Students Create Online Tourism Marketplace
Published: January 30, 2013 (Issue # 1744)
Sptnik offers small group tours that focus on interaction with locals and a more unorthodox approach to sightseeing.
With travel hospitality websites like Airbandb and CouchSurfing spurring a fast-growing trend of travel based on interaction with locals, a young team of city tour guides is attempting to show visitors to St. Petersburg a fresh view of the city.
Sptnik offers tours of the city’s metro stations, a Soviet architecture tour and excursions devoted to different kinds of cuisine, as well as pub crawls and other themed tours.
It was co-founded by Alexandra Skorobogatova and Alexander Kim as the final project in their masters program in technological entrepreneurship 18 months ago.
Kim, an active traveler and couch surfer, said he wanted to form “a marketplace for tourism activities.”
“Anyone can host an excursion and sell it, and tourists can come and take an excursion,” he said.
Each guide determines the price of their tours, which range from free to 3,000 rubles ($100), usually falling around 500 rubles ($17). The model makes it possible for St. Petersburg residents or professional guides to launch tours that they are passionate about, but don’t have the time or resources to market themselves.
Now the company has evolved to include tours that showcase traditional St. Petersburg highlights as well as quirkier takes on the city.
“There should be some tours that all people like. Everyone wants to see the Hermitage, some squares and palaces. They need that and ask us for it,” Skorobogatova said.
One of Sptnik’s excursions is a vintage shopping tour, led by a professional stylist who takes tourists through the best of St. Petersburg’s many second-hand shops.
“She helps to create an image for people and it’s a really nice, unique experience,” said community manager Nadezhda Sinyutina-Nagle.
Photography excursions and winter bike rides have also garnered interest.
“Community’s very important — we check every guide who comes to us,” said Skorobogatova. “We don’t want soulless tours. When the guides feel they’re a part of something, they really do a better job.”
The tours are small, with ideally no more than five people and never more than ten; often tours are comprised of only two tourists and a guide.
This philosophy is what’s behind the name, Sptnik, which evokes not just the satellite, but the Russian word for a fellow traveler or partner. Kim wanted something that would have a Russian ring to foreigners.
“We couldn’t call it vodka,” he joked.
While St. Petersburg sees large numbers of foreign tourists in the high season, most tourists to the city are Russian. The company, which started with only English tours, has now launched excursions in Russian, and even a few in French.
While the city has modernized since the Soviet era, the tourism industry largely has not, according to Sptnik’s staff.
Mike Vinogradov, who is in charge of the company’s marketing, is faced with the challenge of connecting Russians of older generations to an online, credit card model of booking.
He is also confronted with outdated attitudes to tourism that are prevalent among many Russian visitors to the city. Visitors from other Russian cities usually use agencies to book the same outmoded, Soviet-style tours that were offered in the ’50s and ’60s, he said.
“They never know there is some other life,” said Vinogradov. “They will never know there is a hostel where you can pay less and get more. They never know that there are interesting places to try different types of food, not only the stolovaya in the horrible hotel. They never know that there are some interesting excursions and young and interesting people.”
“There are no hipsters, no unusual shops, unusual places, no art galleries [in standard excursions], just the Russian Museum and the Hermitage. They get just to Leningrad. That’s what we have to change somehow,” he added.
Kim and Skorobogatova were in for a surprise when it came to the company’s target demographic.
“We thought our target audience would be young people,” Kim said. “But we were kind of wrong.”
Recounting one of the company’s first bookings, Kim said: “We were really surprised when a couple from Germany in their 60s wrote a girl who was 20 to ask what she could offer them.”
Instead of the 18-30 crowd the founders expected, their clients are generally aged from 35 to 40.
“We realized that young people don’t really go on excursions,” said Kim. “They can do things on their own.”
Rob Perkins from Melbourne, Australia, tried out Sptnik tours last September on a five-day trip to the city with his wife and another couple.
“As with many cities, you can go and see the famous sites but it is really difficult to meet local people and have good conversations with them if you do not speak the language. Sptnik gave us that opportunity,” Perkins said. The travelers’ four tours included an Uzbek food tour led by Kim himself, and the Soviet architecture tour.
Perkins highly recommended the enthusiasm of the guides.
“They are immensely proud of their city and country and are happy to sit and talk about it with you. That is worth a great deal compared with simply visiting the sites and not getting a chance to have even the briefest of conversations with local people,” he said.
For those who want to experience St. Petersburg nightlife, tour guide Violetta Podkopayeva is eager to share her favorite party spots.
Podkopayeva led a group of four German tourists on her first pub crawl with Sptnik. “When I met them I was so surprised, because they were 40-year-old guys,” she recalled with a laugh. “We drank a lot, we danced a lot, we discussed a lot of things. I was so tired at 4 a.m. I said, ‘Now guys, I’m going home,’ and they said, ‘Why so early?’”
Those looking for a drinking experience that doesn’t include thumping dance beats can book a tour with Timur Okhinko, who leads visitors to examples of the St. Petersburg ryumochnaya, or vodka bar.
“Ryumochnayas come from Soviet times, when workers could come and just have a shot [of vodka] before work, or after work, or any time,” Kim explained. “It has this special atmosphere which is not like in a bar. It’s a Russian Soviet-type pub where people gather to talk.”
Okhinko knows the city’s ryumochnayas inside and out, and brings curious tourists to enjoy conversation and a drink — often served by the same waitresses who once poured shots in Leningrad — in a living example of Soviet history.
What tourists want, Kim says, is not just to learn facts about the city’s history. “It’s not about information you get. This is about experience.”
For more information about Sptnik tours, visit www.sptnik.com