Interview with Christoph Ganster, General Manager of Fairmont Grand Hotel Kyiv

A conference date in Kiev, Ukraine, (locally spelled ‘Kyiv’) afforded me the opportunity 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 15-cent (US) 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, 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 the progress to date.

I see the construction across the street. How has it impacted business?

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.

What is it like launching a new property in Kiev and what lessons are there for others who might be considering a similar venture?

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 five-star level. This meant that the local talent pool, while strong and enthusiastic, required a considerable degree of initial as well as on-going training.

The good news was that our owners had provided us with an excellent physical product. Thus, our focus was to take advantage of this magnificent structure, devoting our primary energies to imbuing a culture dedicated to service excellence.

Has the product changed since opening just over a year ago?

The rooms’ product has not, although at this time, we probably would have preferred more rooms and fewer suites. One significant change was our use of the atrium. This is the signature public space in the hotel, located on the second floor in a central courtyard and decorated with a wonderful gold-leaf-and-glass dome. Originally designed solely as a second F&B outlet, we quickly assessed that a significant revenue opportunity was being wasted versus the nominal return from duplicate F&B facilities.

Thus, our implementation of this room as a second, more intimate ballroom has proven to be a runaway success. The space is remarkably flexible: important meetings, weddings, social functions and, yes, even some F&B.

As an extraordinary example, a romantic guest booked the entire room. That’s right, just for two! We set up a table in the center of the atrium, romantically surrounded by hundreds of candles. The rate for the room rental for the evening exceeded the typical gross revenue of the outlet operating as a restaurant outlet.

Another change, also in F&B, was our Vintage Cocktail Bar, which, due to smoking regulations, was integrated into the Strand restaurant as the smoking section.

What do you like the most about the physical property?

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 & 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 is 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.

And what do you like the least?

I’m still not happy with the elevators. The guest elevators are on three separate banks and are not linked when called. There are further issues in terms of coordination of service. It seems to be a never-ending story of specifications gone awry.

What has been the reception to the hotel since it’s opening?

In the luxury segment, Kiev is already serviced by the Intercontinental (which happens to have same owner as the Fairmont), as well as the Hyatt Regency. We wanted something better; something that would differentiate the property from both these existing products. We knew our physical product was of the highest standard. Thus, our focus was to deliver a superior service standard as well.

The results have met our initial goals. We know through industry feedback that we are reaching new heights for guest service in F&B, convention services, concierge, front desk, housekeeping and maintenance. It’s good news for everyone in Kiev, because, in doing so, it raises the bar for all properties.

What learning has there been from this experience?

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.

(Article published by Larry Mogelonsky in eHotelier on April 24, 2013)

Larry MogelonskyInterview with Christoph Ganster, General Manager of Fairmont Grand Hotel Kyiv