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St. Petersburg, Russia. August 2002

We’d just finished the second day of tours and our bus had arrived back at our cruise ship, the Marco Polo, a cosy 1,200 passenger liner, docked in a very remote area of inactive industrial waterfront. We were greeted by a 5 man brass band, appropriately costumed, playing lively traditional Russian music. We had encountered this type of band at many of the palaces and museums we’d visited. Now, it doesn’t break me to tip them a dollar. But consider even a quarter of the passengers tipping a dollar, the band getting that several times a day, each day during tourist season. It would probably make a big difference in their lifestyle living in Russia, which was emerging from years of totalitarian rule, and as we were seeing and learning, was presenting many challenges to the average person.

So, many of us dropped a tip in the bucket hanging on the post as we approached the gangplank, nodded and smiled, and the band members nodded in return as they continued playing.

But that wasn’t the end of it.

7:30pm, after dinner, I wander up to deck level to watch the proceedings as we cast off to make our way to Helsinki. And I notice the band is still there on the dock, milling about, near their tiny Lada. The gangplank has been lifted, so I have no idea what they are still doing there.

As the ship starts to slowly pull away from the dock, the band gathers up their instruments and starts to serenade us. I think I recognize the tune – Dasvidania – which means goodbye in Russian. And as the ship is pulling away further from the dock, the band is playing with increased intensity. At this point, the small crowd on deck to witness our departure is all eyes and ears on the band. The song comes to an end, the five musicians face the ship and bow. And the small crowd on deck breaks into a lively round of applause and cheering.  (And then the band crammed themselves and their instruments into that tiny little Lada and drove off.)

I saw many amazing things in St. Petersburg those two days, but this occasion stands out in my mind. I keep asking myself, why, why did they stick around? There was no opportunity of getting any more tips from the passengers. They probably waited over 2 hours to play for us. Were we that gracious with our tips? Was it their special way of wanting us, as I am, to speak of a special experience that a visit to Russia can provide? (I have friends with comparable stories). This was something I did not expect, and it is a warm special moment of my visit to that city.

(We might call this putting a WOW factor into your project – it doesn’t always take a lot. Sometimes it’s just doing a little extra, the unexpected.)

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