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Russians Learn Hospitality Before Sochi Games

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It may not come naturally to all Russians and, in the run-up to the Winter Olympics, Sochi hotel managers are getting crash courses in how to smile.

In line with President Vladimir Putin's efforts to show Russia's modern face at the USD$50 billion Sochi Games, an initiative has been launched to break down enduring stereotypes of Russians as cold, severe and unsmiling.

Russia's Olympic University, opened in Moscow and the Olympic host city by the Black Sea in 2009 by Putin and businessman Vladimir Potanin, has been training hotel managers in hospitality so they can pass on the wisdom to their staff.

"Learning how to handle guests from other countries, it's a specialty that we have to learn better - so that they understand our hospitality," said course participant Vladimir Shushkin, deputy director of Sochi's Green Grove Sanatorium where Soviet dictator Josef Stalin's summer home is still preserved.

While Russia's tourism industry has struggled since the fall of the Soviet Union, Putin sees the Olympics as a chance not only to refurbish its image in the eyes of Western visitors but also to breathe new life into an industry with huge potential.

Bureaucracy and difficulties in getting a visa discourage many potential visitors from even thinking of Russia as a tourism destination. And if they reach Russia, they find old Soviet habits die hard.

US car rental salesman John Cerry said the train journeys 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 said.

The Olympic hospitality workshops, developed at the request of the Sochi 2014 Organizing 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," said Tatyana Pomyatkinskaya, one of the organizers.

"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 the standard of hospitality meets international standards."

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Russians themselves ten to spend their spare money in places where tourism infrastructure is already developed, such as Italy, Spain and France.

Hotel chain Hilton said in a report it expected Russian tourists to spend USD$37.4 billion more abroad than they do at home by 2016.

"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," said Hilton Worldwide.

Tourism's direct industry gross GDP contracted 24 percent between 1990 and 2013, the World Travel and Tourism Council says. But tourism is expected to have contributed USD$122 billion to Russia's GDP in 2013 and is set for about 4 percent growth per year until 2023.

Helen Marano, the council's government affairs director, admitted cool reception could be part of the Russian experience.

"Part of the cross-cultural understanding gained is when you come into a country and see how they experience their hospitality - and it would be a perception of an austerity on the part of Russians at the front desk," she said.

"But that doesn't hold true when you spend some time with them and see how gracious they can be."

She said investments in boosting the country's human capital would help tourism 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. It takes a few years but I see it as a great investment in the future," she said.

(Reuters)