Slovak firm spans the world – except Slovakia

GROWING up behind the Iron Curtain, Ľuboš Fellner, now 43, chose to go to medical school because it was the area least influenced by communist ideology. But shortly after he graduated, the revolution of 1989 tore down the Iron Curtain and his adventurous spirit led him to discover what was beyond Czechoslovakia’s previously sealed borders – and to enable others to do the same.

Ľuboš Fellner Ľuboš Fellner (Source: Courtesy of Bubo/ Jan Faukner)

GROWING up behind the Iron Curtain, Ľuboš Fellner, now 43, chose to go to medical school because it was the area least influenced by communist ideology. But shortly after he graduated, the revolution of 1989 tore down the Iron Curtain and his adventurous spirit led him to discover what was beyond Czechoslovakia’s previously sealed borders – and to enable others to do the same.

He launched an educational travel agency, Bubo, in 1993, taking tourists into nearby as well as more far-flung, exotic countries. Over the next 20 years the agency has grown from a kind of low-cost provider to a company taking tourists into 150 countries all around the world. Since its customers have grown up along with it, the agency now provides trips with high-end services as well as incentive tourism programmes tailored to the wishes of any client.

Ernst & Young, which provides tax, transaction and advisory services, in March awarded Fellner the title Entrepreneur of the Year 2011 in Slovakia after assessing his achievements over the past two decades. Even though many of his dreams have been fulfilled, Fellner is not resting on his laurels and has ideas about how his business can develop further, and what more to offer to enthusiastic travellers.

The Slovak Spectator spoke with Fellner about the tourism industry and what travelling means for him, about his company and his experiences dealing with corruption, and about his plans for the future.

The Slovak Spectator (TSS): The Bubo travel agency has been in the market for 20 years. How has the market changed over this time? Are there still any free niches to be filled in?
Ľuboš Fellner (ĽF):
There are always some unoccupied niches in the market. For example, nobody in Slovakia is doing cycling trips with all the services such as transportation of bicycles to the starting point as well as from the final destination, or providing a mechanic during the trip.

Cycling is popular, especially in France and Italy, where it is a way of travelling also for well-off people. This is why we bought a Czech travel agency, S.E.N., which specialises in cycling holidays, last year. We want to bring this product to Slovakia and teach Slovaks to spend their holidays on bicycles. But we also would like to use this channel vice versa and penetrate the Czech market, because for any Slovak company the domestic market very soon becomes too small. I would like to continue organising special trips to exotic places and in Slovakia there are not enough clients to whom I can offer special products like tours of restaurants with Michelin stars in Tuscany or trips to northern Iraq. But I want to offer also more “ordinary” products there. There is no language barrier between Slovaks and Czechs – we lived together in one country for many years – and thus it is natural that we are expanding westwards.

Nevertheless, the situation in the market has changed enormously. The market has grown up and matured and any travel agency cannot now succeed with products and services of the level with which we started. Generally speaking, during the previous regime, only privileged people could travel to the West and further, and there were only travel agencies organising holidays in socialist and other ‘friendly’ countries. And since nobody was organising educational trips, we had to learn everything from the very start: how to guide, how a hotel for our clients should look, what people actually want, etc. We did not have a clue about this at that time. But everyone was enthusiastic then, our staff as well as our clients. We learned from our experiences and successes as well as failures. But now this way is very difficult, since it is very hard to penetrate a developed market when you are a beginner in it.

TSS: Are you eyeing any other countries into which you would like to expand?
We will see. First I would like to establish our business in the Czech Republic. The local market is a challenge, because even though Czechs are close to us, they are price-sensitive with slightly different requirements than Slovaks.
The next market I see is Austria, but I do not envision this sooner than in 10-15 years. It is a demanding market, but we have an advantage that we do not specialise in organising in trips, for example, to Madagascar, but to 150 countries of the world. This means that we have an extensive portfolio of products. Moreover, we are ardently focusing on increasing the quality of our people, our corporate culture, etc. We offer high-quality products and we are still cheap, and thus I see prospects here.

TSS: Bubo primarily organises trips abroad. Does Slovakia not attract you, either as a destination for Slovaks or for foreign clients?
In the past, 15 years ago, we organised trips in Slovakia too, but we encountered too many problems. When I have a partner in Thailand, China or India, I know that I can rely on him and that he knows what we require. But in Slovakia I had to solve the very basic things and the general experience was very bad. Maybe we started too early. But since we are fully devoted to organising trips abroad and the interest has been high and growing, even during the crisis, we do not now have any free capacities to develop our products here in Slovakia.

But of course, organising trips in central and eastern Europe has potential. Slovakia is a really beautiful country with untouched nature and after seeing what other countries have I see that Slovakia can do it. But it is also about the mentality of the nation, which as a whole has to believe in this idea, something which has not happened yet. New Zealand and Norway are good examples: their populations are small, like in Slovakia, and they have similar nature, but they believe in the idea and all of them do whatever is within their power to achieve it.

Nobody will come to Slovakia because of five-star hotels; they will come here because of the nature and atmosphere and they have to feel well here. The problem to date was that people mostly privatised tourism facilities and did not care for them properly. This means that they are not as connected to them as [they would have been] had they built up something from the very beginning by hard work.

People in Slovakia are nice and hospitable when you meet them privately, but they have not learned yet to bring this into their professions. A waiter does not smile at you because he is ashamed. This should change.

TSS: The quality of staff touches upon the quality of services Bubo provides too, when a good guide is of key importance for the type of trips Bubo organises. How do you select and educate guides at Bubo?
We have created an educational scheme which I internally call the Bubo travelling academy. We publish our own textbook, with examples of what turned out well, but also failures. We also regularly meet and debate specific things and details which nobody thinks about. For example, how to make the client thrilled. This is very difficult, but we are trying, and percentages in our questionnaires of satisfaction, which each client fills in after returning from our trips, are rising. Of course, it is not always possible to achieve this, but we are trying.

Moreover, in crisis situations the guide has to turn into a leader, which is a completely different position. This happened, for example, after heavy rains and landslides trapped our group at Machu Picchu in Peru some years ago. They had to stay there for some days, but the guides secured enough food for them and they actually went out volunteering and helped the locals. After some days a helicopter took them safely out and they continued their trip. When they returned we received a number of letters in which the clients thanked us for an excellent trip, services and adventure.

TSS: In 2004 Bubo launched itself in the incentive tourism market. What led you to this decision? What share of your total revenues does this market make up?
Incentive tourism makes up about 15 percent of our revenues, which is not very much yet. I still take this as a kind of bonus, even though I still believe that Bubo makes up the biggest portion in this segment. I see this as a prospective market niche and that there is a lot of so-far untapped prospects.

TSS: In one of your previous interviews you said that you have never given a bribe, except some palm-greasing when travelling abroad.
Yes, I haven’t and I can prove it with a polygraph. I really have not given a bribe, but I see that this is a problem in Slovakia. In the past my perception was that corruption was somewhere higher, at governmental levels. But now my feeling is that this has become a style of doing business in general and that corruption has also penetrated the private sector. When we enrol in a competition to organise a tailor-made trip for a company and I know that we offer the best product for the best price, because I know the market thoroughly, and we lose there must be something [going on].

TSS: Have you encountered any open suggestion that you should give a bribe?
Yes, I did. They [came] from a really big company and said that if I gave a bribe, Bubo would win. Actually I did not understand how I could give them a portion from the price and simultaneously maintain the quality of the product.
But I am sure that in the end Bubo will become the best travel agency in incentive tourism, in spite of my integrity. But the thing is that this would be in spite of it.
In this respect I perceive the award I received from Ernst & Young as an acknowledgement of how I do business.

TSS: What does travelling actually mean to you?
For me it is the best activity which homo sapiens can do during these times. It is a connection of the [ancient Greek] principles of kalokagathia, when the spirit develops together with the body, which I like very much. Because when you are out on such educational trips, when getting to know London, Rome or Victoria Falls, you have to do something physically as well psychically.

In Slovakia we build a house and then look after it for the rest of our life. Wise nations travel.

I also do not agree with the saying that deals are clinched on the golf course. No, my experience is that business is done on Bubo trips. Nobody fully opens up on a golf course. But when in Tibet you have to go through a stone avalanche and go with a rucksack on your back for four hours and there is somebody who does not have enough power to do this any more, and you are an impenitent Slovak not used to helping but you have to, and he then genuinely thanks you, then at that point something changes. Such ice often breaks during our trips.

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