Claude Bulté - EBA Board Member and Radisson Blu Hotel, Kyiv General Manager and District Director for Ukraine and Georgia - shares his impression about Ukraine with the readers of Destinations.
Claude has working in various positions as a General Manager in China, Germany, Iceland, Turkey and Ukraine. He studied Hotel Management and graduated from the Hoge Hotel school in Maastricht, the Netherlands.
Last September Radisson Blu Hotel, Kyiv celebrated its 10th anniversary since entering Ukraine as the first international hotel company in Kyiv. Claude, can you tell us please how the hotel business was developing in this country during last 10 years?
The Radisson Blu Hotel Kiev (previously known as SAS) was the first international hotel entering into Ukraine. Since then other hotels from other international hotel chains have opened, including our sister property in Podil, the Radisson Blu Hotel Podil, the Radisson Blu Resort Bukovel and the Park Inn Hotel in Donetsk. This has been a quite significant increase.
The period in which we opened, was quite difficult, because doing business in Ukraine with international standards were not the norm. I believe after our entering of the market, it clearer a path which made it easier for other hotels to enter the market. I am proud to say that we are still considered the frontrunners. Many employees who have started with us have developed over the years in top management positions within our company and at other companies in Ukraine. Looking back I think we can be very proud about we have accomplished in the past 10 years from when we started.
What are your expectations about tourists this year?
When comparing 2016 to 2014/2015, there are not a lot of changes. For example Europeans, the main news that is coming from Ukraine remains mainly negative, fighting, corruption, governmental instability.
At the moment Governmental Country-related business is still coming to Kyiv, tourists make only a very little part of the total. Of course, the Russian-Turkish crisis has diverted some business from Turkey that normally would go to Russia and now is coming to Ukraine.
A pattern what we see, is that Turkey and Ukraine are approaching each other very fast for opportunities. This could be a potential for improved business. Especially the good and short flight connections make the distance very close, but I don’t expect huge increases for 2016. If the situation stabilizes, if the Government can function like it should, then could be more positive signs in terms of tourism. But this needs time to recover. First of all, this negative picture that is constantly broadcasted needs to be turned into a positive one.
As EBA board member what can you say about business investments and business climate in Ukraine?
EBA is conducting surveys on a quarterly basis and we are asking all of our members, which are 900+ business companies, about their ideas and feelings regarding the current business climate. And unfortunately they are still quite negative. So the perception of the current situation in Ukraine is negative; that is the main reason why investments are very little. We always say that Ukraine is a “sleeping giant” and once it starts developing its possibilities. There is a huge potential. But since we’ve started (I came here for the first time in 2008) we always talk about the possibilities which never really have taken off. The political changes in 2013-2014 gave a huge opportunity for development to improve very quickly. But last week’s very hectic days in Ukrainian politics, unfortunately contributes to the negative image perceived also by investors. So once there is stability I am sure that there will be many companies interested in investing and developing business.
So the main problem is political situation, and the war and some economic troubles and corruption. Correct?
Corruption, I think there is enough said already in the media. I think if this can be routed out that would already be, I believe, a 90% win for everyone. Because then everybody can do business the way it should be done, in a transparent way with thrust and gains for everyone and it has the potential to develop a lot more.
Two years ago we had many leisure visitors coming who wanted to see Ukraine especially wanted to see Kyiv. Kyiv is a destination where you have great summers, where you can visit a lot of attractions but that has completely stopped since 2 years because everybody is associating Ukraine with the recent crisis situation.
What are the great pluses and minuses of Ukraine now as a touristic country?
I think that people tend to forget, at least abroad, that for Europeans it is very cheap to come to Ukraine compared to the prices back in Europe. Ukraine has lost quite a lot of its currency which means that for foreigners who visit it is very cheap. This is definitely considered one of the main benefits at the moment. If you want to have a fantastic holiday with a lot of things to see – now is a very good time to visit Ukraine. There is still so much negativity out there at the moment, it would be great to turn this negativity around into positive stories abroad so that people can understand that life continues, everybody wants to improve things, people here are very hard-working. The things will improve more rapidly if we can attract more visitors from outside of Ukraine.
Claude, tell us how is it to be a foreigner in Ukraine today? Is Kyiv pretty comfortable for a foreigner?
I will give you a comparison about when I came to Ukraine for the first time in 200. I felt less welcome back than because wherever I went, for example a restaurant, people were not coming to you offering you a menu card, so you needed to go to a person and ask for it. There was no intention of trying to speak English, everything was done at that time in Russian, and then when I got the menu everything was in Russian.
It was very difficult when you wanted to build up a social life and to be a part of the community. When I came back in 2014, whenever I go to a restaurant people notice that you are a foreigner, they come to you and the person is at least trying to speak English to you, there is an English menu and you don’t have to go to the bar yourself, people actually come to you. And this I find very, very positive. So, the biggest change since then…I would say, the mentality has changed. I think people are more open than they were before. A lot has happened, of course, in those 6 to 7 years and that I see as positive. People are more open minded, people want to improve things. When I came in 2008 I felt people were not used to that things can change.
What are your favourite destinations in Kiev and in Ukraine and why?
I like Kyivan summers a lot. I like to go outdoors, I like to run a lot and I can do it very good in Kiev. Pedestrian can during weekends walk on Khreschatyk which is completely blocked and it is just a pedestrian area. Kyiv has the most km beaches of any city in Europe. It’s fantastic to walk or to run across those beaches. Pyrohovo is one of my favourite place with its old houses and the wind mills. You can see still a lot of the culture of Ukraine, how it was back in the early days. There is fantastic route that you can walk. There are a lot of outside activities going on, people come there together for barbeques.
That’s about Kiev. As to other places, I’ve been to Bukovel and it’s a different place in summer and also in winter. Winters of course are very nice with skiing and a lot of snow but I think people underestimate the summer attractions of Carpathians. Summer is amazing with fresh air, the hiking roads, biking, running, a lot of health camps that are taking place. It is very enjoyable. It’s still an undiscovered part. I’ve been of course also to Crimea when we had our property there and I still believe that’s incredibly beautiful spot where we were. Odessa is on the plan of visiting in April. We are looking for some projects over there as well to further develop.
What about Lviv?
I haven’t been able to visit it yet. It has been on my agenda for a lot of times but I’m travelling so much that I couldn’t really find time still to go for a long weekend. I definitely need to spend about four days in order to discover the city. But everybody is very positive about the city. I hope I will have a chance.
How do you spend your leisure time in Kyiv? Where do you go? What places, restaurants do you like?
As to restaurants, I like to eat outside. I am very interested always in Asian cuisine. And I am very happy and I haven’t seen that in any other European city where there are so many Japanese restaurants with sushi. It is unbelievable: on every street corner you have one and I have to say that the quality is incredibly high. I travel also a lot to Georgia. I find it also very interesting to find good Georgian restaurants here. There is one close by here which is in a park and I enjoy it in summer because you can nicely sit outside and the quality of the food is quite authentic. As to Ukrainian cuisine I like vereniki (dumplings), of course. There is a very nice restaurant in Podil, Kanapa, that serves very good food.
Is Kiev safe?
I can give an example. When I walk in Amsterdam, which is close to where I used to live in Holland and I would go outside after 9 o’clock, there are areas where I also would not feel safe to walk. If I am in Paris in Istanbul and I’m a wrong place at a wrong time, yes, everything can happen. But I would say in general, and I can only speak about Kiev, it is generally safe. Therefore, I’m here with my family and three small children there are no hesitations from my part on safety.
Can you imagine a really good hotel of 2050? Describe it please.
2050... It’s a long way ahead. Well, what I can say is that the Carlson Rezidor Hotel Group company has many different brands like the Radisson Blu, Park Inn, Park Plaza’s and we try to anticipate on the future. The current Millennials, as we call them, they are being followed up generation Y. These young people are quick, easy going and need to be always connected. So the mentality has already changed. I grew up without an I-Pad. I had my first mobile telephone when I was 24. My son of 4 years old already knows more what to do with the phone than I did when I was 24.
The preferences of the travellers are changing. We have launched a new brand which is called Radisson Red. With Radisson Red everything is centralized about connectivity, about guest inter activeness, and everything is connected to a central meeting venue. When you enter the hotel, the first hotel will be opened in April in Brussels, a huge lobby area is connected to a meeting area, a bar and hangout area and computers. So everything is happening basically in the lobby.
You don’t need to go any more to a reception desk to check in because before you check in you get on your telephone already your key card. So when you arrive in front of your door, your telephone gives you access to enter.
So when you talk about 2050, we are trying to anticipate already now on what people would like. So this actually means that we give the people the possibility to have comfortable service to make their stay in the hotel as easy-going as possible. If they want to order something, it can be done; we have a kiosk even in the lobby where quick but healthy meals can be ordered and they can immediately take it to the room. Many of the hotels have been very traditional, they have very traditional approach, we try to anticipate to make it more on a casual style, on a casual interaction because that is at the moment demanded by our guests. So this is definitely differentiating what we have here more traditional style when we talk about Radisson Red and looking really into the future in terms of what is really important for our guests.
What can you advise a foreigner who is going to visit Ukraine for the first time?
I will talk again about summer because I really enjoy Kiev in summer. I think you will be amazed how green the city is. This city is the greenest city that I have seen with a lot of forests around. Inside the city you will enjoy the beauty of all of the churches which leave an unforgettable impression. The landscaping is extremely beautiful. It is a contrast between thrown back in times but on the other hand modern. Everything is quite compact, when you normally go to big cities with a lot of inhabitants; you need to have at least a couple of days to really discover the whole city. And in Ukraine, especially here in Kiev, it is very compact, so it’s very easy to see everything in a relatively short time. So, if you want to discover a city I think Kiev is one of the most fascinating cities where you can do everything in a relatively short time.
Interviewed by Anna Vishtak