19.02.2014. A new trend is emerging in America – to drink orange wine, which is a special Georgian ghvino variation. Georgian woman Vera Person Sagareishvili, who is the managing director of Corporate Accounts at Panorama Travel (a New York-based travel agency), believes more Americans could enjoy Georgia’s Qvevri wine but the product needs to promote this most cherished wine-making method among them.
Pearson Sagareishvili emigrated to the United States of America 18 years ago. Within her role with Panorama Travel, she closely works with the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA), a Governmental body responsible to develop tourism and attract American tourists to Georgia.
Agenda.ge interviewed Vera Pearson Sagareishvili and asked her about Georgia’s developing hospitality sector, the major challenges within the industry, the characteristics of American travelers and what attracts them to Georgia.
Q: You emigrated from Georgia to the USA in 1995, a time when there was political, economic and social crisis in the country and only few people in the world, including the USA, knew where Georgia was. But now you work at Panorama Travel, a travel agency based in New York that is in charge of product development and promotion of Georgia. Has the tourism industry developed in Georgia over the past 18 years?
A: For the past 15 years I have been working in the travel industry in New York, USA. Unfortunately, at that time Georgia was not even found on the map. So it was absolutely impossible to persuade American travellers to spend a holiday in Georgia. I came back to Tbilisi in 2008 for the first time since I emigrated, during the time of the Russia-Georgia war so I could show my support to my friends and relatives. I was pleasantly surprised with the changes the country had done in the tourism sector. That visit was a hint for me to promote Georgia as a tourist destination.
Even today if you say that you are going in Georgia, travelling Americans would be surprised and ask you why you would travel to Atlanta, USA. The word Georgia does not affiliate with the country Georgia. Our efforts are to change this trend and when the traveller looks at the map, he must have the idea that this is Georgia, the country in the Caucasus, not in Atlanta, US.
Q: Can you characterize the American tourist and identify the best season for them to travel in Georgia?
A: There are two types of American tourists: one that travels to known destinations like Caribbean Islands, Mexico, Italy, etcetera. But this is not our market. We aim to identify with travellers who have been around the world and know travel destinations and today [they] are looking for new destinations. Georgia and Caucasus is a unique destination that is widely an unknown destination, that’s why they visit tourist agencies like myself. These people just have an idea to explore. If a traveller is young, we advise a program which is more rigorous. The majority of American travellers are retired. For them, we offer a program like exploration and cultural tours.
Culture, landscape, wine, and food attract American tourists to Georgia. Georgia is not a beach or ski destination for American tourists. Americans would not fly here to ski in the Gudauri ski resort or enjoy a beach vacation in Batumi on the Black Sea beach.
But the unique advantage of a small country like Georgia is sightseeing rich regions.
These places are semi-dessert in Kakheti, mountains in Svaneti and the Black sea coast. Even in a day, international tourist can get acquainted with the Caucasian mountains of Svaneti and sunny beaches of the Black Sea. Georgia is a great option for travelers who want to visit somewhere new. That makes our country unique.
Q: In 2012, Georgia was visited by 29 000 visitors from the USA, which represent only 0.5% of the total number of arrivals. What efforts are being made to increase the numbers of visitors from the USA?
A: All small countries including Georgia try to capture the American tourist market. The reason is the spending power of American tourist is much higher than tourists coming from Armenia. The American market is very lucrative and tourists mostly stay in a five star hotels, eat in restaurants three times a day and are shopaholics.Local tour operators realize the value and potential of American clients and they are eager to welcome them. They are efficient and I sell the services they offer with confidence.I always hear, from American tourist who have travelled to Georgia, they rave about the unique landscape of the country, the delicious cuisine, and of course, the wine.
Q: Attracting trade and tourism is the task of the Georgian National Tourism Administration (GNTA), a governmental body responsible of tourism development in the country. What is the best way GNTA can advertise Georgia as a tourist destination in USA?
A: Luckily, in New York, we have more and more Georgian restaurants. We have a few restaurants in Brooklyn and two new restaurants in Manhattan. Food and travel are very much correlated. We could use those restaurants as a tool for advertising. When a local visits the Georgian restaurant, it sparks his interest to explore the country that has such delicious food.
Being a cradle of wine is something we should be very proud of. A new trend is developing in America to drink orange wine, which is called Qvevri wine in Georgia. The Qvevri wine-making method is the most cherished cultural treasure of Georgia, so why do they not use this as an advertising tool?
(Note: Qvevri refers to a specific citron-shaped clay vessel, lined protectively with molten beeswax and placed in the soil.)
Because Georgia is so unknown for American tourists, a lot needs to be done. Sure, more or less every effort of advertising works to attract tourists including TV advertising on CNN, participation in trade and tourism exhibitions, info tours and more. Word of mouth is the strongest advertisement. It is better to see once, than to hear seven times.
Q: What is the greatest challenge facing Georgia’s hospitality sector?
A: Despite the fact that Georgians are very hospitable people, in general we lack the basic standards of hospitality, including a smile. When you work in a service sector it is not only polite to smile but it is ideal.In America you would get immediate attention in a restaurant as soon as you enter. The staff are attentively smiling and once you start eating they come and ask if everything is to your liking.
While in Georgia, many times you have to look for a waiter and tell him that you are in a hurry and please speed up.We still need to improve the service standards in our hospitality sector, particularly in a time when year-by-year the number of international tourists is increasing. The service quality in the tourism sector plays a huge role in creating customer satisfaction and qualified education in this field would be superior.