The story of a little hotel in Lviv
Roman and Kristina Tatarsky tell Oksana Smerechuk a modern story about growing a small business in Lviv’s dynamic tourism sector
Hello and welcome to Ukraine Calling, your weekly review of what’s been happening in Ukraine with a focus on a main issue. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv, and here’s a look at some of the stories that were in the news this week.
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FOCUS INTERVIEW: Roman and Kristina Tatarsky tell Oksana Smerechuk a modern story about growing a small business in L’viv’s dynamic tourism sector.
Smerechuk: Now is the time of year that many are travelling, making plans about flights and hotel bookings. Maybe revisiting places in Ukraine even. Three cities definitely on top of the list for tourists to visit in Ukraine are Kyiv, Odesa and Lviv. And Lviv seems to have come out of nowhere in recent years to be a place that is a must-see. Travel articles in English language media are starting to list it as one of the top 10 unknown gems of Europe. It seems that only yesterday, Lviv was another drab post-Soviet city. Full of historical sites, yes, but neglected and grey. Full of unrealized potential.
It seems to be a very large leap to today’s Lviv, which is built around a charming renovated historical market square, its cobble-stoned streets visited by tourists year-round. With many inviting cafes, thematically restored restaurants, dozens of small hotels. All buildings in the city centre having their own stories to tell. Characters in historic costumes leading guided tours, satisfied visitors leaving with bags of Lviv chocolate. For people who do not live there it seems that this destination just happened overnight. Here with me in the studio to illustrate something of the work that went into transforming the new tourist-friendly Lviv, are an entrepreneurial couple, Roman Tatarsky and Kristina Tatarsky. Five years ago they founded a little hotel called On the Square, located literally on Lviv’s central market square. Welcome Roman. Welcome Kristina.
Roman Tatarsky: Thank for inviting us.
Kristina Tatarska: It is very nice to be here.
Smerechuk: As I understand it, you were both professionals, well established in your careers when you decided to make the switch into Lviv’s hospitality industry. Kristina, you were an economist, with a law degree as well, working in the oil and gas sector, working in Investor Relations with Halnaftohaz. Roman, you were a successful international career person, a career which involved lots of exotic travel, having an MBA background, working with business as a Risk Management Consultant with companies like Ernst and Young, Price Waterhouse Cooper.
Most people would have been quite happy with that. And left it there. But then you made the big leap. You both quit your full-time jobs and invested in Lviv real-estate and in a little guest-house. What motivated you? How did you start? What ideas did you start with?
Roman Tatarsky: Just to give you a little bit of background from my point of view and my personal story and what probably motivated me to go down this path. I’ve always loved real estate to begin with. I do hold some real estate investments in Canada. Part of the plan when I moved to Ukraine to join Ernst and Young, was not only development in the consulting sphere, but I also wanted to understand the real estate market more closely in Ukraine, with an idea of participating in it in some ways. That was 12 years ago when I moved from Toronto to Kyiv. Almost immediately I started some minor investments in real estate in Ukraine. I always particularly liked Lviv because of its gorgeous architecture. I was shocked when I first came to Lviv just by the beauty of it. So I took an interest in Lviv’s real estate market and I started investing.
About at the same time the city – and it comes back to your point how the city has evolved, and I have to give credit to the current mayor, Sadovyi. When he came to office he had a very clear vision and idea how to develop the city. This is very important because what you have now in terms of tourism and hotels and everything else that you have just mentioned, it all started 10—12 years ago when the city first started putting together its strategic plans. It is one thing to have a strategic plan which looks very nice on the shelf and you read it once and forget about it. But this one actually works, and I have seen it work day to day. It has two main components. One is tourism and one is IT. We all know that Lviv is very strong in both segments.
To make long story short, eventually, I always had in the back of my mind that what was missing in Lviv was a mid-range, three-star bed-and –breakfast style, something a little bit unique, not a cookie-cutter hotel, where every room is same. This is where in 2011 we started the process, along with my wife. We identified the building, which would be of interest on the main square of the city. We found some partners for this project. It just so happened that we were able to open for Euro2012.
Smerechuk: That was good timing.
Roman Tatarsky: Yes
Smerechuk: And what inspired you, Kristina? What was your idea when you started?
Kristina Tatarska: Roman likes to travel a lot. When we met, we spent first three years traveling around Europe mostly. It’s very easy, it’s very convenient. Most of the time we stayed in this small type of hotel that we opened. It was called guest house, mini-hotels. We loved the concept. They always located in very central part of the city. They were close to important sights. They were not expensive, which was also important because we wanted to travel sometimes even for a couple of months. It is also very important that there is somebody on the reception who can advise us where to go, where to eat, and what to see. You always get this inside look. It is not like you open the book and just start reading. It’s someone who lives in the city tells you where to go, where to hang out and you get the best out of your experience.
Smerechuk: What was available in Lviv at that time when you were starting out? They had similar hotels?
Roman Tatarsky: This is another thing that inspired me and I saw the opportunity or even the need. Because I would come to Lviv myself in the early days looking for a place to stay and really the only options you had were either hostels or the higher-end hotels like Grand Hotel, Leopolis, etc. You didn’t have that unique, mid-range, good value for money, but also comfort and unique place to stay, where you would feel comfortable. That was not around at that time. I think it is another thing that inspired me to actually go ahead and open a bed-and-breakfast. It is one thing to buy up a building, to consolidate the building by buying a few apartments. The next step is what to do with them. Our family business is two-pronged. One side is real estate business, where we actually buy and redevelop real estate. And the other is hotel operation business. At some point you need to decide what you are going to do with the real estate you buy. That made perfect sense at that time.
Smerechuk: Can you, just to help us visualize, what this guest house that you first started with looked like? Can you describe a little bit how it looked like? How many rooms were there?
Roman Tatarsky: I will start how it looked like and then you can … So our approach was literally to buy …we identified the building which we were able to buy and consolidate. What we ended up doing was just buying residential flats. The concept was to buy an entire floor or some sort of a piece of the building which would make sense to run as a consolidated as bed-and-breakfast. They were in very rough shape. If you have seen some of older Lviv apartments, these were typically smaller apartments, neglected, owned by older people, nothing has been done for many years. Which was not bad because our whole concept idea is when we purchase them we do full renovation anyway. But they were very scary when we first walked in. Maybe Kristina would like to add…
Kristina Tatarska: We tried to keep some of the original elements like wooden stairs, and wooden floors. We managed to save some frescos on the walls. Together with that we renovated almost the major part of remaining premises. So when you walk into our rooms, you have this fresh feeling of newly renovated rooms but you also have these particular and very interesting details that you would see only in a 16th century building, as ours is.
Roman Tatarsky: The old fireplaces, the old doors have been fully restored. So many people come to Lviv to experience the city and see the historical Austrian building looks like. That what we tried to preserve while providing comfort with new plumbing and everything and make sure everything works.
Smerechuk: How many rooms did you start with?
Kristina Tatarska: We started with 6 rooms. We currently have in our first hotel eleven rooms. And two years ago we started a new hotel because the business was going well. So very close to the central market, we started the new one which is going to be even bigger, but the same concept.
Roman Tatarsky: So it´s called “Danylo Inn” and within a couple weeks there will be twenty one rooms
Smerechuk: So, it’s progressing.
Roman Tatarsky: Yes, Yes.
Smerechuk: But when you started… Did you start before the 2012, the Euro Cup Football Competition?
Roman Tatarsky: Yes, honestly I would say it was a pure coincidence. I always had this idea as I mentioned and it took about year to purchase the initial real estate, which we than turned into six rooms. And, you know, it was a very nice coincidence and stimulation, the fact that Euro 2012 was going to be held in Lviv. And actually, I should mention, that today is actually the five year anniversary of the first hotel on the square.
Smerechuk: Oh, congratulations!
Kristina Tatarska: Thank you very much!
Roman Tatarsky: We opened obviously…
Kristina Tatarska: That is going to be a big celebration, I hope.
Roman Tatarsky: June 8, I should say. We opened June 8, 2012 – the first match of the Euro 2012 Championship.
Smerechuk: So, were you ready for the guests?
Kristina Tatarska: We are not…
Roman Tatarsky: Relatively.
Kristina Tatarska: … obviously not ready. There is always something missing, there is always something more you want to do. But when the client steps into your new hotel and asks “Where can I stay?” Of course, you can stay! We got our first two customers from the UK. They were very excited, very happy and of course we welcomed them and we tried to provide everything necessary and they seemed to be very happy with what they got.
Roman Tatarsky: Yes, our first opening was a bit bare. I mean, the art on walls was missing and perhaps we did not have all the bits and pieces that we do have now in the hotel.
Smerechuk: But you had this big influx…
Roman Tatarsky: Yes, and …
Smerechuk: … of interested guests because of the…
Roman Tatarsky: Yes.
Kristina Tatarska: And the location was perfect, I should say. And they could see the Lviv City Council from the windows which has the unique experience, I guess. Not everyday you have such a magnificent view from your window. So they were extremely happy.
Smerechuk: So, were you doing, do you keep statistics and some kind of market analysis? What kind of people, what kind of guests were coming in the beginning when you first opened?
Kristina Tatarska: Before 2013, before the Revolution, 60% of our clients, I would say, they were Ukrainians and probably 15% Russians. The rest were Central Europe and North American. After the Revolution, the structure of our clients changed a little bit in the direction that we started to have more and more Ukrainians coming to Lviv and of course to our hotel, much less Russians. And we also have a lot of from Poland, of course, Germany. Belarussia is very active in visiting Lviv, and of course the Turks because around three years ago, Lviv airport launched direct flights to Istanbul. So, for this reason we have a lot of guests from Turkey as well.
Roman Tatarsky: But the group is actually very diverse. I just wanted to add, I just recalled one of our first guest was from Mexico. You know there have been groups from Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Kristina Tatarska: And Brazil, and Japan.
Roman Tatarsky: Brazil and Japan. So, it´s quite international which actually also makes it quite interesting to run a business, because it is great to have interaction with our guests.
Kristina Tatarska: And we wanted to know where they came to Lviv, what they wanted to see, so we always try to somehow have this feeling and we would go out with our guests sometimes and just have a little conversation to find out more what were they looking for, how did they find out about Lviv, how of course they find out about our hotel.
Roman Tatarsky: Our Mexican friend is still, five years later, inviting us to come to visit him in Mexico.
Smerechuk: That sounds like he had a good time
Roman Tatarsky: I hope we can make it happen soon.
Smerechuk: And, also part of this is you can’t of course run a successful guest house all alone. You need to rely on much support and infrastructure within the city. Is the city… Do you find the city is reaching out to small businesses in the tourism industry and hospitality to unify things?
Roman Tatarsky: I find the city has been very helpful in terms of providing a lot of basic things and infrastructure that you need in a newly developing tourist-focused market. Starting with the strategy that I mentioned earlier. So this is a documented formal strategy. There is a group of business people who meet regularly to discuss the implementation of the strategy to work on different elements of tourism strategy. Even minor things like a Tourist Info Office. Ten years ago there was no Information Office for the tourists. And I once even relayed this to the major personally. I said “Okay I can imagine what it ’s like to be a foreigner. Okay, imagine I forget Ukrainian. I just get off the train in Lviv. Everything absolutely is in Ukrainian. I would have no clue what to do, as a pure foreigner coming in” And I mean this is a major entry point into the city. The train station it is an obvious one. And in short order tourist office with… and I´m sure I´m not the only person making observations about things like that. There is now a multilingual tourist office on the main square, we overlook it.
Kristina Tatarska: As well as train station and airport.
Roman Tatarsky: At the train station. It´s very helpful, I mean it´s the kind of stuff that you really need, basic tourist infrastructure.
Kristina Tatarska: To fill in of the visitors.
Roman Tatarsky: Yes.
Smerechuk: So, when you started did you have to hire staff you want? I guess you were not the only people working there. Did you have to retrain people completely? What was your approach to… because service after all is very important, right?
Kristina Tatarska: We wanted to be a little bit unique in the type of service we were providing for our clients. And the first thing was, of course, speaking the client’s’ language. So what we did, it was more or less naturally, we tried to employee young students who speak English very well first of all, who had been maybe traveling a little bit or have this sense of staying in small hotels. And I think the strategy was pretty successful because all the staff we were employing, they were very easy to coach, to train a little bit, and they were open to the world, open to clients from all over the world. So, we could see very quickly that the training has been very successful and we were receiving very good reviews on the client service and especially on the staff, which was actually welcoming the client.
Roman Tatarsky: I would just add as context I think is very important. You know, it’s possible to learn, technically, almost any job, but what’s very important and what’s very important to us when we were hiring our staff, and continue to hire our staff, is that they have the right attitude, that they’re positive people, that they really believe in this concept of customer service and guest satisfaction. All the other stuff a relatively smart person can learn, and I think that is, and it remains our competitive advantage that we don’t take standard hotel staff. Our number one priority is positive interaction with guests.
Smerechuk: But you’re living at the moment in Kyiv, and you’re still managing somehow – you’re very actively involved in this guest house. How do you do that? How do you know that there’s quality service, and that the guest house is working well?
Roman Tatarsky: I can say from my point of view, I always had a vision in my head. I knew that we wouldn’t be in L’viv full-time. I always had this understanding and vision that we need to build a team and we will be able to work remotely. That we can trust, that we see eye to eye with, and that’s what we’ve managed to do is hire a team. And it’s amazing this day and age what you can do remotely with the internet and phone and email. And there’s really a lot you can do remotely, if you have the right staff in place. If you have people you can trust, and you enjoy working with, and they enjoy their jobs.
Kristina Tatarska: And during these five years, we have been implementing very good booking systems, that is unique and is actually compounding all different booking systems into one. This has been also very good for us and good for the business.
Smerechuk: Do you find that now that tourism has expanded and perhaps the Ukrainian clients that come to visit you, the guests, are also perhaps expecting more, and getting used to these services available, do you find that Ukrainian clients have changed as well?
Kristina Tatarska: Yes, I can see that. I remember the first reviews of Ukrainian clients, it was interesting to read them. The concept of a guest house was pretty new to them. And there were different reviews, whether they like it or not. Now most of the clients, after visiting maybe the same concept in Europe or North America, are happy to see small hotels appearing in L’viv and they’re pretty happy. Also, the client is growing and they’re expecting a much higher level of service. They notice the small details that we have been working with a lot during through these five years, “Oh we are very happy to see that you have this sort of service” or “We are very happy to see that you put ear plugs next to our bed,” because we know that our hotel is located in the central part of the city and there is a lot of action going on. We spend a lot of time at our hotel, and of course, we even stayed through the night so we could experience fully what it’s like to be a client in our hotel. These small details, we always think about them. Every time we stay at a hotel we always come back with some ideas and the best of them, we try to implement, and make the same in our hotel.
Roman Tatarsky: I think our client base has matured. There are various funny sort of situations. For example, we have some exposed brick in some of our rooms, which nowadays is very nice to have. And one in 300 clients will say, “How could you leave exposed brick in your hotel and not plaster it? You just don’t do that.”
Kristina Tatarska: Or old wooden stairs which we love very much, and the professional photographers who come to visit and stay at our hotel and are amazed by the beauty of these stairs. But of course, some people would comment that they’re not very comfortable. Again, it’s a 16th century building and we have a very short history hanging on the walls at our reception so that everyone can understand, get the feeling.
Roman Tatarsky: But they’re maturing, they’re getting it now, they’re getting the concept of the product now. It’s nice to see.
Smerechuk: How is the occupancy rate looking this summer?
Roman Tatarsky: I was going to say, there’s a lot of things that are reflected in the occupancy rate, but we’ve always had very good occupancy. You know, historically, honestly, it’s between 85 to 99 per cent depending on the season and the day of the week, etcetera. You know, we’ll be adding more rooms, as I said, within a few weeks. We’ll be having a total of 32 rooms across the two properties. I hope that occupancy doesn’t change too much. But I guess it’s a vote of confidence in the product, clients get it and they appreciate it, and we have a lot of repeat business now.
Kristina Tatarska: And because L’viv is on the list of the top three cities to visit in Ukraine, I don’t think there is such a thing as low season in L’viv and this is unique.
Roman Tatarsky: It’s literally one month per year. February is low because it’s cold and nothing is going on.
Kristina Tatarska: And maybe this is one of the reasons why we do the business mostly in L’viv. Because some of our friends ask us, “Why won’t you open the same place in Kyiv?” We say that L’viv is very unique when it comes to occupancy and the number of tourists visiting, which is constantly growing. I just saw that the last number of people coming in 2016 to L’viv was 2.5 million, which is twice as much, as for example, as 2012.
Smerechuk: Despite all the fluctuations, and at one point the uncertain situation! Well, I wish you luck that it just keeps growing —
Tatarsky: Thank you.
Smerechuk: Because it’s good to see a very welcoming tourist-friendly city. So, thank you, thank you for coming in. And I have told you Roman and Kristina’s story, and there’s also dozens of small, friendly hotels in L’viv, so if you’re still wondering what to do with your summer vacation, I think you can’t go wrong if you explore L’viv and come and explore Ukraine, so have a good summer.
Roman Tatarsky: Please do come to L’viv, you are welcome at any time. Thank you, Oksana, for having us.
Kristina Tatarska: Thank you, Oksana.
Smerechuk: Thank you.
Ukraine and Joining NATO
On the 7th of June, the Ukrainian parliament adopted amendments to legislation, which confirm that Ukraine’s foreign policy objective is joining NATO. The amendments, state that Ukraine’s foreign policy will be focused on steps to promote cooperation with NATO in order to fulfill the criteria for membership.
Ukraine had previously had non-aligned status. In 2010, former President Yanukovych, who was pro-Moscow, had imposed neutral “non-aligned” status on Ukraine, meaning it could not join any military alliance.
Now the adoption of these objectives is motivated as a response to the Russian Federation’s aggression against Ukraine and annexation of part of its territory.
According to polls, public support for Nato membership is at an all-time high. Before the events of February 2014 and Russian aggression on Ukrainian territory, only 15% of Ukrainians were in favour of Nato membership. But now, according data provided by the Ilko Kucheriv Democratic Initiatives Fund, as many as 44% of Ukrainians would support joining NATO.
Ukraine’s reforms of the Health Care System
On the 8th of June, partial success was achieved in introducing legislation to reform the Health care system. Two bills were put to the vote by the Ukrainian Parliament and the first bill, which introduced the new health care system was passed. The second Bill, however, which would bring amendments to the Budgetary Code, and which would provide the financing for the health care changes, did not garner enough votes.
Ukraine’s Acting Minister of Health, Ulana Suprun, said she would continue pressing to gather support for the Bill, before the Parliament adjourns for summer break.
Minister Suprun has been working on introducing legislation to reform health care for almost a year. The health care system has not seen any reforms in the past 25 years and the new system would reform palliative, emergency and primary care simultaneously. A new National Health Service would be created, which would be an independent body under the Cabinet of Ministers. The new system should also improve the quality of care, once doctors will have to adhere to internationally-based standards. Also, licensing will be for individual doctors, rather than for medical practices.
Harassment of Crimean tartars continues in Crimea. A Crimean Tartar leader who criticized Russia’s seizure of Crimea, has gone on trial. Ilmi Umerov, who is the deputy chairman of the Mejlis, the Crimean Tartar’s representative body, was arrested in May and has been charged with separatism. The trial procedure is likely to be lengthy and Ilmi Umerov is requesting an open trial, so that he can speak publicly about the problems faced by Crimean Tartars under Russian rule.
And meanwhile, a Ukrainian journalist in Crimea, jailed for expressing criticisms of Russia, is also fighting politically motivated separatism charges. Mykola Semena has been charged with calling for the violation of Russian territorial integrity, but maintains that he is innocent. His trial had resumed on the 5th of June but then was adjourned again. HIs trial hearing had actually started on the 20th of March but has been adjourned several times for different reasons.
With all the international news this week, Russia’s war against Ukraine didn’t make many headlines. But five Ukrainian soldiers were killed, twenty seven were wounded. Civilian residential areas continued to be targets of heavy mortar attacks. On June 3rd a residential building in Mariinka was hit, and two civilians were wounded as a result. A Ukrainian NGO called “Myrnyi Bereh,” which means Peaceful Shore, issued a report this week about war crimes, presenting data on 95 crimes collected by human rights defenders, lawyers, and civilian investigators. The Russian state news agency TASS reported that the self-proclaimed Donets’k People’s Republic submitted a package of documents about war crimes committed by the Kyiv authorities to the International Criminal Court in the Hague. Reuters reported that an Austrian accused of committing war crimes in eastern Ukraine was released from custody after credibly denying the allegations against him.
This past week Ukrainians celebrated Pentecost. The holiday is known as Zeleni Sviata, or Green holidays. The custom is to gather some green herbs or green branches and bring them indoors to decorate the rooms. Usually churches are decorated in greenery. In parts of Western Ukraine, people will even decorate their local public transport, such as trams and trolleybuses with green branches. In any case, everybody enjoys the long weekend break. Pentecost, or Zeleni Sviata, has been a public holiday again in Ukraine since 1991.
There used to be a musical project in Ivano-Frankivs’k called BuhNay, with musicians Andriy Fedotov and Edward Skrypnyk. Fedotov passed away, and Skrypnyk now works as a video engineer on Hromadske Radio. Here’s a piece they once recorded together in a home studio called Fedot. Enjoy!
Next week we’ll once again be looking at Ukraine and international issues. Tune in for a new episode. And we’d love to hear from you. Write to us at [email protected]. I’m Oksana Smerechuk for Hromadske Radio in Kyiv. Thanks for listening.