Sptn!k: Unconventional Russian Excursions Brought to You by Locals

The Sptn!k [ru] project was created in St. Petersburg and has now reached Moscow. Last month, in February 2013, Teplitsa‘s Ekaterina Izmeskyeva spoke with the creator, Aleksander Kim, about how the idea came about to create the portal, who becomes tour guides, and what interesting tours can be found on the site.

E.I.:  How did you get the idea for this project?

A.K.: I traveled a lot when I was a student.  I studied to be a programmer, and when I graduated, I felt like I needed to do something useful, so I decided to combine travel and technology.  There were different ideas.  For example, tour guide apps for smartphones.  But I didn't want to make just another app.  I wanted to make something different, particularly, to connect tourists with locals.

Alexander Kim, Sptn!k's creator.

In the beginning, we wanted to make a platform similar to Couchsurfing for tourists and locals to meet, but without the overnight stays.  But afterwards we realized that it would be very strange, because the couchsurfing aspect (staying over at someone’s place as a way to save money and learn more about local culture) is gone, and there is no way to monetize it, and we needed support for the project.  So we decided better to have guided tours, they are more fun anyway.

We decided to set up guided tours by locals for foreigners. Then it grew into us creating tours in Russian as well, for tourists who don't speak English, but who are also interested in tours.

E.I.:  What is the primary goal of the project?

A.K.: The benefit of the project is a very strong influence on the tourism image of the city; tourists who use our service leave with great impression of the city.  It’s also an improvement of the infrastructure, because in Russia the tourism situation is rather bad.  If tourists go through an agency, it might cost them a lot, but if they connect with regular people, they will always help, write, or explain what to do and how to do it.

As for my personal goals — of course we want to make this big and interesting, so that everything is operational and making money.

E.I.:  Are there any other similar projects, and in what aspect is yours different from the others?

A.K.: The extremely similar projects are Vayable in America and Gidsy in Europe. There are probably some small projects that I am not aware of. But, we are mainly focusing on Russia and the CIS, and probably on developing countries in the future.  Then we'll see how it goes.

E.I.:  You began this project in St. Petersburg and now it has spread to Moscow.  What are your future plans? 

A.K.:  The most immediate is Kiev.  We want to launch the platform this spring, together with Moscow.  After the summer, I think we'll launch it in the Baltics or the Caucasus.  Most likely in the Baltics.  And after the Baltics we'd like to, for example, go to Istanbul.  Or we can go to Eastern Europe or further, to Southeast Asia or Latin America.

Part of Sptn!k's online interface.

E.I.:  What kind of audience is the project expecting?  Who are the potential tour guides and tourists? 

A.K.:  The guides are mainly young people, 20-25 years old, students or recent graduates. For them it’s a form of entertainment, it’s interesting for them. Many would, in fact, like to do tours, but just don't want to organize everything. We make the process much easier, because we are the ones creating the platform and are bringing them clients, i.e. tourists.  Among the guides there are also some who do this professionally.

On the other hand, the audience is the tourists.  They are not students, because students don't usually have any money. And so they travel on their own, without support or tours. Foreign tourists are usually 30-35 years old, who travel, who have money to travel, and who can spend money, for example, on tours.

E.I.  Do you have any free tours?

A.K.: There are some free tours, but there are less and less of them. Because people start off giving free tours, then a bunch of requests come in and they realize that they can't handle the volume, so they put a price on it, for example 200-300 rubles, in order to limit the flow.

We ourselves organize irregular but free tours, which we usually announce on on social networking sites.  In the winter this is more rare, but in the summer I think it'll happen once a week. Some sort of free event — a lecture or a tour or something.

E.I.:  And what does a person need to do if they want to become a tour guide on your site? 

A.K.:  You need to register, add a description, a photograph, and fill out your profile. Afterwards, we edit everything and chat with the guide in order to make corrections. Then we either have a short meeting, or run a test tour to which we invite tourists. Then, based on the results of the tour, we either approve of the  tour or not.  Approval – that means that if a person wants to do paid tours we approve the tour as paid.  If the tour isn’t very good, we suggest they try do it for free and practice guiding. Then, if the tour gets a lot of good reviews, it can become paid. It’s a perfectly trainable skill, and not everyone can do it well right away.

E.I.:  Do you have any favorite tours? 

A.K.:  For me, a bar tour would be a great tour.  I also like my own tour of Uzbek eateries. There is a metro tour in St. Petersburg, its interesting and timely in the winter. There is a tour of an old Soviet movie theater, where everything is analog. For foreigners, there are interesting master classes on Russian cuisine. There's a fun tour — a winter bike tour. People sign up and ride around St. Petersburg in the winter on a bike. If it's -20C weather, of course, it doesn't always happen, but when it's not too cold, you can do it no problem, there are special bikes with winter tires. The tourists ride just fine, everyone leaves safe and sound.There is also a rather exotic tour for foreigners — going to a public bath. There are many other tours, but these are the most interesting to me.

E.I.:  Do you already have tours in Moscow?

A.K.:  We're already adding tours. Nothing’s been published yet, but I can read you a few.  By the way, in St. Petersburg we have a tour for homosexuals. And now, in Moscow, some kid also added a tour for gays. People come to our site by searching something like “gays of Petersburg” and “phone numbers of gays in Petersburg” and similar things. The main thing is that they don't block us for propaganda [referring to St. Petersburg’s controversial law against homosexual propaganda among minors].  There is a tour of Moscow's second-hand stores, the zoo, Kolomenskoe. There's some sort of ranch. There is the high-rise on Kotelnicheskaya. There is a tour with merry twin blondes. Tere are many applications, actually, and we need to go through them all. By March, I think, we will have already launched a full version which can be used to book tours.

This interview was conducted by Teplitsa's Ekaterina Izmeskyeva. The original [ru] is available on Teplitsa's website.

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