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 The Brancatelli File

joe OUR MAN
IN MOSCOW


BY JOE BRANCATELLI

November 11, 1997 -- I'm sitting in a $350-a-night hotel room with an empty minibar, a telephone that costs $8.50-a-minute to use, the remnants of a $14 room-service club sandwich and a shower curtain rod that collapses into a noisy, messy heap every hour on the hour.

Know what I'm thinking? I'm thinking that this is one of the best hotels that I've ever been in and that I'm gonna try to convince my wife to come here on vacation sometime soon.

Believe me, fellow travelers, I have not gone around the bend. I remain perpetually offended by every small indignity heaped upon me while living my life on he road.

It's just that this is Moscow. Moscow, Russia, not Moscow, Idaho. When you're visiting the Russian capital, you better believe you're not in Idaho anymore. And seconds after the first time you get lost because the street signs are in Cyrillic and your map only offers phonetic English spellings, you decide to love this place or hate it.

I've decided that I love it.

More than two generations of spirit-sapping communism followed by a decade of wrong-end-of-the-stick capitalism has left Moscow dazed and confused. And too many Muscovites worship at the retail shrines of Versace and Dior the way they once gave it up at Lenin's Tomb in Red Square. Yet the fact that this place has survived at all is a miracle. And on a spring-like November Sunday, when the Arbat and Gorky Park are filled with thousands of smiling, happy faces, you can't help but root for these people.

Which brings me back to my $350-a-night room at the sparkling, new Moscow Marriott Grand Hotel. For all its flaws, it is a miracle. Open fewer than 90 days, the hotel runs remarkably well in a place where it is a daunting challenge to cross the street on foot or drive across town.

Nestled on Moscow's main drag, Tverskaya (formerly Gorky) Street, just a few blocks from Red Square, the Moscow Marriott makes you feel like you're at the Marriott in Moscow, Idaho. For all its charms, doing business in Moscow can be grinding and confusing. Coming back to the Marriott after a long day of business is a refreshing and revitalizing burst of American home cooking.

The guest rooms are huge and bright, something that can't always be said for accommodations at the Hotel Metropol and Hotel National, two gloriously restored, turn-of-the-century grand dames that compete for the custom of international business travelers. And the Marriott's restaurants and public areas are fresher, more gracious and more convivial than those at the Kempinski Baltschug, the no-nonsense hotel that many ex-pats believe is currently Moscow's best property.

Operationally, the 392-room Moscow Marriott Grand is so star-spangled American that the voice-mail system answers in the familiar AT&T Merlin voice. Everything is written in English, everyone speaks English and everything is priced in dollars. The telephones work flawlessly and even have dataports. The concierge floors share a dramatic, two-level lounge stocked with English-language newspapers, a regular supply of snacks and an espresso machine.

So what about those problems I mentioned? Welcome to Moscow.

"Opening a hotel in Moscow is a difficult and incredibly complicated affair," explains general manager Jack Ward, a 47-year-old Californian who had stints at Marriott's Fisherman's Wharf and the Denver Hilton before moving to Moscow in 1995. "Everything in Moscow is a fluid thing: the staffing, the scheduling, the construction, the fit, the finish and the equipment."

Why aren't the minibars stocked? Ward says he just managed to get the custom-made units installed in the armoire a few days before I arrived. "They were manufactured in the United States and they sat in customs for a month before we could get them released. Then they were delayed again because they had to be inspected to make sure they met Russian standards."

The collapsing shower-curtain rod? A Swedish company was hired to handle the baths. Into the exquisite marble-and-tile bathrooms, the company installed lovely water taps, comfortable commodes, state-of-the-art shower systems and, inexplicably, flimsy, spring-tension curtain rods that cannot carry the weight of a heavy shower curtain and lining.

"Who knew you had to ask for the specs on the shower-curtain rod?" says Ward. "But it's one of the things you learn when you do a hotel here."

And, lastly, there is the matter of prices. Even for a town where the official hotel directory warns that the city's four- and five-star hotels provide "first class service [for] wealthy clients and businessmen," prices are eye-popping.

"You hear about Russia and that people are making $85 or $100 a month, but that's not the whole picture," Ward explains. "It is as expensive as hell to bring anything in here. Everything is a logistics nightmare, the tariffs on imports are immense and some of our tax rates are 40 percent. Staff costs are high because of the bilingual requirements. Training costs are huge. About 85 percent of the local staff never worked at a hotel before."

For all those problems--and you didn't even hear Ward talk about the construction delays or the complex relationship between the hotel owner (Moscow's largest construction company), the franchisor (Marriott) and the hotel-management company (Pittsburgh-based Interstate Hotels)--Ward has never doubted his decision to come to Moscow.

"I won't lie," he says evenly. "This is a difficult place to live and my wife isn't particularly fond of Moscow. But I wanted to be here. This is a moment of history. We're watching a major metropolitan city become a world business center. That's exciting as hell."

Joe's Moscow Accommodations Cheat Sheet
The Marriott (800-831-4004) is new and feels just like home. Two lovingly restored Moscow grand hotels are represented by worldwide hotel chains: The National by Forte (800-225-5843) and the Metropol by Inter-Continental (800-327-0200). But the quality of the guest rooms is uneven. The Kempinski Baltschug (800-426-3135) is the city's finest. The Radisson Slavjanskaya (800-333-3333) and The Savoy (800-950-5000) are also well regarded. The Hotel Tverskaya (800-777-1700) is a charming, 122-room boutique hotel favored by U.S. government travelers. Everyone adores the Sofitel Iris (800-SOFITEL), but it is an hour's drive from the city center. Expect to spend $300 or more a night for a room in any of these hotels, except for the Tverskaya, which starts at about $230. Taxes are another 20 percent. Tourist-class hotels like the Intourist, Moskva, and Cosmos aren't up to U.S. business-travel standards.

This column originally appeared at TheTrip.com.

Copyright 1993-2005 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.