27 Jul Russian Dressing
Thursday, July 13, 2017
My exclusive interview with Gregory Tepper, the CEO and founder of Exeter International, offering luxury travel, exclusive tours and private access experiences to Russia and Eastern Europe.
JB: Can you tell the readers your background and how you got into the business of selling luxury travel to Russia ?
GT: I was born in NYC, but my family moved to Tampa , Florida when I was still young. I started studying Russian at the age of 16 when I took an intensive Russian language class at my boarding school, 6 days a week. I fell in love with the language and then later the history, culture and people of Russia. And yes, I am fluent in Russian after studying it for 4 years and living in St Petersburg for a year.
JB: What are some of the significant changes in Russia over the years?
GT: Wow – Russia is not even recognizable from the days when I lived there and when I started my company. Only one Western-standard hotel existed in St Petersburg in 1993 and only two in Moscow – all the rest were Soviet-era horrors with truly inedible food, lumpy beds, surly service and depressing lobbies. Speaking of food, Moscow has become a true foodie destination and it even has a Michelin starred restaurant, White Rabbit in Moscow, which was inconceivable in the 1990’s.
JB: How has our 2016 election impacted tourism to Russia or neighboring countries?
GT: The invasion of Ukraine by Russia caused travel to Russia to plummet from all the Western countries in 2015 by 30%, but travel is up again this year.
We are even seeing bookings to Kiev and other parts of Ukraine for this summer. The election has not had a negative impact at all for travel to Russia.
JB: How does the Russian citizen now perceive the American traveler? Any different than before the election?
GT: Americans are among the more popular tourists in Moscow and St Petersburg. This has as much to do with the fact that we tip generously and we compare favorably to tourists in other parts of the world. When tourism from the U.S. was down, Exeter found that many Russians who came into contact with travelers missed the Americans! There is very little anti-American feeling in Moscow and St Petersburg generally.
JB: Do you find that travelers are asking how their trips might be affected with regard to the accusations of Russian involvement in our political system ?
JB: Are travelers asking if they can meet Edward Snowden? (ha – I’m really curious, but I may be the only one)!
GT: You are, indeed, the only one to ask!
JB: There is a US State Travel warning to the Ukraine. Is it dangerous to travel there now?
GT: When I’m asked this, I direct travelers to look at all the countries that are on the US State Travel warning list including, sadly, much of Europe. Ukraine is and has been completely safe over the past few years for travelers, except in the very far East of the country, near Russia where there are no tourist sites in this region and travelers are unlikely to even want to go there..
JB: Is the media correct in advising the public that the economic situation in Russia is declining or is this “fake news”?
GT: No – things are not easy for the average Russian economically. As a matter of fact, even the rich in Russia are “suffering” a bit. The economy is more affected by the drop in the price of oil from over $100 a barrel to under $50 today and this is the same in all oil-exporting countries. The sanctions have made thing worse for sure, but the price of oil is what is driving the economic malaise in Russia today.
JB: Currently, is the dollar strong or weak in Russia?
GT: A year and a half ago, the Ruble was 30 to a dollar and now it is 57 to a dollar. This is certainly a great time to enjoy Russia when the dollar is getting stronger.
JB:What surprises people most when they travel to Russia? Is there a stereotypical idea about the destination or the average citizen you would like to dispel?
GT: People often have a misconception of Russia before they arrive. Many still expect it to be dangerous and depressing- with bad food! It’s none of those things! Moscow in particular has been remade over the past two years, with new parks, pedestrian streets, wide sidewalks and refurbished museums all over the city. Moscow has never looked better than it does today and it’s stunning.
JB: What are some of the more interesting sites in Russia that Exeter goes to?
GT: I love the tiny little village of Plyos on the Volga River. It’s a bit like Colonial Williamsburg- perfectly preserved and in the winter, truly Dr. Zhivago!
JB: Is it safe to travel to Russia now?
GT: Absolutely. Russia is statistically one of the safest destinations in Europe and this includes rates of petty theft, terrorism and crime of any kind.
JB: I can’t let you go without asking: what’s your ‘must read’ book on Russia ?
GT: Land of the Firebird: the Beauty of Old Russia by Suzanne Massie.