As a child of the Cold War era, I can honestly say that even after Perestroika , I had never even dreamed of a day when I might visit Russia.
Yet this October I found myself on a non-stop flight from JFK to SVO, the largest airport in Moscow. The occasion was to finally meet in person our new Kennedy Training Network alliance partners, Big Tree Hospitality, which is headquartered there.
Having worked with Andrei Malyshev, Managing Director, and Anton Matveev, Commercial Director, through numerous conference calls and Internet meetings, I knew I would be meeting some very special fellow entrepreneurs. Beyond that, I have to admit having absolutely no idea of what to expect from the people or the place. It didn't take much time after my arrival for me to begin to realize just how special this experience was to be.
After first traveling from MIA to JFK airport, and then running at least a 2/3 of a mile in the terminal with my 40 lb. carry on bag as I heard the PA announcer calling out "Last call for passenger Kennedy to Moscow, please report immediately" you can imagine I was more than a little relieved to find the last open storage bin and fall into my seat for the 11 hour non-stop flight.
Upon arrival I quickly cleared customs to find that despite the early hour, there was my new partner Andrei right there to meet me and drive me through the 90-minute traffic jam (just like US!) directly to my city center hotel. Although we had much business to discuss, Andrei insisted that I take some time at the hotel to settle-in and relax after my long journey.
Shortly later as I was unpacking I discovered with shock that I had somehow managed to leave my laptop in the overhead bin on my flight! Can you imagine this feeling of being in a completely foreign country, preparing for a week filled with business meetings and a sold-out two-day workshop to conduct, and to finding this item missing? Needless to say I was panicked when I dialed Andrei's mobile number to report my problem.
He insisted I stay at the hotel while he drove back to SVO (90 minutes each way) to personally retrieve my computer, without sounding the slightest bit annoyed about the extra half-day in traffic. This was my first evidence that genuine, authentic hospitality is alive and well in Russia!
Several days later I found myself in front of an audience of 25+ hotel managers ranging from GM's, CEO's, DOS's, to frontline sales staff and supervisors. For the first time ever I would be conducting this interactive two day workshop with a full interpreter, which I have to say I was a bit nervous about. Yet as soon as I met the first participant, a very professional young woman who's name was Lubov, I could tell that smiles, eye contact, facial expressions, and of course gestures would allow me to carry the day. (As I later learned, it turned out that Lubov had traveled more than 24 hours by railway to attend my workshop, which I am certain is the furthest by far that anyone had ever traveled to see me speak. In fact many of the participants had traveled hundreds of kilometers to share in this collective experience.
What a wonderful two days I had facilitating this workshop, which I was later told was one of the very first ever such "open enrollment" hotel industry training workshop ever conducted in Russia by private (non-academic) enterprise. I have never trained a group of participants that were more completely engaged and obviously eager to learn about how to improve themselves and their hotels.
As the workshop progressed it became evident that despite the differences in language, customs, and culture, the hotel managers there face largely the same challenges as we do here in the USA: Recruiting and selecting hospitality "talent," communicating "the vision," and ensuring the consistent delivery of hospitality excellence to a diversity of international visitors. As I shared the same stories I share in North America, as I conducted the same training exercises/activities, and as I fielded the participants' questions, it was almost eerie how similar the workshop experience ended up being, other than the delay in waiting for the interpreter to re-state my words .(Impressively nearly everyone understood English, not just the 50% or more of the group that also spoke English fluently.)
But what was most moving was the personal gestures of hospitality that were extended to me by the participants during the two days. Whether it was Ludmelia walking me through the lunch buffet and helping me identify familiar foods, Natalia recommending that hotels in Egypt would also be very interested in my training, Elana and Olga volunteering to help assist with some of the activities, or Valeria, Andrew, and Demetry asking to each have a one-on-one photograph taken with me, each and every participant seemed to make the effort to connect with me in a personal way.
But most of all, I shall never forget being approached by Vadim, a distinguished gentleman who was obviously one of the most experienced GM's at the session, coming up personally to generously thank me at the end of the program and then making it a point to stand right beside me for the group photograph.
The expressions of hospitality continued after the workshop was over. Over a half dozen of the participants approached me to make sure I had company for dinner and also making sure that I was going to get to see the sights in Moscow on my one day off before heading home.
When it came to being tour guides, my new alliance partners at Big Tree hospitality exceeded my expectations. Andrei, Anton, and also Maxim (who's title is IT Director at Big Tree but who clearly understands he is in the hospitality industry) personally escorted me on a tour of The Kremlin, Red Square, The Intercessional/St. Basil Cathedral, the Historical Museum, and then ended the evening by taking me out to dinner once again this time with their charming and academically gifted wives joining us.
It is hard to express in these words how moving this experience was for this cold war baby who has now found proof of what I have believed since I was an idealistic youth in the 60's and 70's: That despite our cultural differences, in the end human beings worldwide are much more alike than we are different.
Here are other lessons I learned from my experience for you to share with your hospitality team at your next meeting:
- We are in the business of creating human travel experiences; always remember the person we label a "caller," "prospect," "front," and "guest," is a fellow human being living out their own personal "story," They are not just another number in the chain of customers to be "processed" through our systems like a tennis ball being tossed in a circle.
- Although our choice of words and phrases is important, far more important are the non-verbals, such as eye-contact, a firm handshake, body language and a caring and genuine smile. These are universal and need no translation across culture.
- Consider every traveler a stranger in a strange land; other from the other side of the same city, another State of the US, or from any other country in the world, the human needs for empathy and understanding transcend all languages. We are all someone's daughter or son, spouse, sibling and/or parent.
- Do your best to recommend, suggest, and pro-actively volunteer information. I shall never forget how at check-out at the Swissotel Krasnye Holmy, the front desk associate made it a point to double-check that I had my passport with me, and the doorman there confirmed that I was going to the correct Moscow airport. (Since there are two.)
- Be sensitive to special needs of your International guests, especially when it comes to dietary needs, religious/worshiping traditions, and time zone differences.
On the plane ride home I couldn't help but think back to the words Conrad Hilton spoke in 1958:
"It has been, and continues to be, our responsibility to fill the earth with the light and warmth of hospitality."
We in this industry are uniquely positioned to help break down the barriers of language, customs, and traditions and to help make this world a smaller (and better!) place in which to live. I would encourage anyone who has a chance to reach out to our fellow hoteliers in Russia to do so! Founded in 2006, Kennedy Training Network (KTN) is the lodging industry's best source for training programs and services in the topic areas of reservations sales, hospitality and guest service, and front desk revenue optimization. Services including customized, on-site training workshops, private, individual hotel team webinars, and reservations/front desk mystery shopping assessment and coaching reports. Additionally, KTN is also a resource for conference keynote and break-out sessions for management companies, brands, and associations.For more information, visit www.kennedytrainingnetwork.com for details or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org