Like almost every international hotel in the city, the Renaissance Moscow is looking for a lift in the economy and an improved foreign investment environment to increase its occupancy rates. And, according to a top official at the hotel, there are some healthy portents on that front.
Having seen revenue halve since the August 1998 crisis, Renaissance Moscow is hopeful that the transfer of power in the Kremlin is a forerunner to an economic revival in Russia. General Manager Finn Rasmussen said he sees signs of a turnaround.
"If you look at the way the share market has been reacting recently, it has been quite dramatic and that indicates there is some foreign interest in Russia," Rasmussen said. "And I think the new [president] helps."
Those encouraging signs aside, the general manager is frustrated at the lamentable state of the Russian tourism industry. But he is also quick to point out how simply many of the obstacles to increased tourism in Russia could be removed.
Rasmussen believes that dramatic improvements in the flow of tourists could be achieved in less than a month if the right decisions were taken.
"The basic problem is getting a visa it costs far too much and is far too much trouble to attain," Rasmussen said. "I have little doubt large numbers of people in the West would like to visit Moscow and, indeed, when I have been at travel shows there has been a large amount of interest expressed."
He said that if the visa cost was reduced from the current average of $200 to around $15, the number of tourists visiting Russia would increase dramatically.
"This would be a big benefit both to the hotel industry and the Russian economy. It doesn't take much to realize that a cheaper visa that encouraged visitors to spend $2,000-$3,000 is much more attractive than $200 for each visa and only a trickle of tourists visiting Russia." Procedures for getting visas also hamper growth, he added.
The Renaissance Moscow, near the Olympic stadium and Prospect Mira metro station, opened in April 1991.
The then owners, Penta Hotels, had concluded a deal with the Soviet government but, with the collapse of the U.S.S.R., the contract was transferred to the Moscow city government, which holds a 51 percent stake in the hotel and provides three of six directors.
Rasmussen waves off any talk of difficulties with the Moscow government, saying he has never had any problems. "Indeed, of all the joint-venture partners I have worked with, they are the best. They are very business-minded and professional people."
During the 1990s, the Renaissance went through two changes of ownership. In 1993, Penta Hotels (owned by Lufthansa) was bought by Renaissance, which, in turn, was purchased by Marriott in spring 1998. Marriott owns the remaining 49 percent and has three directors on the board.
In terms of the peculiarities of its 389 staff, Rasmussen said they require no more work than anywhere else in the world. But he did note that there is a heavy emphasis on culture training.
"This relates mainly to the service side. Making people smile. We maintain constant training and focus heavily on cultural aspects," he said. "And it pays off. In the end, the staff understands that if they smile at someone, that person is just as likely to smile back.
"On the technical side, in many ways Russian staff are better than in other places, because they are well-educated."
Renaissance is geared heavily toward business people, with 16 conference rooms and three large conference halls. It also features the Dome cinema, which shows the latest English-language films. The international business community comprises the core clientele of Moscow hotels. The three major nationalities frequenting Renaissance's 475 rooms are Americans, Germans and Indians, Rasmussen said.
Hit by August crisis
The general manager said the apartment bombings in Moscow last year did not affect numbers substantially. It was the financial meltdown that did the damage.
"We were down 50 percent after the crisis and have remained at that point ever since," he said.
But Marriott is still keeping an eye on the broader Russian market, with a view to possible expansion in tourism. Marriott is due to sign a deal for two hotels in St. Petersburg, officials said.
Rasmussen said the tourists that do visit Russia inevitably go to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
"In that sense, the Sheraton and Kempinski [which have hotels in both cities] have a distinct advantage, particularly with package tourists. It is very rare to go to one city and not the other, and we need to be able to offer accommodation in both places.
Renovation under way
The Moscow Renaissance is also undergoing renovation, with the lobby upgraded last year and all of the rooms being redone in a project expected to be completed in the spring of 2001.
On the issue of the hotel's profitability, the general manager remained coy. He said that prior to August 1998, the hotel was "very profitable," while now it is simply "profitable."
It will take the interest of international investors to return the Renaissance to its pre-crisis profit levels. Much of the hope for an economic revival rests on acting President Vladimir Putin, who is favored to win the March 26 presidential election.
Rasmussen said he "sincerely hopes" Putin can improve the situation, acknowledging though, that despite the importance of the presidency in Russia, one man cannot change everything.
"He obviously needs a lot of people to be pushing in the same direction as him, and that needs to be the right direction.
"But he is young, well-educated and has spent quite a bit of time in Germany and he doesn't drink! But I hope he has the foresight to see what's needed here," he said.