A conference in Kiev, Ukraine, gave me the chance to stay at one of the newer properties under the Fairmont banner — the Grand Hotel Kiev. For those of you who have not yet visited this Eastern European city, it should definitely be on your radar. In the 20 years since the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine has forged a unique identity built on a proud culture, deep heritage and firm economic growth.
Kiev, the nation’s capital of 2.8 million people, is dominated by iconic domed Orthodox churches and Soviet empire-style low-rises. The city rests on the banks of the Dnieper River, with a high embankment separating the old town, where the Fairmont is located, and the upper town, which bustles with modern businesses. The short distance between the two is easily traversed by a funicular with the equivalent of a US$0.15 charge.
The hotel itself lives up to the adjective in its name; traditional in appearance both inside and out, yet having been open only a year now, its behind-the-scenes infrastructure has been built from the ground up. All told, this downtown property comprises 258 rooms including 56 suites, a remarkable ballroom with additional meeting facilities and an utterly spectacular center atrium.
During my stay, construction just across the street on a new expressway entrance continued unabated. And yet, despite my windows facing the fracas, the Fairmont is so well insulated that I could not hear anything.
Christoph Ganster is currently the youngest general manager in the Fairmont family. He was selected as the opening GM for the Grand Hotel Kiev having previously served as GM for Fairmont’s Cairo property. I met him in the hotel’s Strand Restaurant for breakfast, which gave us a chance to discuss the launch and progress to date.
Larry Mogelonsky: I see the construction across the street. How has it impacted business?
Christoph Ganster: Kiev is no different than any other major city. Public works construction never seems to meet publicized schedules, as there are always unforeseen delays.
Yet, we are optimistic, as the results will be worth the wait. Once completed, this will give us direct airport access, while at the same time providing an unobstructed waterfront walkway.
Short term it can be quite frustrating, particularly on our local walk-in traffic for food and beverage outlets.
LM: What is it like launching a new property in Kiev, and what lessons are there for others who might be considering a similar venture?
CG: We are particularly fortunate, as I was able to advertise for key staff positions within the Fairmont network, and in doing so, was able to bring key team members in to get the business underway quickly. Yet this process was restricted by government limitations on the number of foreign nationals that I could hire. At the same time, I was looking for managers with a working knowledge of Ukrainian or Russian languages. That was a challenge. Moreover, the local hospitality service culture is not yet at the Fairmont 5-star level. This meant that the local talent pool, while strong and enthusiastic, required a considerable degree of initial as well as ongoing training.
LM: What do you like the most about the physical property?
CG: A difficult question, as this is almost like asking a father to make a selection amongst his children. However, there are several features that stand out.
Foremost is the back-of-house kitchen facilities. They are so impressive that they became a recruiting tool. When he first laid eyes on the back-of-house, Joseph Lee, our opening executive chef and now director of food and beverage must have thought he’d died and gone to heaven! Of all the hotels I’ve seen in the Fairmont system, nothing comes close to providing as good a configuration to manage all aspects of food preparation. Not to mention that the cooking and processing equipment is also top-rate.
Second is the Atrium Ballroom. This may well be the best wedding and social facility in the country! Just walking into the room, you’re immediately hit by that feeling where you know something special is happening.
Third are our breakout rooms on the third floor — all equal in size, all perfect for small meetings in their own right. I just wish I had a few more!
And fourth is the ability to easily drive automobiles directly into the main ballroom. This will continue to deliver returns for us in targeting the automotive sector.
LM: What learning has there been from this experience?
CG: Time. There is just not enough. Your management team should be onsite (or nearby) at least nine months prior to opening. This provides you with the time to get staff training underway and to perfect your systems. Even now, more than a year after launch, we are still “writing the book” on our opening.