The New Face Of Hospitality

MT
Before becoming the manager of Hotel Katerina City in Moscow, Katerina Oudalova, 27, ran her own fashion design business in Sweden, where her Russian parents emigrated in 1989. The hotel -- the first privately owned hotel in the capital -- was just a place to stay while visiting Russia.

"My father built it in 1998 and I enjoyed staying there, but I did not plan to be on the other side," she said.

Oudalova graduated from the London College of Fashion in 2003 and immediately went into the fashion business, producing clothes in Estonia and selling them in several cities in Europe and Sweden.

While there were a lot of positive things about working in the fashion industry, Oudalova didn't like the impermanence of it.

"I wanted to build something more long-lasting, not something that would be on sale three months after it had hit the shelves," she said.

She started looking for a new job and became a project manager for a Swedish design company opening an office in St. Petersburg focusing on hotel interiors. "When I told my father of my career move, he simply replied that I could do this work for another hotel, or I could work for our hotel, for our family business," Oudalova said.

With that suggestion, she said, everything fell into place: her love for organizing parties, her interest in design and her business sense.

"Ever since I had my small company in Sweden, I loved being in charge, being the one responsible for seeing the big picture," Oudalova said.

In order to get a feel for the hotel business, Oudalova did an internship that lasted several months working as a trainee in various departments of the hotel. She cleaned rooms, washed dishes, waitressed, tended bar, worked in the kitchen and as a receptionist, made reservations and sales and helped out in the accounting office.

"This all gave me some insight into the hotel business, and I realized I loved it," she said.

She also found the work challenging, noticing early on that there was a huge difference between working for a privately owned hotel in a developing market such as Russia and working for a hotel chain in the mature, stable European market.

Oudalova believes the biggest challenge to the Russian hospitality industry, and one that will affect it for many years to come, is the lack of a tradition of service.

"We just don't have this tradition yet," she said, "and no matter how many trainings we arrange, if you haven't experienced great service and have been used to it, it is hard to understand what is demanded of you. Even if you want to do it, you just don't know how."

She does, however, believe that change is coming, particularly as more Russians travel and experience European service culture. After having good service on vacations and business trips abroad, Russians will come to demand this level of service from local hotels.


Igor Tabakov / MT
Katerina Oudalova did a series of internships in the hotel, which gave her some background in all aspects of the business.
"And those who can satisfy the customer will win -- it is easy as that," she said.

Hotel Katerina City is a business hotel that draws few tourists. Their guests usually stay for only a couple of days and may have come directly from a business trip to London or New York, so they expect to find the same level of service in Moscow as in other major world cities.

Oudalova says the development of the hotel business is crucial for Russia's future economic development as a whole. Before deciding whether to start a business or invest in Russia, foreign businessmen have to make a visit -- and the hotel they stay in often influences their impressions of the country.

Oudalova is concerned that as the hotel business develops in Russia, it will become increasingly difficult to find qualified staff. As the market grows, the level of competition for good employees will increase.

One of Oudalova's current projects is to develop a good management system at Hotel Katerina City enabling it to attract and retain the best staff possible, the kind of staff that can satisfy her customers.

This involves holding staff retreats for the entire 165-person work force in which they live in the hotel for two days while attending training sessions on service, corporate values and company history.

"People who have never stayed in a hotel are not able to understand the client's needs, and our staff has to know these needs in advance," she said.

She considers the money spent on these training sessions an investment in the hotel's future.

"Of course, I am the one who plans the strategy, but it is my team that makes it possible. Some people have worked here for eight or 10 years. They know everything about the place. We have very low staff turnover," she said.

Oudalova became the general manager of the hotel last September, and in April, she took on additional responsibilities as a managing director with the hotel's management company, Umaco Management. Besides Katerina City Moscow, it also manages an apartment complex in Krasnaya Polyana called Katerina Alpik.

Oudalova is reluctant to talk about her life outside the hotel.

"Of course, I try to keep a balance between my life and my work, but my life is here in our family business," she said.

She loves working with her father and considers him a great source of support and information. Together they are working to create a hotel chain and are currently looking at several sites in Moscow and the regions. Their idea is to create a Russian chain with an international approach.

"We need to take these small steps now in order to be able to run along with the international chains who have had decades to develop," Oudalova said.

"But our great advantage is our experience on the Russian market. We have operated here for 10 years and that is truly unique."