Michael Schneider is a Founding Director of 56th Parallel, an Australia-based premium adventure travel company specializing in Russia, particularly Eastern Russia.
Q: 56th Parallel is not well known in North America. Please tell us a little about it.
56th Parallel was officially born in 2010, After many trips to various parts of Russia, especially Siberia (first trip in 2002) as part of my work commitments at the time (working for high net worth Russian individuals that had interests in Australia), initially I was taking along business associates from Australia, these trips combined business and the best of Russian hospitality (which included remote locations in Siberia and fun activities like snowmobile trips, dog sledding, log cabin retreats, exploring local indigenous cultures by mingling with them. In the summer months we would go fishing, trekking, water sports, all in the raw nature. The hosts (the high net worth people I worked for), had the best connections and knowledge of infrastructure and best spots. I naturally built relationships with these service providers over time, without even thinking we will work together one day.
I of course was in love with Siberia, its wild, raw nature and the warm people and hospitality from day 1, but then again I did know some really well connected people, so I guess it is important to mention. As soon as I had any holidays available to me I took the first chance to travel back to Siberia, I was not interested in any other destination in the world, because for me it ticked all boxes, both summer and winter.
I must admit the for me, a single man at the time, the beauty of the Russian women was a huge factor for wanting to go back to Siberia every chance I had. I am now very happily married to my soul mate, who is naturally Russian.
Over the various trips I got such amazing feedback from everyone who visited Siberia with me, everyone asked me when am I going again, as they wanted to join me. People started talking about their experiences in Siberia with their friends and recommending they get in touch with me.
In 2010, I got retrenched, the project I was working on ended. I was a little lost and was not sure what to do next. It is then that I thought why not do what people keep telling me to do and that is show them Russia, Siberia that I know and the experiences friends tell them about.
So I decided to launch 56th Parallel.
The name 56th Parallel is after the first location I visited in Siberia. The location is Krasnoyarsk city, and it sits on the 56th Parallel (latitude). Also cool fact, most of the Trans-Siberian journey is along the 56th Parallel, with a few deviations of course.
Q: Since your launch in 2010, what area of Russia has been most surprising to you, and to your team? When we say surprising, we mean the most unexpected and wonderful.
I started travelling to Siberia/Russia in 2002. Officially launch of 56th Parallel was in 2010. It is very hard for me to pick one area of Russia, I experience various positive emotions in regards to every region I visited they are all extremely special and diverse. As you may know Russia is huge, every region in Siberia had its landscape, weather, wildlife, culture, while still having a Russian soul that connects them all.
I love Kamchatka for its uniqueness, natural rawness, wildlife and the feeling that you are in a place like no other, it always feels like you are the only one there, like you are discovering something for the first time for all humanity, peace.
I love Lake Baikal, it is one of the most spiritually beautiful places I have been. I love Altai Region, for its mountains, rivers, rich culture. I love the people of Siberia for the warmest hospitality every time without fail, the sincerity I found there and the beautiful ladies of course.
Q: What kind of visitors do you get and what are their expectations?
The kind of people that are interested in our tours are mostly well travelled, 30+ years old man and women 51% and 49% respectively: Australian, American and Europeans. They are looking for a different experience, they want something that was not done before one that has bragging rights. They are looking for experiences that are well aligned with their hobbies, like fishing, kayaking, hiking, photography etc. And they are looking to do them in new exciting destinations, they are after that pioneering feeling. Now is the best time to see Siberia, before the early adopters told everyone about it.
Siberia, eastern Russia, brings the feeling of being closer to the feeling of “I am alive” it’s brings everything into perspective. Experiencing the unbound and limitless raw nature, seeing the contrast of the new and old world, created a sense of humbleness, fragility and an appreciation for what we have, well at least this is how my friends tell me they feel after a trip with me.
Q: When you are developing a new tour for your clients, what do you look for? What kind of research do you do when you decide on new destination or new tour? Do you personally scout out all the new trips and destinations?
When developing a new tour/adventure in Russia, Siberia, I look for a few key factors that have to be included:
– Culture immersion with locals indigenous groups.
– A wow factor, (the activity, destination, landscape, wildlife, etc).
– Logistical viability (Siberia is much harder logistically than most), so we make sure everything is as seamless as possible while delivering the wow factor.
– What sets this adventure apart (point of difference) this can be things like – living with the locals for a few hours or a day, on location with bears within meters from you, kayaking with orca whales, the amazing photo opportunities etc.
I now rely on trusted local partners in every region who do most of the scouting, they know much more about the region, my job is to make sure it meets expectation of western travellers.
Q: Could you share some travel advice for westerners who come to Siberia and the Russian Far East?
• Do not read a book by it’s cover, this relates to Russian people, they may seem cold from the outside, but I give you my word, you will fall in love with them if you dig deeper.
• Culture shock! Siberia is vast. Every region has its own culture, climate, and people may look different in every region.
• Siberia has a hot Summer, it lasts 3-4 months from June- September
• Winter is magical in Siberia, I invite you to prove me wrong.
• English is growing fast in Russia, all hotels restaurants and other hospitality points speak English, the level of English may differ in remote regions.
• Explore the amazing traditions, food dishes, you will love them.
Q: How much of an impact do geopolitical events have on your business?
Unfortunately, it does have an effect on the business, the world has become very accessible these days and people have a large choice of destinations to choose from, so when Russia is portrayed in a negative light in some countries, even here in Australia, it affects people’s decision making in regards to exploring Russia.
Q: Your company has a big presence in social media. How has the rise of social media impacted your business?
When we launched the business, we realised that the information available about regions of Russia and travelling to regions of Siberia in particular is limited. We were left with a challenge of educating people on Russia and why it is such a great place to visit on a small budget. Russia still to this date does very little to promote itself as a travel destination. Social media proved to be information outlet for us to educate people about travelling to Russia, Siberian regions.
Welcome to check us out our Facebook.
Q: What’s on the horizon for 56th Parallel in 2016 and beyond?
We very much look forward to explore the American market and partner up with local travel agents who see the destination and our products as exciting as we do. We really feel the American market is very untapped by us and would love to have more travellers from the US enjoy what we have to offer.
We also look forward to coming up with new and exciting tours that concentrate on people’s hobbies, like new bike tours, fishing, kayaking, trekking, photo tours etc.
Q: What is the favorite Eastern Russian destination amongst your clients? Could you highlight a particular activity or excursion there?
Kamchatka without a doubt it the favorite. They love Kuril lake bears encounters, sea kayaking with marine life, volcano trekking, photo tours, local food and culture.
Q: Is it possible for travelers from the US to join your trips? How would they learn more?
It is easy for travellers from the US to join our trips, there are direct flight with AirRussia.US. Travellers can learn more about the tours and destinations by visiting our website at www.56thparallel.com and our youtube channel.
I look forward to helping every one of you explore magical Siberia!
Founder – 56th Parallel
Published on December 2, 2015