Getting an overview of what’s been happening on the Athens and Greece hotel landscape and their response to current challenges, The Kongres Telescope spoke to Alexandros Vassilikos (AV), Chairman of the Athens – Attika Hotel Association and Agni Christidou (AC), Director of the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels.
Could you tell us a little about the work you do representing hotels regionally/nationally and how your role has evolved with the events of the last years?
(AV) Firstly, there is the collaborative component between us and the government, dealing with best ways of managing administration and keeping business on the right track. With the current economic climate, this side of our role is taking up most of our time at present. We also try to promote the destination in different ways for all of our involved members, which is the most interesting aspect for us. For example, we have collaborated with Expedia in order to promote the destination, but today, with limited funds, we have to do totally different things and this is what we have started doing. For the past months we have done six or seven FAM trips and we work a lot with the airlines that have implemented new routes to Athens to show them the city and dispel the media image that has distorted the reality of everyday Athens. We have seen many medium haul airlines coming in and we are working closely with the airport to develop this and bring more flights to Athens.
(AC) We have also seen new challenges for the hotel industry, which is anyway a very dynamic industry but is now dealing with the economic crisis. An example is a number of hotels that have been dependent on Greek guests, who are holding back to see what will happen with the economic situation and, for example, visiting their relatives instead. For destinations reliant on foreign visitors, they have not been too badly affected apart from Athens, because it is on the screen all the time and everybody has identified the crisis with an image of Athens.
Has the crisis had a significant impact on hotel business in Athens? If so, what can your association do to address this?
(AC) This is something where we need to be careful with the statistics – there have been some closures, for example, but quite often hotels have retained the businesses and when things change they can easily re-open. They haven’t changed to a commercial use or something like that. The President of the Hellenic Chamber of Hotels is an elected hotelier and is also an Athenian, who is very active about any problems, but there is not one single way to deal with it. In May, for example, during the elections we had a trip for 40 German tour operators who had never been to Athens and who were surprised at just how well the city works, especially against the media image they have been presented with.
Room uptake has of course fallen and this has been reflected in room rates that have also fallen. However, with the elections now concluded we expect an upsurge in last-minute bookings.
(AV) The market re-equilibration that we are seeing in the overall economy is happening much faster for hotels. As much as 95% of the hotels in Athens were renovated for the Olympics, therefore they haven’t even had a decade of life. It’s a very new and high-quality hotel infrastructure, but prices are much less than what they were in 2004. It means that you have very good value for money today in Athens, making the city a very attractive destination proposition in this aspect, particularly compared with most other European capital cities. This is something we want to highlight.
What specific initiatives do you promote to help hoteliers remain viable in the current situation?
(AC) The hoteliers themselves are responsible for the operation of their business, but we are giving them a number of tools, one of which is a huge project called Greek Breakfast. For this, we are trying to promote the local farmers who develop the products used in the hotel menus, meaning you support the local economy. The second thing that we are doing is providing advice on contracts with tour operators to make sure they are legally correct. We are also supporting hoteliers with advice on their business management for the new tax in place to 2014 calculated on the area of the hotel – most can manage this to 2014 and believe they will be in a better situation quickly afterwards.
After this period of adaptation what trends do you foresee for the Greek hotel industry in the years ahead? What possibilities exist for synergies between organisations or even with neighbouring countries in terms of raising the offer?
(AC) First of all, the future will be good! I work in tourism and I haven’t visited all the islands, because we have so many and they are all beautiful. There are also regions that are not yet tourist destinations where old homes are being transformed into hotels, often boutique, where people believe there is something to offer. There is funding available to assist in this, so it will be a growth area. It is a conjunction of preserving the cultural heritage that we have and transforming it to something new. I believe we have endless possibilities, helped by Greece being regarded as one of the best tourist destinations in the world. In this respect, we are also looking beyond our traditional tourist markets and to places such as Brazil, India, Russia, where there is new market growth.
In addition to this we are looking towards a new infrastructure for spas and facilities that are beneficial for health, also medical tourism where this can be achieved.
(AV) SETE (the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises) managed to have a law passed before the last elections whereby the private sector have the possibility to join forces with the public sector in a 70:30 partnership for rebranding and producing the strategy for the promotion of Greece as a destination, then other chapter destinations within Greece. This is a new direction for Greece, as it was up to now a publicly owned model. The private sector can invest and this will drive forward many of the initiatives that can take place as well as generate new ones. It can also expand the season and unlock niche markets everywhere. We have a very rich product but not the branding behind it, something that will now change.
Within the wider region, there is a lot of potential to create a pool of touristic attractions and combinations in south east Europe, because all these countries share a lot of common past and with common interest they can be seen as a common destination. It will help all of them more than it will detract from them.
What can be added to Athens’ already rich USPs to accelerate its destination re-profiling? Does promotion of the city’s existing and future convention facilities within hotels fall within this scope?
(AV) This is interesting, as every year there is an annual survey carried out, of about three or four thousand questionnaires, and 60% of the people who are in Athens don’t know that in 20 minutes they can be on a Blue Flag beach! Within an hour you can be on an island belonging to the Attica region. We have failed to show the true depth of what is available in Athens/Attica and now we are trying to highlight this.
For us, convention facilities go beyond just hotels and to high-profile facilities across the city that will inevitably boost the hotel industry. We are very aware of the potential of this and it is a big flag of our political pressure to become present on the international convention circuit, because it is a market you cannot do without, but you need to be able to bring people here. These are our challenges.