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In search of the real Lapland
He is a larger-than-life character who’s at home near the North Pole, with a great love of reindeer. No, it’s not the great man himself, but Paul Kostich, founder of tour operator Transun.
i caught up with him in between his trips to Lapland, to talk about the sea change in the travel industry since he set up the company in 1982, at the age of 25.
Now 56, he left his native Yugoslavia at the age of 18 to travel the world, leading tours in Ladakh on the Tibetan border of India, in East Africa, China and Thailand. The child of Communist parents, he can’t explain what made him quit his job in the airline industry in London to set up his own business in Oxford.
“It certainly wasn’t the money,” he said. “You get less money but more responsibility. People say ‘Oh, you wanted to be your own boss’ but it’s more complicated than that. It wasn’t because of phenomenal market research or a high-flying decision.”
Having started with tours to Yugoslavia, nine years later the company was highly diversified. Mr Kostich, who speaks six languages, plus a smattering of Chinese, Thai and Swahili, said: “We introduced into the UK market direct flights from local airports at reasonable cost to a variety of European destinations.
“We were the first to fly to Prague, we took the first commercial aircraft into Poland, we were in Marrakech before anyone else, and the Sahara desert and Cairo. We ran short breaks to New York from local airports before anyone else. Until the mid 1990s, Heathrow was the only one. We used Leeds, Belfast, Aberdeen and Liverpool.”
He is scathing about the arrival of what he describes as ‘Santa suburbia’.
“We have been doing Father Christmas trips for more than 20 years, as one of only two companies. When we started, there was nothing in Lapland. It has grown, but it is cyclical. In 2004, we took 24,000 passengers. This year we have 6,000.
“What’s happened is that it has gone downmarket, and we didn’t want to be part of that. The company prides itself on high standards and personalised, high-quality service to guests.
“More and more companies have gone into it, because there’s no limit to human greed and stupidity. It’s a short-term thing. We have been in business for 26 years, through two recessions, and we will survive this one.
“There will be many that will go under. I can guarantee that we will still be there, because we don’t take a short-term view or make false economies. We service the market and treat people as guests.”
He is sanguine about the threat from people booking cheap flights and putting together their own packages over the Internet.
“It depends on what you want. If you want to book a Ryanair £1 ticket anywhere, that is fine, but it is something different. You might as well buy a bunch of roses second hand and wilted.”
He says people booking special holidays may do their research on the Internet, but when it comes to booking, they do it by phone. However, he sees the economic downturn as a serious threat to survival.
Three years ago, the company changed its business model, closing its offices in Leeds and London, and now sells its holidays through travel agents, reader offers in newspapers and magazines, and direct advertising.
“We could see that an almighty bang was coming and we decided to sort ourselves out well before it came. We have six employees now. Three years ago, we had 150. We could see the early warning signs and took the long-term view that there would be a serious downturn.
“We started to drastically change our business model in the first quarter of 2005. Over the last three years, we have cleared a lot of unprofitable products and we are now looking at what the next ten years will be like.”
He sees the sub-Arctic region — Lapland, Iceland and Greenland — as key growth areas. “As a nation, we have done Spain and the Canaries. We want to go further afield, but people don’t have too much time.”
Seeing Father Christmas in Lapland is completely different, he says, to seeing him in a garden centre or Debenhams.
“He Is still a figment of our imagination, but he is in the real habitat, in what we call ‘true Lapland’, in the far north. There are only 2,000 people there, and 30,000 reindeer, roaming free — and nothing else.
“The trips are emotionally highly charged for everyone. I have seen more adults cry than children, when they meet Father Christmas. Seeing the real Father Christmas in a real Arctic wilderness is like seeing the Pope in Rome. It’s the real thing.”