Maxim Behar: Sofia International Airport Must Be Named 'John Atanasoff'

Interview | May 14, 2012, Monday // 14:01|  views (Sofia News Agency) and are publishing an interview of the Bulgarian PR expert for the "Media on Air" talk show of the "Bulgaria on Air" TV.


How would you complete the sentence: Bulgaria is the country of...

Talented, ambitious, highly motivated, and intelligent people.

This sounds like a well-structured advertising slogan.

No, this is the reality. Everybody knows Bulgaria's location. Everybody who is at least a little interested in our country knows that we have a sea, we have mountains, we have ski resorts. Some know that Bulgaria's sea coast is overdeveloped, other's don't. They will find it out when they come over.

But at the end of the day, the most important thing they should know, feel, take home with themselves – that is the people. We are a truly unique nation with unique young people who can achieve unique things.

As a person who travels a lot, and now I actually live abroad most of the time, I can safely make this judgment that the people are Bulgaria's greatest advantage and added value, and this is what we should be promoting and "selling" abroad all the time.

When it comes to the best approach to advertise Bulgaria, I respect the views of my colleagues who stress history and all those things that Bulgaria has been throughout the ages. However, this sort of information might be very interesting for the tourists but it would be totally uninteresting for the investors, or the people who would like to do business in Bulgaria.

When I mentioned the young Bulgarians, the fact that they are highly educated, and enjoy extremely intelligent relations with one another, I meant primarily those of them working in various business sectors, and those who study, because this is the sort of information that is particularly interesting and useful for investors considering the opportunities of doing business in Bulgaria.

One of the world's best kept secrets is the fact that Bulgaria is the country with the lowest taxes in Europe. We have a 10% flat corporate tax, whereas in other countries it is more than 30%. We have a 5% dividend tax, which is unique in the world, not just in Europe. That's important since any investor would like to get a higher dividend when they invest EUR 1 in Bulgaria. 5% is actually an insultingly low tax rate. We have a 10% flat personal income tax.

If these facts were more widely know, and, unfortunately, they aren't, they would generate great interest with the people who might read something about Bulgaria's history, and might learn who Orpheus and the Ancient Thracians were, but at the end of the day they will have a calculator in their heads, and will be saying to themselves, "Great, they have history, they have intelligent people, let me now see how much I will get in two years if I put in EUR 100 today."

There was a study recently which indicated that a large percentage of the foreign investors would not invest in Bulgaria. Why do you think that is?

This survey was among the German investors. The exact figure was 35%, which is not so dramatic but it just seems to me that the very conditions for investors – foreign or local, it doesn't matter, the people leaving their money here must be treated equally because they create jobs for the others – the very conditions that the Bulgarian state provides them with are not so good.

This is an issue that we have been mulling over time and again for past 20 years at various forums but I would like to see from the Bulgarian government a greater openness to foreign capital and a more active presentation of Bulgaria around the world, a little more systematic program so that people could know more about Bulgaria. Because relying only on business forums (some of them not really successful), or on government delegation visits, is certainly not the best way.

If I need to mention several things that must be done, the first would be that the government must organize presentations of Bulgaria in some of the largest global cities. I know that some events of the sort have already started but these need to be a lot more attractive and frequent, and must be focused on various business sectors

I myself organized an international conference in Sofia last week that was called "Bulgaria: Business UP". This is a slogan that I invented in our company, we carried it out, because the three words – Bulgaria, business, and up, and especially up, are very crucial and positive, and the conference has been the most successful one in Bulgaria for many years. The same way back in 1994 I started the super successful initiatives "Doing Business in Bulgaria", in 1997 – the Bulgarian Economic Forum, in 2001 together with Nevada Governor Bob Miller we started the unique conference series Bulgaria Dream Area.

I would like to see Bulgaria: Business UP become the focus of all so that all foreigners coming here can become aware of the conditions for doing business in our country. Because foreigners who come to Bulgaria usually remain present here. But for that to happen they must come over first.

How can Bulgaria lure foreigners in addition to the good business conditions, low taxes, and highly educated Bulgarians? What are our missed opportunities in that regard?

There was this very interesting article in The Financial Times whose author wrote it after several days in Bulgaria. It started like that: "This is most peculiar country that I have seen. It has great beaches and awesome people. But I land on an airport that is called "Vrazhdebna" ("Hostile"), and then you go to the most high-class quarter that is called "Hladilnika" ("The Fridge")..."

These are things that would make an impression not only to any journalist but also to any tourist. I agree that tourism is extremely important for Bulgaria so that the brand can be more popular and more people can come here. I don't really know a foreigner who came as an investor, a tourist, or just a guest, and who didn't have good impressions, or who left, saying, "This is a crappy country."

So if tourism is the backbone of this promotion effort that we call "Bulgaria", it also needs to be combined with all those things that the Bulgarian state provides for doing business.

It is crucial to note that all the problems with corruption, bureaucracy, etc, can be resolved with one single thing called e-government. We must introduce all those electronic services so that when you go to the municipality or some other institution you don't have to stand in front of you some shabby bureaucrat, who tells you, "No can do, come back in two months", which leads you to search your pockets in order to give them something. On the one hand, your morals and upbringing don't let you give bribes, on the other, if they don't grant you that permit, you may be unable to do business for months. If all the licenses could be issued with the pressing of a button on my keyboard so that, for example, I could check what spots are available on the local marketplace without having to deal with some bureaucrat, things will be a lot more different.

The example that I mentioned is the simplest one. The large investors sometimes wait for years for various permits. If that could be done electronically, everything in Bulgaria will turn around in months, trust me on that. So that when all of those people come here to leave their money, they will know that Bulgaria is a place worth investing in. I do claim that Bulgaria is a country worth investing in.

It seems that we do everything like campaigns, that is, only as long as a campaign lasts. The same happens with the promotional campaigns that Bulgaria initiates around the world?

There is nothing wrong with campaigns since every country creates campaigns to realize the strategies that it needs. What is more worrying is the way Bulgaria presents itself abroad because two years ago Bulgaria had an advertising campaign on CNN, Euronews, and all those other international channels, which actually showed a few spa centers, I also remember that there was a woman stirring honey with a large wooden spoon, and some people pouring juice, and some beautiful girls drinking it.

All countries in the world have spa centers and food, and they are often much better than the ones created in Bulgaria in the past 20 years.

It seems to me that if we pick tourism, it must be presented in its absolute uniqueness. For example, bird watching. I know many Americans who come to Bulgaria for that. They come over with very expensive equipment, set it up in Southern Bulgaria, and can stay there for weeks. This is a very good sport helping tourism. Golf is also a great opportunity since we have several very good golf courses. Such as the ones near Balchik on the Black Sea. The problem there is that you have to get on the plane in London, to get to Sofia, and to transfer to a plane for Varna; in Varna you need a van to get to the golf course, so it's a bit complex but golf enthusiasts would do that.

But if Bulgaria is to stress its investment climate, the fact that we have low taxes, a highly skilled work force – I don't know if its cheaper but it is highly skilled, the fact that the state supports investors...

This is, by the way, what Macedonia is doing. I am amazed at how much money Macedonia pours in ads on CNN and CNBC, showing various people who are investors, and who say, "I came to Macedonia, I left EUR 20 M, and now I have EUR 50 M, I am very happy. These people work very well. It's a small country but a well-organized one."

What is more, Bulgaria has had a currency board since 1997 – for 15 years. This means that Bulgaria has predictability. We can't have high inflation, we can't have hyperinflation, we can't have an unemployment rate that is higher than what the IMF has set. Investors are supposed to flock to the countries with a currency board because they can easily predict inflation in five years there. Bulgaria will drop the currency board when it joins the euro zone.

When we build a nice pyramid out of all those things, and place them in a promotional program for Bulgaria, they would work. But we don't have a program. We have elements – like a clock with gears that are dispersed on the table. We can say, "Oh, look at all those nice gears that Bulgaria has!" But they don't work because you need to put a clock together! This is called a vision, strategy, effort. We do have all the parts that we need, I promise you that! But we must put them together!

How can we Bulgarians successful present ourselves while we are abroad?

I travel abroad 3-4 times a week. I am not ashamed of seeing Bulgarians dragging their bulky suitcases around; but I also see many Bulgarians nicely dressed in suits, coming back from business meetings.

In order to change ourselves we must first change the conditions we live in. We in Bulgaria are already very different people today. Go back 10 years in time, and you will see what I mean. The world is a different place but we are different, too. The tsunami of the social media has changed us completely. All that we call Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter can be summarized with just one word, and that is knowledge. Because of the social media, we possess enormous knowledge about the places we go and the people coming to Bulgaria.

But we also must do something specific. A couple of weeks ago I got together with my friends Solomon Passy and Petar Punchev, and we are going to launch a campaign to rename the Sofia International Airport because this airport must be called either John Atanasoff (the American of Bulgarian origin who invented the computer – editor's note), or St. Cyril and St. Methodius (the 9th century scholars who invented the first Slavic script – editor's note). These are the two options that we considered.

I personally believe that John Atanasoff is more suitable. Just imagine how each one of the tens of thousands of people landing at Sofia Airport every day will ask themselves, "John Atanasoff? Who is that? Oh, the inventor of the computer! I had no idea!" Of course, we Bulgarians love and cherish the Cyrillic alphabet, the Slavic script, and St. Cyril and St. Methodius will bring the foreigns back to history. That's nice, too, of course. But the combination of John Atanasoff's internationally sounding name – John and Atanasov at the same time, and the fact the foundation of the contemporary world started with him is truly unique.

The airport in Prague is now to be called Vaclav Havel. The Czech government has decided to rename it after this great man who changed the Czech Republic for the better, and a great writer and playwright. But we have John Atanasoff which sounds 100 times more international, and he invented something that the entire humankind has benefited from.

If we make such steps, all of us, the thousands of people who are interested in Bulgaria having a better image and branding, I thing that we will be able to achieve this goal. But we have definitely changed, we are more cultured, more communicative, smarter, and more knowledgeable.

How can Bulgaria employ its artists and cinema to help its image?

I am not much of an optimist that the Bulgarian cinema – which I know very well since I have dozens of friends who are directors, actors, scriptwriters – can – at least until 2020 – become so strong as to overtake the others' films, or to produce something particularly powerful.

There are nice Bulgarian TV series produced by several TV stations but I do think that I would not emphasize culture that much. I would stress tourism and business opportunities first and foremost since Bulgaria is still a relatively unknown country. This is our greatest drama. It is very important to formulate a clear and suitable policy with a clear and suitable slogan.

I have told this story many times: 10 years ago Prince Charles asked me to speak before some businesspeople, who are friends of his, and gave me 15 minutes. I thought about what I can say about Bulgaria in 15 minutes - "We have a sea, mountains, rivers, come over..." I simply got up and said, "Gentlemen, I need 15 seconds only. Bulgaria is a WWW country." They said, "What does that mean?" Prince Charles said, "Oh, you must be very hi-tech!" I replied, "No, Weather, Women, Wines."

Not let me explain, this is not a sexist expression. "Weather" stood for the four seasons in Bulgaria, the mountains, the sea. I used "Women" for the second "W" but it means the people. And "Wines" - everything that can be found here – the good wines and the nice cuisine. Of course, this might not be the best one but if we have a slogan that is memorable enough, things will work out.

Because three years ago Prince Charles's father, Prince Phillip, invited me to a dinner in Buckingham, and Prince Charles saw me, and crossed almost the entire dancing in order to come to me, and say, "WWW? I remember!" Of course, this was more of a funny experience with a slogan I came up on the spot. But if we have a successful slogan that goes with Bulgaria's name, this will help immensely.

And we must definitely change Bulgaria's logo because right now it looks like a banitsa (i.e. traditional Bulgarian pastry – editor's note), or like something else that I don't wish to mention. We must get together a wider range of artists, directors, actors, PR professionals, advertising experts, businesspeople, business associations, government representatives, and declare, "This is what we want Bulgaria to be in 2020, in 8 years. Let's figure out the road to get there." If we do that in 2012, I guarantee that in 2020 Bulgaria will be a different country.

What is the clich? that Bulgaria needs to escape from? What must Bulgaria be like in 2020?

I would say that Bulgaria will be a nice country when Bulgarians are nice people. The more nice people we have in Bulgaria, the better country it will be. Nobody will be able to create a better image for Bulgaria even with billions of dollars unless we do that ourselves. Because nice Bulgarians will have a nice Bulgaria.

Those Bulgarians with a negative disposition can't be fixed. There is a large number of Bulgarians who get up, get angry with themselves in the morning, and then get angry with everybody else in the afternoon. That is OK, as long as these people are not the majority. It is important that we who wish to live in a better country, to work honestly, and to take care of our children so that they can have a better Bulgaria – be nice and positive.


Maxim Behar is a Bulgarian PR and media expert, founder and CEO of one of the leaders on the Bulgarian PR market, M3 Communications Group, Inc. As of January 2012, he is the Chairman of the Czech Republic Office of leading global corporation Hill+Knowlton Strategies. Behar is also the Treasurer and a Member of the Executive Board of the International Communication Consultancy Organization (ICCO), and a member of the Board of the global PR forum in Davos "Communication on Top".

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Tags: Maxim Behar, PR, social media, M3 Communications Group, Facebook, europe, EU, EU accession, Bulgarians abroad, Foreign investors, foreign investments, foreign investment, Bulgaria Business UP, macedonia, Prince Charles, tourism, foreign tourists, Sofia Airport, Sofia International Airport, john atanasoff, St. Cyril and St. Methodius


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