Moscow Business Travel Guide
Russia's historic capital is a bustling business city today.
Even if this isn’t your first visit, most business travelers to Moscow will tell you it’s time to dispel a few myths: Moscow really is the city that never sleeps, gourmet restaurants are aplenty and there’s no need to chase a business deal with vodka.
The city of more than 11 million is moving forward after several years of a stagnant economy. And many U.S. businesses are working to seize opportunities in new industries. “Russia is still a growth market,” says Anthony Sacca, an executive coach and Australian expat to the city. “You just need to manage the risks.”
Besides oil, industries including the high-tech and auto sectors are seeing growth. These days, the country’s glut of engineering professionals are turning to technology and start-ups, helping to ramp up innovation, says Michael Geer, a serial entrepreneur originally from Brooklyn who lives now in Moscow. And for start-ups, it’s finally possible to tap into investment opportunities. “The government (Moscow city and federal) and corporations are starting to allocate large budgets to tech and innovation,” Geer says.
There’s far more to Moscow than business opportunities, however. Enjoy anything from craft cocktails at the city’s newest lounges to caviar-topped entrées at hip restaurants. Add in some up-and-coming galleries to showcase the city’s thriving art scene, a healthy dose of theater and lots of shopping, and you’ve got to make time for much more than a quick business trip.
Getting Past the Red Tape
While it’s true that most companies are terrified of being ensnared in Vladimir Putin’s bureaucracy, most officials leave foreign companies alone, says Bruce Bean, a law professor at Michigan State University who has spent more than 20 years working in Russia. “You don’t want to mess around with the oil industry, but almost every Fortune 100 company is [in Moscow] and thriving,” says Bean, who still consults for Russia-based corporations. And there’s proof: According to the World Bank’s 2014 Doing Business report, Russia now ranks 92 out of 189 countries in terms of ease of doing business—up 19 spots from last year.
Forming business relationships with Russians can take time. And less familiar partnerships can mean a drawn-out discussion period. Putting pressure on partners typically backfires. “Do not try to rush someone to a ‘yes’ or it will end up being a ‘no,’” says Christopher Lee, an American who moved to Moscow in 2010 and is president of Thunderbird School of Global Management in Russia. “Time for consideration, debate, discussion is an absolute must in Russian business culture.”
And don’t try to do it with vodka, adds Sacca. “The tradition of negotiating over a bottle of vodka is a dying art,” he says. These days, he adds, many younger businesspeople drink wine.
Even once you come to an agreement, it’s never as simple as an email trail or signing on the dotted line, Sacca points out. “Documents need to be printed and stamped,” he says. “Expect to notarize lots of documents.”
Tread carefully when tapping into the business culture of one of the world’s most expensive cities. Get to know the laws, and have a local partner. Following all the rules is a must; the same officials asking for bribes can later use that against the company that broke the rules. “Once they’ve got you doing something crooked, they can use it against you,” Bean says. Laws can be contradictory or vague so it’s difficult to prove your point, he adds.
Be sure to try traditional Russian dishes such as pelmeni (meat-filled dumplings) served with sour cream, but don’t stop there: Moscow’s restaurants are now some of the most sophisticated in the world, and the cuisine’s a far cry from the bland food served during Soviet times. “If you want a meal, there are 150 great restaurants—nobody ever said that in 1992,” says Bean.
Moscow has a shortage of business hotels, and many trendy boutique hotels are striving to attract business travelers with good customer service. Large Western hotel chains “can be ridiculously overpriced” but offer the business amenities that you’re used to back home, says Olga Pang Stein, a Berlin-based global executive coach who works with both Russian and American executives.
At many restaurants and smaller stores, cash is still king. Use ATMs in safe areas such as monitored multinational banks to withdraw rubles, or bring some cash with you to pay in dollars. Many service providers—including translators and taxi drivers—still don’t take credit cards, which can be a hassle when it comes to completing your company expenses, says Pang Stein. Ask for written receipts, and “prepare an explanation for your accounting department of the scraps of paper with Cyrillic writing,” she suggests. Carrying your passport is required, so it’s important to have your passport—or at least a photocopy of it with a valid visa—on hand at all times.
During the morning and evening rush hour, traffic can be at a standstill. Allow plenty of time between meetings, warns Sacca. “A 30-minute trip today can take over an hour tomorrow,” he says. A reliable alternative is the city’s extensive metro system, with its lavish Stalin-era details. But asking a local the best way to get to a certain area is ideal. If you anticipate a long commute, install the Wheely app on your phone, suggests Geer. The local car service picks up passengers in a Mercedes-Benz that’s outfitted with wireless Internet.
Moscow has three main airports and sees three-quarters of the country’s air passenger traffic. Domodedovo handles most international flights; passenger traffic increased by more than 10 percent in the last year, so be prepared to wait for anything from customs to retrieving checked bags. State-owned Sheremetyevo is on the opposite end of town and is a hub for the recently revamped Aeroflot, the Russian Federation main airline. Vnukovo, the city’s smallest and oldest airport, is preparing for expansion by 2015. Each airport offers train service back to the city.
Where to Eat
M. Bronnaya, 20a
Farm-to-table fare in a buzzing atmosphere. Chef/owner Uilliam Lamberti’s French-inspired dishes—from steak tartare with risotto to crab bruschetta—are made in the open kitchen in the center of the restaurant.
Leninsky P-t 32A, 22nd floor
This lounge-meets-restaurant sits atop the Academy of Sciences building and has some of the best views of Moscow, overlooking Gorky Park. While it does offer a menu of Russian classics, it’s also a sceney hangout long after dinner is over, with deejays on some evenings.
Strastnoy Blvd., 8A
Favorites like borscht and pelmeni are whimsically reimagined at this den of molecular gastronomy. The atmosphere is intimate without being too clubby, making it a great place for serious business discussions.
Where to Stay
Ararat Park Hyatt Moscow
4 Neglinnaya St.
Not only does this five-star hotel have one of the best locations for getting around, its service (still lacking in other five-star establishments) will ensure a good night’s sleep. Even the regular rooms are spacious and chock-full of amenities.
8 Bld. 2, Novinskiy Blvd.
The first Russian hotel from the South Korean chain combines East-West elements to create a soothing and luxurious atmosphere. While common areas like the extravagant lobby ooze Old World charm, details like tablets in each room are decidedly modern.
Located in a new commercial complex, the hotel is only a 15-minute walk from Red Square and a short ride from Domodedovo airport (even in Moscow’s notorious traffic). Spacious rooms, authentic food at Topaz restaurant and reasonable rates make it a good choice for weekend stays.
Alina Dizik is an American freelance journalist, born in Russia and currently living in Chicago. Her work appears regularly in The Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.