There is only one place more important to the San Diego-based receptive tour operator Misha Jovanovic than the 46 countries he has visited in his life; more important than his home country of Serbia (it used to be one of six states that made up the former Yugoslavia before its 1992 dissolution); more important than the single-person booth he has had for 31 consecutive IPW trade shows; and at least as important, it seems, as the tour and travel industry in which he has been active for nearly a half-century.
That place is the 100-meter-by-70-meter football field, better known in the U.S. as a soccer field. Jovanovic has been playing competitive soccer since he was 15 years old. Today, 57 years later, he still plays competitive soccer every Sunday—hot summer months excluded—in an over-63 league, San Diego’s Huff ‘n Puff League. The only real breaks he’s taken from soccer were during an 18-month stretch when he ruptured his Achilles at the age of 66, and another six-month hiatus after broke his fibula when he was 50. But those events have not stopped him from continuing to play and won’t, by his own count, till he is at least 84, which is the age of the current oldest competitive player in the Huff n Puff League. Perhaps soccer’s grip on the behavior of those who play it is the dynamic of a game—there is constant motion, individual skills and group efforts working at the same time, and the satisfaction of achieving a goal—that is shared by a player and by the team.
INBOUND spoke with him several weeks ago, and it was very challenging—not because of any difficulty with the asking of questions or his answering them, but because it was only a little more than an hour away from soccer’s Women’s World Cup quarter-final match between the U.S. and France. Somehow, despite that, we managed to have a full conversation during which we spoke about the state of the tour and travel tourism industry, how he got involved, what he believes international tour operators could do more of, and what U.S. travel suppliers could probably do better in working with receptive tour operators. Following is an excerpted account of our conversation as we talked around soccer.
How He Got into the Tour and Travel Industry: As an adult, Jovanovic has never really been out of the business, which he joined when he started as a tour guide while still in college. He graduated
in 1970 from University of Belgrade after having majored in foreign languages, with an emphasis on the French Language and Literature. After college, he eventually found himself employed as a tour guide with Atlas Tours, a large Dubrovnik tour operator that it is still in business, though it is a private-sector entity now—not owned and operated by workers, as it was during the time that Yugoslavia was a Communist state.
Much of the latter part of the 1970s was spent escorting tours mostly through Yugoslavia and Greece—tours that ranged from 7 to 14 days for French-and-English-speaking visitors to Dubrovnik. But even before that, he recalls with a smile in his voice, he served as a tour guide taking mostly student groups from Belgrade and Skopje to London—a 36-hour journey that required numerous stops through six countries.
|“Have you ever been a tour guide? You never know what part of the world you’re going to end up in … you meet thousands of people a year … and every one of them has a story.”|
His experience as a tour guide served him well. He absorbed scores of anecdotes in different languages from the travelers he has served, giving him a strong sense of duty to the retail customer and of what the retail customer wants; it is a sense that permeates his work when he assembles an itinerary for one of the small FIT groups that he specializes in. Occasionally, when there is a last-minute need or one of his regular, contracted guides can’t make an assignment, he can still be found acting as tour guide on one of his San Diego/Southern California itineraries.
It also instilled in him a belief that, as a receptive operator—he is the founder and owner of Misha Tours—he has to know everything about every one of his products and what the final customer is looking for: “I have people who work for me but, basically, what I am doing, I am doing alone. I have 100 percent control over it. Only I can fail. I am always concerned about our product. I have two people who work on airline tickets and I have about 15 guides, but guides are independent.” (He also owns an IATA and ARC-appointed travel agency, Firstworld Travel. This is a division of the same business and it why he has two people working on airline tickets. He sells products of other tour operators and cruise companies through his retail agency.)
How He Came to Move to the USA:
In 1978, he was doing a tour for a small Canadian group, with a Greek driver who came from Athens, starting in Skopje (now the capital city of Macedonia) down to Athens and a half dozen stops, including Igoumenitsa, a coastal city in northwestern Greece, which has a ferry service to the island of Corfu … where he went on to Dubrovnik, Yugoslavia. It was in Igoumenitsa that he met his wife, Marsha, who is from San Diego and who was traveling with a friend and waiting for the ferry. That was in August 1978.
Keeping this account short, she returned to Yugoslavia the following year and, he ended up coming back to the USA with her. He arrived in San Diego on October 31, 1979. “I’m not the only one,” he told us. “I’ve met some people who’ve had the same experience as I did, and they were all tour guides.”
About His Business: In the U.S., it didn’t take him very long before he found the business activity for which he is a natural, as well his favorite sport, soccer. The two have complimented one another for nearly four decades. Perhaps the way he directs business to his company is best illustrated in what he does and how he does it at IPW. Last month in Anaheim, he attended his 31st consecutive IPW. (His first was in 1989 in Las Vegas.)
At the time it was over, he posted a message from IPW on Facebook, indicating to all who would read it that he had just worked his own booth, by himself, for the 31st consecutive IPW, and had conducted all of his appointments by himself, in five languages. He had 42 appointments with tour operators from 24 countries from Europe, Asia, Australia, North, Central and South America.
He realizes that other—but not all—companies have done something like this, or that other individuals have done this (but not a company owner) and that there are many multi-lingual booths. But, as he explained it to INBOUND, there are few who have done it alone and by himself, and have done it all for three decades.
Jovanovic believes that, one benefit of being able to “do it all” is that “operators never forget you” and that “it makes a big difference when you speak their language.” And, we have noticed, there is something in the way that the one-time student of languages speaks a language that has a poetic cadence and an almost-diplomatic signature. Combined with his trim suits that go so well with his trim beard, he comes across as a gentleman of the court. At the same time, he is competing for business in his own fiercely intense way—the same way he does on the soccer field.
|“My favorite position in football is a wing. Left or right. It doesn’t matter. I use both legs, so it is not a problem. Sometimes during the game, I will switch from right to left wing if I see that the other defender is ‘easier.’ My specialty is to put the ball through a defender’s legs. A few years ago, I did it twice in 10 seconds. We were playing our archrival Rovers, an English team in the San Diego’s Huff ’n’ Puff Soccer League. After I put the ball through defender’s legs for the second time, the defender was embarrassed and said to me: ‘You little bastard.’ I laughed!”|
If there is one thing that he would recommend to DMOs and suppliers who want international business, what would that be?
“The first thing that comes to mind is … they have to have people who are familiar with the cultures of the countries they do business with. That’s most important – not to mention language. Language is a must. Because you have to have multilingual personnel, or at least one or two people who are fluent in, or be able to conduct business in either French or Spanish or Italian or German or whatever country you do business with. That’s not the case with many American because … if you go to IPW, many of the people who come there are already bilingual or multilingual. Very seldom to you come into to contact with people who don’t speak more than open language. That’s a must for every tour company that wants to do business.
“I would suggest that companies, even hotels—that’s another story—have bilingual and multilingual personnel at the front desk. You would be surprised that you cannot find at the front desk of the major hotels—you will be lucky to find one person at the front desk of major hotels, four-star hotels, speaking Spanish or French or Italian. You’ve traveled all over the world; you know how important it is to have multilingual people at the front of the desk at a hotel. In Europe, at any time, you can count on of five major languages being spoken, including Portuguese, German, Italian, French, English. That’s the norm. And we are behind in that department.
“So, I would suggest that everybody should think about hiring somebody who is at least bilingual and then many of them should train their employees, in case they get groups, to be tour guides. Because you can hire a tour guide, but it’s much better if you have your own – in your office.
“Also, understand the culture of the country you’re dealing with. When people come you know how to handle them and what to show them. You’re not going to be doing a city tour or a sightseeing tour for Italians, or French people or Spanish the same way as you would do it for Americans or Canadians because the interests of these people is totally different.
“With an English-speaking guide, about 30 to 40 percent of the information they share will not be of interest for those people.”
What about international tour operators? What can they be doing better?
“That’s another story. We still have a problem teaching and educating some operators overseas—in Europe and in South America, or anywhere in the world. Now, it’s a little easier, but they should be better about contacting us for advice. They plan their tours, they plan everything from their office with a map. In the old days, they would look at the map and say, ‘uh huh, it’s so many miles from L.A. to San Francisco from Las Vegas to San Francisco,’ and they plan everything not having in mind how big the distances are between the cities—not to mention in Los Angeles, where they plan what to include in a city tour during the day. And they forget that the mileage and the distance mean nothing. What takes two hours to cover before 9 a.m. might take just 45 minutes during the day. I don’t know why they don’t contact us and say, ‘Hey, by the way, can you help us with the time s and the distances?’ This way, when I get their plan from them and see it, I won’t have to see that it is impossible to do it
“So, what I would suggest that when they plan a trip, that they get in contact with their U.S. suppliers in asking all kinds of questions – not just doing it from their office in either Germany, France or Italy. Many of them do that. They think it’s so easy. I don’t want to use the word ‘arrogant’ but (he chuckles) I am from Europe and I know some Europeans think, ‘Oh, we can do everything.’ No, you cannot, because here it is different.
“My recommendation, then: Ask questions. Work together with your contacts in the U.S. I am sure that any supplier, any partner, will give good advice to their partners overseas. Use your contacts here more. Whatever you’re not sure about, just send an e-mail and ask, ‘Can you tell me if that’s right or wrong, or should I do this or that?’ I’m sure that every U.S. supplier will help.”
How long is he going to keep this up?
“I will first tell you: Have you ever heard that Chinse proverb, ‘If you do what you like, you do nothing in your life.’“
“I will always be doing this, because it is something that I like. I don’t consider this work. It’s fun—what I am doing. So, talking about retirement, I can tell you right now: Never. Because I enjoy what I’m doing.”