Making it in the travel industry in Moscow

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MOSCOW -- In the late 1970s, Irina Kulagina was a member of the Young Communist League in her hometown of Lytkarino, 25 miles southeast of Moscow. Today she's the director of sales at the Marriott Moscow Royal, a deluxe, Western-managed hotel that stands as a monument to capitalism in this increasingly glitzy city.

Kulagina was the first Russian to hold such a position at an international hotel in this country.

Her journey from the party faithful to the market economy embodies the challenges faced by many of her generation here, men and women who came of age during the demise of the Soviet Union.

Kulagina attributes at least part of her success to the fact that she was permitted by the Soviet government to study English. "Under Communism, very few Russians were even allowed to learn other languages," said Kulagina.

She was planning to become an English teacher, one of the few careers the Communists deemed acceptable for pupils of the Institute of Foreign Languages where she was enrolled.

However, Kulagina's sympathies with the Communists Party collided with Perestroika, the era in the early 1980s when the Soviet Union loosened restrictions on civil freedoms and private enterprise. "Because of eased censorship, I was able to get a mimeographed copy of George Orwell's '1984.' I read it and all of a sudden I realized that my country was totally different from what I had thought.

"I was very disillusioned, but [this] was positive, too, because this is when all of the changes started to happen and [Russians] became more open," Kulagina said.

The other major change in Kulagina's life during her studies was her marriage to a fellow student and the subsequent birth of her daughter. "There was a loss of opportunities, because at this time in Russia, no one wanted to hire a woman with a baby," said Kulagina.

While all of her friends were getting jobs as teachers and interpreters, Kulagina's prospects looked bleak. "When my daughter was 6 months old, I finally got a job teaching English to students at the Institute of Chemistry in Moscow.

"I got $100 month, which was very good at the time, enough to take care of my family," she said. That was a new priority for Kulagina, coming on the heels of a divorce.

After a year and a half, Kulagina grew anxious for new challenges. In 1991, she answered a newspaper ad by the Aerostar Hotel here, which was seeking English-speaking secretaries and waitresses. "The first time I interviewed there, I was rejected. The lady who interviewed me was concerned that I would be out sick often because of my daughter," she said.

But Kulagina's career is nothing if not a lesson in persistence. "I kept looking in the papers and three months after my first interview, the Aerostar had another ad for similar positions, so I just reapplied.

"Instead of talking about my daughter a lot as I had in the first interview, I explained that my mom was around to take care of her in case anything happened. What I said must have worked because I was hired as a secretary in the sales department."

Kulagina also recognized how the Soviet education system had steered her wrong. "I had a prestigious English degree, but when I went on the interview, I couldn't understand a word that was being said to me. The point is, all of our teachers at the institute had been Russian, and all our learning was theoretical. We had no experience actually speaking English to non-Russians," she said.

But at the Aerostar, Kulagina quickly changed her course.

Smiles everyone

Working in one of Russia's first Western-managed hotels -- the Aerostar is run by Canada-based IMP Group -- was Kulagina's first exposure to the Western world.

Her first shock came in the form of a salary: As a secretary at the Aerostar, Kulagina was making 10 times more money than she would have as an English teacher, she said.

"The job was a dream come true. Back then, everything in Moscow was gray, dull and uninteresting, which is unfortunately how many foreigners view Moscow to this day. But being at the Aerostar was like an oasis.

"I'll never forget the first week when they taught us to smile. We had never really done this before and I loved it," she said, adding that despite all of Russia's recent financial troubles, smiling faces are now a common sight in Moscow.

After six months on the job, Kulagina's enthusiasm and adaptability were rewarded with a promotion to the position of group coordinator for sales. "The whole concept of promotion by merit was alien to Soviet ideology, so the first time I was asked about whether I wanted more responsibility, I had to think about it. But after that, I sought promotions instead of waiting for them," she said.

Adjusting to a Western-style meritocracy, Kulagina climbed the ladder to become group sales manager and then sought experience in a field that was virtually unknown in Russia: marketing.

"There was no Russian equivalent for the word 'marketing' in 1992," said Kulagina. "So I read some books and Marilyn Barker Paulson, the director of sales and marketing who hired me, became my mentor," she said.

Under Paulson, Kulagina said she really learned to think for herself and take initiatives because she was given more professional freedom than she had ever experienced.

"When Marilyn traveled, at first I spoke with her on the phone every day to seek advice. But then I knew what to do without even asking," she said. Kulagina eventually became the hotel's sales and marketing manager.

Moving in on the Kremlin

Kulagina was worried about becoming complacent. "The Aerostar was very important because when it opened it had few competitors. But eventually many other Western-managed luxury hotels came to Moscow, and I wanted fresh challenges," she said.

Asshe mulled her options, the four-star Tverskaya Hotel, now part of the Marriott Collection in Moscow, sought out Kulagina in 1997. "When the Tverskaya hired me, it was first time that a Russian national became a sales director for a Western-managed hotel. The general manager was taking a real risk, since Russians were not brought up in the same sales and marketing climate as their Western counterparts. I was a test case," said Kulagina.

Kulagina admits the product was not hard to sell; she had on her hands a comfortable, medium-sized property, closer to the city center than the Aerostar at a time when occupancies were sky-high in Moscow.

But she did come up with several sales initiatives of her own that were unique in Moscow at the time, including value-added packages in the summer as well as programs that lured business travelers for extended stays.

After 36 extended-stay suites were opened and the corporate client base was expanded, Kulagina was again getting the itch to do something new.

She learned that a five-star property, only a few blocks from the Kremlin, was to make its debut at the end of 1998. Kulagina was hired as the director of sales after a two-hour interview with Jerone Gerrese, the general manager.

Besides opening a brand-new hotel, Kulagina had the additional challenge of selling a five-star property in the wake of Russia's financial crisis, which exploded last August. Kulagina would not release sales figures, but she said the Marriott Moscow Royal is holding its own in a tough market.

And her next hurdle?

"I still have many challenges, one of which is countering the stereotypes put forth by the Western media. Based on what they see on CNN, some guests here think that a wait for fresh bread at a top bakery means Russia is being overwhelmed by bread lines," she said.

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