Archive for December, 2007

SNOVEM GORDEM

Another year has zoomed past. It’s SNOVEM GORDEM time – Happy New Year/Merry Christmas, Russian-style.

  

We are deep into life here in Yekaterinburg. Winter is real. Yesterday it was a minus 30 C or minus 22 F plus wind. The car of course would not start so getting around was problematic.

 

Denver, yes we have absolutely agonized over going back. It all boils down to choices and straining (breaking?) the family with yet another seperation. We just felt that staying put was the best option for now. Sophie has a pretty interesting job with International Finance Corporation, the open market arm of the World Bank. She has found her groove I think, after having two frustrating jobs in consulting. Consulting would have broken our family for sure – just too much separation and travel. She is back focusing on her first love – banking products – in this case working in getting banks and client firms matched up for energy loans. Yes, Russia has the second largest oil reserves but it is also the least efficient in energy usage of any of the European nations. Lots of modernizing to be done.

 

Nadia is excelling in ballet. We want to keep her focused on that. She is just a wonderful, if head strong child. She loves to talk, sing and talk again! She has her own cell phone now and is SMSing incessantly. I think she is a natural to have her own talk-radio show sometime.

 

I have been teaching at the college level the past three months and have found it very interesting. As you all know I have only a very old BS in Business (Cal Poly Class of ‘74 but I have 30+ years experience and a good gift of gab (running my mouth has always been pretty easy). I have really liked the interaction with students. We invariably get off track and talk about life in the USA or Russian-American politics, etc. I’m working with English speakers in the Economics Department at one school and the athletic department at the other – not sure why they put the PR curriculum in with the jocks, but they did. Money is stinky for the amount of time put in, but the mental stimulation is awesome. I have some very talented students and they keep me on my toes. I’m also working with a group of economics professors in preparing them to be better English speakers and in making effective presentatons.

 

Politics here are still a barrel of monkies. Putin was named Man of the Year by Time but has taken regular hits from The Wall Street Journal on his human rights record and the UK-Guardian paper over his alleged $40 billion he has stashed in Swiss and Lichtenstein bank accounts. My father-in-law, God love him, defends this collection of money by a few as “State Capitalism”; probably as good a description as any. Things have not really changed at the top. You have a few  clans – maybe 6 – where the wealth is congregated and held closely. A lot of the old Commie crowd (KGB-FSB-types) are in on this haul, so Putin may be dirty who really knows. Everyone hates it, but no one does anything about it.

 

On the other hand there is huge “trickle down” – Reagan would understand this! Lots of consumer spending, mortgages, credit card use, etc. AND savings! Russian save money but they have gotten to love the creature comforts that this modified brand of capitalism brings. The clans control the big businesses – banking, oil/gas, etc. and the consumer side is left pretty much alone. A mall is a mall, is a mall, is a mall in Yekaterinburg or Miami or Denver (I miss Flatiron’s Mall in Superior, Colorado, my favorite mall of all time).

 

Got to run. Merry Christmas to all. Thanks for stating in touch over the past year. I appreciate all the correspondence.

 Mike

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Me-Yass (Миасс)

A new adventure offered itself this week. Sophie was a presenter at a financial conference in Миасс (that’s the Russian spelling pronounced Me-Yas). Here’s the report on Миасс and our hotel.

 

Миасс region has a number of “New Russian” resorts located on a series of picturesque lakes between Yekaterinburg and Chelyabinsk. We were staying at the Fon Grad Resort Spa Hotel located on the banks of Lake Tourgoiya. It’s a small property four story with around 45 rooms. It’s low season. The lake is frozen over, with ice fishermen taking advantage of the abundant fish and peace and quite that winter brings. All the summer lakeside kiosks are shuttered and it is so quiet it is deafening.

 

Fon Grad reminded me of Minnesota resorts from years past with a great location on a forested lake front and a façade either replicating English Tutor or French Chateau architecture. Fon Grad had an English Tutor air with local nuisances. These local touches makes it the New Russian resort that it is. To qualify as a New Russian resort, you have to understand that life is complex and sometimes baffling for the burgeoning Russian middle class – in fact, they have not learned to be outraged. Russians are still conflicted. They have had a relatively hard past and will “just live” with things that Americans would never accept – especially in a facility that is billing itself as 4-5 stars in caliber and charging you big Rubles to stay there. Here are the bad and good of the Fon Grad.

 

The Bad Stuff:

 

First was the 50 year old three story apartment block behind the hotel. This monstrosity was left in tact and offers an absolutely terrible view for anyone on the inland side of the hotel. It’s like building a luxury hotel in the middle of Cabrinni Green public housing project in Chicago. Fon Grad developers should have bought this property, tore it down and either restored the ground to blend into the sloping hillside leading from the hotel into the forest or done something really revolutionary like putting in a putting green, bowling green or archery center, just to name a few options.

 

Second is the steam plant. You have this multi-million dollar hotel and spa property with the industrial component next door – a steam plant, complete with 30 meter high twin smoke stacks! You must have steam plants in this part of the world but there was no effort to mitigate the visual presence of this ugly neighbor. In fact the steam plant partially ruins the view of guests staying on the lake side of the hotel. Modern steam plants can do away with tall stacks and the buildings can be unobtrusive. But New Russian resorts apparently require a dose of ugly to make it complete.

 

Third is ala carte pricing. Bread was priced as an extra, as was a simple glass of tap water! All services in the spa were ala carte, no packages. A dry sauna was 300 Rubles – about $12.00 The basic swimming pool was free. However, if you turned on the hot tub bubbler feature in the pool, you were dinged another $12.00 So pricing and packaging are issues they will have to come to grips with if they are to attract more than New Russians. Re-do your marketing scheme, please!

 

Fourth, Food and Beverage has a decided Soviet air to it. All staff members are smiling and friendly but there are too many of them. The hotel’s overhead must be astronomical! There is one server for each person at your table, a barman and a hostess. The service seems stiff and “scripted”. Wait staff have been taught one way to execute in given situations and lacked spontaneity.  You place an order and you must patiently wait and wait and wait. If you ask for anything out of the ordinary they are baffled; dealing with unusual requests was apparently not anticipated or rehearsed in the pre-opening run up for the hotel. I asked for catsup for Nadia’s eggs at the table instead of getting it myself from the breakfast buffet. They thought I was strange with this request. Bottom line: They have scripted service but not service from the heart. If they are going to be five star, they need to adopt a more open, flexible and sincere approach to win over customers to want to return both New Russians and foreigners like me who would come to this beautiful out-of-the-way place if only the last vestiges of Soviet service was consigned to the waste heap of history. SAS, Hyatt International, Marriott where are you???

 

Fifth, were the elevator doors. They used a stencil and spray paint to apply their logo on elevator doors on each floor. Tacky, tacky, tacky! I don’t know why management thought they needed this degree of advertising in the first place! It gave the feeling that you were using a service elevator.

 

Sixth, were safety hazards. One glaring hazard was the use of metal roof flashings as window sills. The flashings had razor sharp edges and NO effort had been made to round the edges to mitigate the hazard. The potential were for serious injury to eyes/cheeks of small children is enormous. Sharpe edges existed in the elevator as well. There were poorly finished railings where you could pick up splinters easily and the ever-present icy walk areas to slip on – Russians have no clue about salting down walkways or using mag-chloride on large surfaces like driveways. Russians are still very careless when it comes to safety issues. It’s just lucky that Russians are not litigious like Americans. If they were the Fon Grad would be a personal injury attorney’s dream come true.

 

Seventh, show me the love will you? The motivation to sell (and not always in a subtle way) gets in the way of having an enjoyable stay at the Fon Grad. I think the staff are under a lot of pressure to extract as much money from each guest as they can in order to create a positive cash flow. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s the WAY YOU DO IT! Staff really did a hard sell especially with the spa services and the food and beverage. If I go to a resort it is the last place I want a hard sell.

 

The Good Stuff:

 

Nadia has the great opportunity to skate on absolutely pristine ice at their ice arena. Walking around the lake was relaxing and totally quiet, offering great views of Lake Tourgoiya. This part of the experience was a real pleasure. The forests literally come right down to the water’s edge in many places. You are afforded a wonderful blend of mother nature and the “fuss-over-me” service of a plush hotel.

 

There were ample benches around the hotel’s sweeping curved driveway. Even with winter in full swing, the benches got used in the evenings for those escaping the over-heated environment of the hotel albeit for a few minutes. While promenading around the large drive you also encountered characters from Alice in Wonderland – all nearly life-sized. No one on the staff could explain this little touch. Perhaps a weird peccadillo of the developer/owner.

 

Food took too long but preparation and presentation was excellent. I had a pigeon stuffed with dressing and jam that was just superb. Nadia has beef tenderloin in a red wine and honey sauce. She wolfed it down very quickly.

 

The spa services were very good; not Doral or Saddleback but planned out nicely nevertheless to include properly equipped wet and dry saunas, a full array of massage services, skin therapies and even a Russian banya for the hardcore New Russian.

 

A forth year music student had a great gig playing lunch time piano in the dining room. His “play book” included a lot of Academy Award winning tunes; I suggested he expand the repertoire with some Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart/Hammerstein and Gershwin.

 

This is a new hotel property. I think the owners truly want to perfect an international brand of service. The setting is great and I sincerely hope they can iron out the glitches that prevent them from being a real 5 star property. The first step is to develop a deeper understanding of what 5-star service is really about. The staff I spoke with said they want to attract more than just a Russian clientele, so that means internationalizing staff or at least having Russian staff who speak a variety of languages. New staff should speak at least two languages fluently. If the property is to attract an international following, they must have this capability.

 

As a hint to senior management, recruit only people who are in language programs. They have the highest mentality and ability to learn new ways of doing things. Don’t ever recruit from a Russian hospitality school; they are still mired in the ideals of Soviet service.

 

We had the chance to give Nadia her first skiing lessons on the trip. She is so soft and pliant from her ballet, this seemed the next logical step. She took to the experience easily with an instructor who focused on balance and shunned the use of poles for the initial lessons.

 Sophie is back to this area in two weeks for a follow-on conference. It will be a different hotel this time – The Gold Beach Resort; maybe I can return and do a review of their facility.