LAGUNA BEACH — Through the glass walls of his hilltop home office, Darrylle Stafford can see waves lapping on the sandy shores of Laguna Beach. And beyond the blue sea is a world waiting for him to explore.
Stafford's specialty travel business--Cultural Access Network Inc.--has been successful during a tough time in the industry. His secret: Specialize.
Since starting his travel company three years ago, Stafford concentrated on visits to the Russian Republic and the neighboring Baltic states. He didn't just want to bring American groups to take in the sights of Russia and the Baltics, which are composed of the newly independent states of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.
Instead, Stafford wanted to bring Americans with special career-related interests, business people who want to learn more about their counterparts in those countries.
The groups' interests are wide ranging. Most are people interested in investing and expanding exports to those countries. Increasingly, international attorneys want to be updated on the region's new laws on joint ventures and other business issues. Stafford even led a group of Americans interested in psychic phenomena to compare notes with Russian psychics in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) and Moscow.
Cultural Access offers four basic programs, with the size of each tour group limited to 12 people. For those interested in cultural immersion, Stafford's company can arrange a 13-day tour of Russia and Estonia for $2,300 to $3,000. This includes a home-stay program for individuals to live with families, air fare, hotel accommodations, sightseeing, food and transportation.
Another program, coordinated with the World Trade Center Assn. of Orange County in Irvine, is geared toward business people interested in establishing ties with companies and the necessary government officials.
Special interest tours are for people with a vocation, such as medicine, law or government, who want to meet their counterparts in different regions for two weeks.
Stafford said he has already taken two groups of officials from California's probation and parole board. They have also brought officials from UC Irvine and UCLA who were interested in developing a continuing education program for teachers, criminal lawyers and those in the medical professions.
And for academics, there is the two-week home stay program in which a professor, researcher or student can stay with several families and meet people like themselves as they travel from city to city.
Stafford said sales for 1991, his first full year of operation, were $100,000. He expects this to triple this year and, based on early 1993 bookings, he predicts that sales could reach the $1-million mark.
Not bad for a former attorney, who made his initial trip to Russia just four years ago, when he was a guest of the Communist Party.
Stafford, 53, said he was getting tired of the routine work in his legal career and was fascinated with what was then still the Soviet Union. He wanted to do some trading there but felt that the region's infrastructure would not make trading easy.
At this stage of his business, which he described as "evolving," Stafford does not consider himself a travel agent.
"I'm just trying to help the Russians and the newly independent statesA start small businesses," he said. The money U.S. tourists leave behind in those countries generates some capital that can be used to start independent businesses, he said.
"They can capitalize on what they have in abundance, which is generous hospitality. This is a business in which the Russians (and people in the Baltic states) can earn hard currency."
Stafford is not alone in discovering the potential of small, specialized tours. Robert Feldman, who recently retired as director of the Russian and East European Area Studies Program at Cal State Fullerton, has taken U.S. veterans and history aficionados on several Russian military history tours in the Baltic states, visiting tank arsenals, the Black Sea Fleet and having meetings with veterans of the Afghanistan war and World War II.
Feldman's Placentia company, East-West International Tours Inc., also created tours for American singles to meet single people from Russia and the Baltic states.
While Cultural Access found success in specialty tours, East-West International found it more lucrative to arrange general sightseeing tours of the republics.
"Everybody's so curious about the changes that have occurred since the coup last summer. Some of them say they wanted to see Russia before it changes too much and modernizes," said Pamela M. Gonzalez, East-West International's office administrator.
\o7 If your Orange County company has annual sales of less than $10 million, we would like to consider it for a future column. Call O.C. Enterprise at (714) 966-7871.\f7