Hosts receive lessons in the art of smiling
Reuters in Sochi
Warmth doesn't flow naturally from many Russians. In the run-up to the Winter Olympics, Sochi hotel managers are getting crash courses in how to smile.
Russia's Olympic University, which opened in Moscow and the Games host city five years ago, has been training hotel managers in hospitality so they can pass on the wisdom to their staff.
The initiative, officials hope, will break down stereotypes of Russians as cold and severe.
"Learning how to handle guests from other countries, it's a speciality that we have to learn better," says course participant Vladimir Shushkin.
The Olympic hospitality workshops, developed at the request of the Sochi 2014 Organising Committee, include how to smile at strangers, maintain eye contact and focus on customer service rather than hotel rules.
"We had case studies of difficult types of guests, how to deal with drunk guests or if the guest asks for something impossible," says Tatyana Pomyatkinskaya, one organiser. "For as much as our city is holding the Olympics and intends to become a world-class resort, it is important for us and the hotels where they will be staying that hospitality meets international standards."
While Russia's tourism industry has struggled since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin sees the Olympics as a chance to burnish its image among Western visitors. Bureaucracy and onerous visa rules discourage many people from considering Russia as a tourism destination. Once they arrive, visitors find that old Soviet habits live on.
US car rental salesman John Cerry says the train rides were "magical" and some people very warm, but did not like all he came up against. "Service was awful. Every time I went out to dinner, the waitress would basically throw our dinners on the table and walk away," he says.
"There is a negative image of Russia among international tourists, due to a high level of red tape, lack of proper infrastructure, high accommodation prices and unpredictable quality of services," says Hilton Worldwide.
Helen Marano, the council's government affairs director, admitted that a cool reception could be part of the Russian experience.
"But that doesn't hold true when you spend some time with them and see how gracious they can be," she says.
By investing in boosting the country's personal skills, she says, tourism will grow.
"Starting from the border, the more pleasantries there are and the softer the touch, it only promulgates the reputation of a country and word of mouth takes on an effect of its own," she says. "It takes a few years but I see it as a great investment in the future."