Expat finds his comfort zone

Hotel executive calls Moscow “Europe’s best-kept secret,” adding that the time to visit Russia is now — and not just because of the exchange rate.

Stephen Ansell. Sporce: Personal archive

When Stephen Ansell, his wife and two children landed in Moscow in September 2010, Ansell’s young son looked around Domodedovo Airport and announced to his mother, “Mommy, we are home.” After two years in Washington, D.C., Ansell and his family were happy to return to the part of the world where the hotel executive has spent the bulk of his career. Ansell is the general manager of the Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow, which was named the best hotel in Russia at the International Hotel Awards in January. He is also Hyatt’s area director, which makes him responsible for all the Hyatt properties in the region. Before assuming his current position, Ansell managed hotels in Bishkek, Kyrgystan and Ukraine’s capital, Kiev. Earlier in his career, he worked at hotels in Germany, Hong Kong, Saudia Arabia and Turkey. 

Few people are more positive about expat life — and life in Moscow in general — than Ansell, a U.K. native. “I feel more out of place if I go home sometimes, because if you are out for a long time, you become very internationally minded, very multiculturally minded. Your perspective on things is different when you’ve lived in a lot of different countries. That changes your outlook,” he says. 

And Ansell’s outlook on Moscow is very positive. “I think Moscow is in many ways Europe’s best-kept secret,” he says. “Moscow, especially over the past couple of years, has seen an immense number of changes. There has been a serious effort, particularly over the past five years, to make our city more livable, more tourist-friendly for sure,and the overall experience has become a lot more positive, To live here really is a pleasure.” 

Ansell should know. He’s lived in 11 countries during his career and spent his childhood in Southeast Asia and Europe as his family followed the career of his father, a BP (British Petroleum) employee. But he never had a chance to live in Eastern Europe until after the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

The week the wall fell, Ansell, who was working in West Germany at the time, went to Berlin with his girlfriend, who later became his wife. “We have very strong memories,” he says, “and if you reflect on that, it’s amazing how the world has changed in 25 years….the perceptions we had about this part of the world at that time. That falling of the wall was rather symbolic in many ways, but for me, it was that the ability to communicate with this part of the world suddenly changed and it’s become better and better ever since.” 

After the reunification of Germany, Ansell took a position in East Germany at a hotel his employer had just taken over. The experience prepared him for his future working in the former Soviet Union. “My exposure to working there was to [understand] the mindset of the people, and to see how they had been trained. They were very professional, but used to working in a slightly different environment. That may be a slight understatement actually,” he says, laughing. But, Ansell is quick to add, he learned as much from his local colleagues as they learned from him. 

“It taught me to realize that you didn’t always know best, and it was a real first experience of something different to what I was used to, at least work-wise,” says Ansell.”The way people worked, we learned a lot from them and, if anything, it taught me that despite people’s perception that we were there to teach, we also learned a lot. I think that’s a useful life experience. No matter where we go, we learn,” That statement may best express Ansell’s worldview. “Stephen travels well,” says Neil Hardwick, a media investment company executive who met Ansell four years ago. “By that I mean that he can adapt and join in with the environment around him. When you do that, you get to see so much more and participate so much more in to things, events and the people around you.”

Unlike many other high-level expatriates, Ansell is happy to experience Moscow as the locals do. “Stephen simply adores Moscow and Russia, and transmits his passion for this destination to the clients and employees,” says Julia Usoeva, a former colleague of Ansell’s at the Ararat Park Hyatt who now lives in France. “Many foreigners living in Moscow are scared to use public transportation and try to avoid it, Stephen, on the contrary, was even enjoying it, using this experience as an opportunity to mix with the local people, local culture and local language.”

In fact, Ansell takes the metro every day. “It’s crowded sometimes, but I think it’s less crowded than many of the undergrounds that I’m used to; it’s affordable and I highly recommend it.” 

Ansell is also in favor of the move by the Moscow City government to introduce paid parking in the center of the city, although he acknowledges his may be a controversial position. “I think it has changed the whole visual, the whole way you perceive the center of town,” he says. “It has made things a lot easier, it has reduced traffic and,aesthetically, it’s just much more pleasant. From a tourist perspective, visuals, aesthetics are very important.”

His favorite place in Moscow is the famous Gorky Park, although this was not always the case. “When I first arrived here, [it] was really not on the list of places to see and places to visit,” he says. “We went there once or twice because of the historical value — of course, we’ve all read the book — but now it’s a real pleasure to go there. I would say it’s a gem. In fact, I send everyone there, if it’s in the winter — for the ice-skating rink — and in the summer of course it offers some activities, the cultural events that are taking place there. It’s amazing.”

As far as Ansell is concerned, there’s no better to time to visit Moscow, than now, despite the ongoing geopolitical tensions between Russia and the West. 

“For one thing, traveling here is cheaper,” Ansell says with a smile, before adding, “what we would like to see is an increase in the number of tourists and visitors, obviously because of our industry, but also because there’s so much to show here.

“St. Petersburg has been on the radar for a long time. But with all the improvements we’ve made, we’ve turned Moscow into a very attractive destination and I think it’s an experience everyone that should have,” says the hotelier. 

“The significance of Russia historically, at least for us in Europe, is without question. It’s been on the world stage for many, many years, and will continue to be so. And as it’s a destination that has not often been visited, I think now is the time to come and see Russia. And people are working very, very hard to make Russia tourist-friendly. I think that if politics gets in the way of people traveling, the world would be a very boring place,” he says.

Ansell, who is 45, believes that Russia has a particular appeal for travelers his age and older, who remember the Cold War. 

“I grew up in that era. 25 years ago when the Berlin Wall came down, I could never imagine that I would be sitting and eating and living my life in Moscow. It would be unthinkable at that point. But I really view that as part of history. I believe that people of my generation should start to leave that behind, because I believe that the global issues the world faces are much more critical and that we are so more mobile,” Ansell says. He notes that his hotel works with some tour operators who target travelers with an older profile, and that the programs are full of American, British and French travelers who are slightly older, and they are all amazed by what they discover here. 

“In many ways, they appreciate Russia anyway, because they understand the historical significance of what they are looking at when they see Red Square, and for them that has a lot of meaning. Frankly every time I stand on the hotel terrace [which overlooks Red Square], I think ‘Wow, how the world has changed.’”

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