City’s Historic Hotel Gets GM With Local Connection
Published: June 17, 2011 (Issue # 1661)
Alexander Belenky / The St. Petersburg Times
Leon Larkin, general manager of the Grand Hotel Europe, is of Russian descent.
Leon Larkin, the new general manager of the Grand Hotel Europe, may have been born in Germany and grown up in Australia, but he says he doesn’t feel like a foreigner in Russia, understands the Russian soul, enjoys the local food and likes the parties.
According to Larkin, the reason for this is his Russian roots: His father was from Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was called for most of the Soviet era) and his mother is Ukrainian. They met at the end of World War II in Berlin, where their son was born. Soon the family emigrated to Australia, where Larkin began his career — though not in the hospitality industry.
“First I worked as a middle-school teacher, like my mother. Then I graduated in sales and marketing, and moved on to the hotel business. I became the sales director for the Sheraton Hotel in my hometown in Australia,” says Larkin, who is responsible for all the operations of Orient-Express Hotels in Russia.
“You don’t find many sales people becoming general managers — it took me a while to make the transition, but I made it.”
As Larkin’s career grew, he worked and lived in various cities and countries, including Australia and New Zealand, Hong Kong, China, Finland, Singapore and Malaysia, the Czech Republic and Ukraine. This is the second time that he has worked in Russia.
Fully immersed in the hospitality industry, Larkin has always lived in the hotels where he worked. For 35 years, he has used hotel services as if he were a guest himself, in doing so, constantly monitoring the quality of services provided by staff, including cleaning, laundry and catering.
In Larkin’s opinion, people should look for the positive in everything and be enthusiastic about the way things are.
“We are where we are because that is the way we want things to be. That’s what I teach my staff. Nobody is holding a Kalashnikov to your head and saying ‘you have to do this job.’ You do it because you want to do it,” he said.
The best way to motivate and inspire employees is to lead by example, he says.
“It’s very simple. How can I expect my staff to have clean shoes if my shoes are not clean? That’s the way I do it,” said Larkin.
Larkin believes Russian employees are well-educated and good workers.
“Russians place a high value on education; they have good work ethics. But I think they lack Western experience, and aren’t familiar with the Western business way of doing things,” he said.
Russia is rapidly becoming a more cosmopolitan country, and it will take time for the average person to understand how and why companies do things in a certain way, believes Larkin.
He thinks Russian employers should focus on helping their staff to travel more.
“When people travel, they understand more, they learn more. And young people today are like sponges, they take everything in and use it, you can see it in their eyes and in their enthusiasm.”
“The hospitality industry in Russia has come a long long way, and it’s going to go even further. Tourism is going to play a huge part in the future of this city,” he added.
Larkin regards St. Petersburg as the most remarkable city in the world, but laments the obstacles that visitors face in getting here, most notably difficulties related to getting a visa.
“The rules have been relaxed for people arriving by ship, and maybe this will be extended to those arriving by train, but getting a visa is frustrating. I’m not criticizing anybody, I completely understand it all, but the process needs to be streamlined,” he said.
“The tourist dollar is an important part of city revenue. When tourists spend money in the city, it filters down to all sorts of different industries: To hotels, to restaurants, to taxi drivers, to local transport and to local services.”
Larkin believes there should be far more interaction between the government and the hospitality industry, such as in cities such as Las Vegas, New York, London, Paris and Berlin that are marketed as tourist destinations.
“They are the competition, and St. Petersburg is a top contender. More hotels, more restaurants and more taxis mean more jobs, more money being put into the community, and better schools and hospitals as a result of more money generated through taxes. It affects everything, and that’s how the city can develop,” he said.
Tourists can be viewed as the ‘best mobile advert on two legs,” according to Larkin, who says it is essential that guests are provided with a high level of service both around the city and in hotels.
“For both businesses and individuals, reputation is everything,” said Larkin.
Larkin says that most of his values and principles came directly from his family, and believes it is important not to forget where you came from. In keeping with family tradition, Larkin adheres to Russian Orthodoxy and attends church every Sunday.
“My mother is still alive, and she follows Russian traditions, so every time I ring her and I speak in Russian, she corrects me like a good schoolteacher,” he smiles.
“And she cooks the best Napoleon cake in the world!”