than a two-hour flight away from Sochi — would tell me that they can go to Europe for less and that those resorts had better hotels and more services.
Are problems in Sochi being blown out of proportion?
In my opinion, the problems in Sochi have been blown out of proportion. There needs to be a balance, but, unfortunately, reporting about things going wrong gets more attention than reporting about how things are good or even great. Especially in the world we live in, social media buzz feeds off of any small problem.
Were you able to foresee the problems that we’re hearing about in Sochi (such as incomplete lodging, lack of plumbing, etc.)?
I can’t say that I was able to foresee the problems, but I have enough friends in the travel industry to have known that some structures were behind schedule. I was very careful and picky about who I worked with when arranging travel for my clients.
Do you think these problems represent Sochi or the greater Russia accurately?
They do not. I see this as an Olympics problem. The games attract a lot of opportunistic, entrepreneurial individuals who have the goal of making as much money as possible.
They control the hotel space and the ticket distribution, and that creates a supply-and-demand problem. First, unfinished houses were going for tens of thousands of dollars, then the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had a hold on most of the hotel space and, finally, around August, hotel space was finally available for reasonable prices.
On the ticket side, Cosport, the official Olympics ticket distributor, did not sell any individual tickets. At first, they only sold tickets as part of a package.
How did you choose the properties you booked your clients at?
I worked with my partners in Russia. I have worked with many of them for more than 15 years and trust them with all of my clients. Based on their recommendations and a quick visit to the website, I would pick the hotels.
How were you able to get your clients tickets to the Olympics events?
I used all of the available resources, Cosport, my partners in Russia and, later on, the official ticket exchange site.
How far ahead did you make arrangements for your clients?
The first requests came in more than a year in advance — that is when I started to monitor the situation in Sochi and advise them of any news and updates.
Did things come up in the booking process that were particularly challenging to you? What were they?
The most challenging part to me was finding the right accommodations; they had to offer the level of comfort that the customer expects for a price that they could afford.
Do you think an average person could have booked a trip to the Olympics without the help of an agent?
Getting their very own Olympics experience would be very hard without an agent. All of my clients received the exact Olympics experience that they wanted — from the flights to the hotels to the events — rather than something that Cosport thought they wanted.
What are some misconceptions people have about traveling to Russia?
I won’t talk about how many people still think that all of Russia is always cold. Most people don't believe me when I tell them that visiting Moscow and St. Petersburg is very similar to visiting cities in Europe and that Moscow and St. Petersburg are no different than New York, Los Angeles or San Francisco.
Many think that Russians don't like America. That is only in politics. Russians are very welcoming and friendly to tourists, even from America — no need to pretend to be Canadian.
Also, many people think that obtaining an entry visa to Russia is hard. The reality is very different when you use a travel agency such as Russian Connections — all it takes is a passport, photos and a few questions.
What have you heard from your clients who are there?
They are loving Sochi and the games. I have a few others leaving for the second part of the games, and I know they are going to have a blast.
For photos of Andrey Zakharenko’s clients at their hotel in Sochi, visit the TravelAgeWest Facebook page. www.facebook.com/TravelAgeWest