Skiing and snowboarding are often considered to be sports for rich people. Vesselin Genadiev, a 35-year-old networks engineer from Bulgaria, aims to change that with his travel agency, Marmoto, which offers ski and snowboarding vacations for people who can’t afford luxury lodging.
It all started seven years ago when Genadiev, who put on his first pair of skis when he was 3 years old and later became a passionate snowboarder, began looking for a fantastic, but inexpensive, snow destination. A friend tipped Genadiev off about a Hungarian travel agency that offers trips to winter resorts in the French Alps at very reasonable prices, especially compared to similar holiday packages to France offered by Bulgarian companies. The entire holiday package cost him less than 300 euros–while in Bulgaria, a similar winter holiday sold for twice as much, Genadiev recalls.
Bulgaria, which has traditionally been a budget ski destination for many western Europeans, is home to good but relatively small ski resorts, best for beginners and intermediates–but Genadiev enjoyed the snowboarding and breathtaking scenery in the French Alps more than the slopes of his home country.
“We were very impressed with what we saw. The resorts were much better in terms of quality of snow, maintenance, and customer service,” Genadiev says.
The next winter, Genadiev spearheaded another trip to the French Alps through the same Hungarian agency–and this time, he opened the trip up to his friends, offering to collect their money and make the trip payment for the group. Genadiev expected that no more than 10 or 15 of his friends would actually sign up–but he ended up booking more than 70 people on the trip.
“I was getting calls from strangers asking, ‘Hi. Is this the travel agency which organizes the ski trips to France?'” Genadiev says.
The next year, the number of people who signed up for his ski trip grew to 100–and soon Genadiev found himself sending groups of as many as 250 ski and snowboard enthusiasts to the French Alps.
As an experienced traveler–so far, he has visited 55 countries–and an enthusiastic snowboarder, Genadiev knew exactly what advice the group needed before they hit the slopes. He started sending group members maps of the area, detailed information about the resort, the facilities it offers, and its available trails, and useful tips on transportation options and road conditions. He also found himself answering all sorts of questions from members of the group regarding road conditions, traveling around France, food prices, restaurant options, shopping venues, and which chalets had pools. In short, he was doing everything that a travel agent would do for customers–but he was doing it pro bono and outside of his day job. And he was still paying for his own trip.
Grateful for his dedication to organizing the annual trips, his considerate friends collected some money among themselves and gave it to Genadiev as a thank-you gift–and Genadiev is still using a snowboard he bought with some of that money.
More importantly, however, the donation convinced Genadiev that he could turn his passion for organizing snowboarding holidays into a moneymaking venture. In 2013, he finally decided to start his own online booking site that he named Marmoto. He signed a formal contract with the Hungarian travel agency, which gives him a small commission for every ski trip he sells–and last year, Genadiev sold holidays to 350 people. Marmoto offers three group trips each year to some of France’s top ski destinations, including Val d’Isère, Méribel, Courchevel, Avoriaz, Paradiski, and Serre Chevalier, where his customers enjoy hundreds of miles of ski trails and skiing opportunities for all ages and abilities. A week’s accommodation in a shared, self-catering apartment, including a six-day lift pass, costs between 200 and 300 euros–a cheaper alternative to many of the winter holiday packages available in Bulgaria. Some of the bigger apartments, designed for up to 12 people, offer basic accommodations like bunk beds and pull-out sofas, while other apartments offer access to spa tubs, gyms, and saunas.
While Marmoto customers are responsible for purchasing their own medical insurance–either through the site or using an insurance company of their choice–every now and then tourists knock on Genadiev’s door to ask for assistance if they don’t feel well. “It’s inevitable when you have a group of 200 people,” he said. Sometimes he helps people find transportation to the nearest hospital, but other times the best he can do is tell them to call their insurer and go see the resort’s doctor.
Demand for Marmoto’s trips continues to grow–trips sell out within days once registration opens. “Last year the traffic on the site was so high that the server crashed,” Genadiev says.
However, he doesn’t plan to expand his business, which he runs by himself. So far he has only hired an accountant to keep track of bookkeeping and taxes. “This type of business is highly seasonal,” he said. “It’s a good source of some extra money, but it’s not the main source of income for my family.”
Genadiev has streamlined the booking process so well that it takes him only a couple of hours to manage his website, check for bookings, and reply to emails from his living room. To build a community of connected Marmoto customers (or “marmots,” as he often calls them), he started a blog and actively uses Facebook to keep his customers engaged long after ski season is over. He recently ran a winter photo contest–the prize was a free ski trip to France. “At the moment, though, there is no better advertising than a happy customer telling their friends how much fun they had during one of our trips,” Genadiev said.
Not every aspect of his business, however, runs so smoothly. Recently, Genadiev was fined because he failed to register his business as a tourism agent, a newly adopted legal requirement he had been unaware of. As a budding entrepreneur, though, he sees all this as a part of learning the nuts and bolts of how to manage a small business. As someone who is very dissatisfied with the quality of customer service in Bulgaria, he pays particular attention to the feedback his own customers provide, and personally handles any complaints or suggestions for improvement his own customers might have.
For now, Genadiev is content to be a full-time networks engineer and a part-time entrepreneur at Marmoto. “It’s like a playground on which I test different business, customer-oriented, or technical practices,” he said. “I’m learning a lot, and maybe one day I could use this knowledge in another large-scale, much more profitable project.”
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