Tina Toribaba, Communications Manager, and Olga Maliko, Assistant Director of Sales, took a little break from the engine room of their busy hotel office to talk to us about how things have changed since 2008 and how they are continuing to attract MICE and leisure visitors.

What trends have you noted in visitor numbers to the hotel since 2008?
Well, 2008 was a good year for us in the hotel because everything was booked in advance, 2009 we started seeing a decrease, 2010 was difficult, 2011 was a year that saw  everything pick up at the last minute and we did well as we attracted some large conferences, but in general end clients and organisers have been feeling more insecure and we have to work a little more to reassure them that everything is ok in the city. To do this we have the support of the Mayor of Athens, whose formal letters of support we sent to the organisers to forward to end clients. For every single piece of business that we have, we have to fight much harder than before and we are more competitive in rates. Once it is confirmed, we then have to work extra hard to keep the business in the hotel.

What kind of extra work and initiatives do you use to secure business in today’s environment?
Obviously the rates are one part of our offer, but we also work a lot on providing added value. For example, we are trying to attract the city break traveller and so we have created a package called ‘Cultural Weekend for Two’, which has gone really well and has a very good rate. It offer six double tickets to the most important museums in Athens free of charge, so in this way we promote Athens as the perfect destination for a cultural break. We also come up with a lot of offers both for the leisure and the MICE traveller. Those booking now at the Hilton Athens, for example, can save 50% with a Great Getaway offer that is valid worldwide and importantly in Hilton hotels across Europe. There is also the MICE offer of ‘1-in-5’, also offered throughout Europe but a real focus for us here, where for meetings of, say, up to 50 delegates, one in five goes free for DDR and room. These are special packages that we create with a small booking window in order to secure this business. We have offers starting from incredibly competitive rates for the product that we are offering. Our price policy has changed, our energy levels are up, the market has changed a lot throughout Europe, and for us it is also the consistent support we have to offer to the organisers about the confidence of the city.

How have you responded to today’s culture of shortened lead-in times for events?
Now we have to be more flexible and we have to respond very quickly – if a request is for one month from now and it is 250 participants, it’s your priority. You answer right away, you contact the client, you look at all the possibilities. In this difficult period you really become very alert and you have to be very professional in everything that you offer. You really need to understand what the client needs and offer exactly that or even more. Every business request is treated individually – we look at what kind of company it is, what other destinations are they considering, what is their general budget, we analyse how to split the budget in the department, look at what added value we can offer, we do everything to tailor-make the request for the client, to show a real professional service of a very good product. Also, something we do very much more of now is invite conference organisers for free weekends to see the hotel and city – not for a site inspection, but on a ‘come to Athens and see the city’ basis. When they come and see the hotel and the city, we are confident that they will book.

Is it a difficult time now to sell Athens as a destination?
This needs to be looked at the right way. It’s not difficult to sell Athens, we have an opportunity here now. You can get excellent service and products at a much more competitive rate that we have never before seen, it’s really very good value for money today.
We also think that city branding is now the most important thing of all – we as a hotel have lately tried to do more city branding than hotel branding. All our efforts have mainly focussed on the city advantages and not so much the hotel. Clients know us, recognise us and appreciate us, but we are trying to do the best to promote Athens. For example, we have uploaded a link on our website with ten reasons to visit Athens. All our presentations abroad and the press releases focus on the destination, as it deserves this attention. The city has a wealth of assets.

With Athens better value for money, do event organisers expect even more?
Yes, but you know your limits and it depends on the time and how much you want the business and your relationship with the client and a range of other factors. It is definitely a buyer’s market, not just for us, but also for the destinations. The approach has changed from all sides.

What activity can we expect from Hilton Athens in the short and medium term to ensure their MICE business remains intact?
For us we will continue participating in all the major exhibitions in both Europe and the United States. We will not stop visiting the markets, either at exhibitions, direct sales visits to their offices or inviting them to the city. For all of this we work closely with the Athens Convention Bureau, as this is not something we can do on our own. We do what we can as Hilton, but it’s about the city. ACB do a good job with this and we look forward to further collaboration with them.

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A long-time meetings industry addict, Gorazd is the Founder and owner of marketing and event agency Toleranca Marketing. He has many years of experience in planning, preparing and carrying out large international meetings and exhibitions. As the founder of the "Power to the Meetings" methodology, he still firmly believes in the power of live events and human to human communication. He is also the author of numerous articles and editor-in-chief of the meetings industry magazine Kongres Magazine.