The Clare man in Russia on how Covid-19 is changing life there
Working Abroad Q&A: Brian Gleeson moved to Moscow, but his family are unable to join him since the coronavirus outbreak
Brian Gleeson is general manager of the Radisson Blu Olympiyskiy Hotel in Moscow
Irish Times Abroad meets Brian Gleeson who moved from Copenhagen, Denmark to Moscow, Russia this month. He had lived in Denmark for three years with his wife and 16-month old son, Alex, who are still there. His mother Theresa Gleeson lives on her own in Clonlara, Co Clare, but is doing ok, he says. His father passed away seven years ago and his sister is a teacher in Galway.
When did you leave Ireland and why?
I left Ireland in 2011 and moved to Tallinn, Estonia. I became a general manager in 2008, two weeks before Lehmann brothers collapsed and the financial crisis began. I was really fortunate during that time to have a job and the hotel I managed kept its head above water thankfully. When you work for an international hotel chain you are normally asked if you are interested in a move every two to three years. It had always been a goal of mine to work in hotels around the world and when the chance arose, I took it.
Did you study in Ireland?
A year at Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology (GMIT) and then night school at Griffith College in Dublin on the south circular for a further three. It was a longer and more challenging route to take, but I learned a lot.
You recently moved to Moscow. Where from and why?
I moved from Copenhagen where I’ve been based for the past three years. I had been responsible for managing the Radisson Collection Royal Hotel there and we had renovated and repositioned that hotel since I arrived in the city in 2017. The “why” is a great question, I guess it was just time. I’ve always had itchy feet and once the project is complete it’s always been time to move to the next one. Three years managing a hotel is a good length of time to realise your goals and ambitions. My wife is Russian and we have a 16-month old son, who is half Irish and half Russian. We decided that it would be good for him to experience both sides of his culture and spend some years in Russia before returning to Ireland on a full-time basis.
What does your day-to-day work involve?
The answer to that question today is a lot different than it would have been five weeks ago. Since arriving in Moscow, the tourism industry as a whole has all but stopped. My current work is ensuring that we can mitigate losses due to a lack of guests and provide a safe and secure environment for the team, and the guests as we have here currently. Moscow has not closed all restaurants, bars, hotels at the moment but other attractions such as leisure centres, museums, cinemas and so on have all been closed.
How is Covid-19 affecting things there?
It’s changing over here very quickly now, but before that people were not reacting in the way that the rest of the world was. In the past weeks while the rest of Europe has been in a lockdown, the day-to-day life of a Russian citizen hadn’t changed at all. People still go about their daily business. Cafes, bars and restaurants still have guests. Despite this, you can notice a decline in the numbers of people in all areas.
The government has recently passed legislation that self-isolates all citizens over 65-years-old and there are temperature checks at the entrances of all buildings and airports, but the panic or concern about the virus hasn’t gripped the city at all. People are very concerned about the financial consequences of the downturn and the lack of visitors to the country currently. In the past few hours, however, the president has addressed the nation to close businesses as of next week for seven days. Nobody really knows how to go about this or what it all entails, but like most things, the next 24 hours will involve various orders being sent from administration offices to detail the requirements to make this happen
What has your average day looked like up to now?
I start work over here around 8am. I'm living in the hotel, so don’t really have an excuse to be late. The working day over here is 9am to 6pm, but living in the Nordics for the past few years has gotten me into the discipline of starting earlier. I do a tour of house, meet the teams in the different departments and then we have a morning meeting by Skype at 9.30am. We changed the meeting to Skype recently to set an example to each other and our teams on social-distancing. The rest of my day is spent on cash-flow analysis, forecasted revenue models and profitability scenarios, owner and hotel group calls and discussions alongside trying to create a positive work environment. There’s huge concern for anyone working in tourism right now, it’s critical to try and make people smile, it’s the whole purpose of what we do in the hospitality business.
How might things change?
There’s a million ways to answer that question and every different answer is correct in the current time because nobody really knows what’s going to happen next. The optimist will say this will all blow over, the pessimist that it is the end of days. I’d like to think of myself as fairly pragmatic, so I will say that I haven’t a clue. The Russian mentality is very positive towards the whole situation. A colleague of mine said to me this morning that while she is alive she chooses to be happy. They’ve survived so much over here over the centuries and they’re so resilient. The memory of bad times and how to get through them is in the blood line, and they will persevere no matter what. Regarding business and the future, only time will tell. There is discussion about government assistance, but nothing concrete as of right now. This is where people are really worried, it’s more about financial consequence versus health right now.
So far how do you find Moscow?
Moscow is amazing, I love this city. I worked in Russia previously from 2013 until 2015 down south in Sochi for the Winter Olympics. We opened a resort hotel there in time for the games and I used to visit Moscow regularly. Even though so many things are closed right now, the city has a really special atmosphere. Social distancing hasn’t been requested over here as of now, so the parks and restaurants and streets are all filled with life and by night this city is spectacular.
Has Covid-19 affected you?
Like us all, it has indeed. My wife and son are still in Copenhagen and due to the travel restrictions, we are a little stuck right now. We have breakfast, lunch and dinner over WhatsApp or Skype. It’s not a good time for any of us. There are families in worse situations right now, though, so we are grateful for what we have and trying our best to plan for the future.
Has it affected the people of Moscow? How?
Not really as of right now. There’s no visible restrictions in place as I mentioned, you see people wearing masks and gloves, and checking temperatures outside of entrances but life is continuing without concern. Here at the hotel we’ve implemented social distancing, major disinfection procedures and more. I quietly think that my team believe I’m paranoid, but when you take your news from Irish, British, US and Danish channels, you act upon a different set of guidelines. There’s more of a lockdown inside the hotel than there is outside, I’m leading with the “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you” approach.
Will your day change?
Definitely, in fact life will change. The situation regarding hotels remaining open or closing will become apparent in the coming days I think, this will impact us all. No hotel has significant volume of business right now and many are taking decisions as I write this. My main problem is the fact that I am separated from my family. I'm sure that some of your readers might envy me of this right now given the fact that they’ve been locked up with theirs for a week or more but it’s honestly very tough.
What is the food situation there?
There’s been the same memes about toilet paper and empty shelves, but honestly I have not seen any issues. I go to two different supermarkets near the hotel and all of the shelves are stocked. There’s a grain over here called Grechka (Buckwheat) that almost every Russian eats and that’s the biggest shortage that people talk about. There was an advertisement for an apartment for rent in the news yesterday where the occupant would also receive 5 kilos of Grechka upon renting.
Does being Irish count there at the moment?
Not really. As the general manager of the Blu Olympiyskiy Hotel, I'm looked to for advice and guidance. I think my nationality has always served me really well for this in all countries I’ve worked in. Given the current situation being human and empathetic counts more, and we’re strong as a culture in this when times get tough.
Is there anything you miss about Ireland?
Everything. Our plan was always to return home eventually, we just thought we’d take a look around for a few more years first. I miss the people, the fact that there’s a fire going in the day when there’s really no need. I miss the food, driving through the country and watching the landscape change. I miss the spirit of community and how nosey we are as a nation, always wanting to know the craic about each other. In times like this I miss it more than ever.
If you would like to share your experience of how Covid-19 is affecting you there, email Irish Times Abroad at email@example.com