Destination report: Athens

As the Greek economy finally starts to pick up, how is the capital tackling the Herculean task of bringing meetings arrangers back? Tom Newcombe reports

Before the global recession of 2008, the mention of Greece conjured images of good food, Olympic Games, ancient architecture and a myriad of beautiful islands. But fast-forward five years and the images are poles apart – social unrest, sky-high taxes, mass unemployment and widespread protests against a government that has implemented some of the harshest economic reforms in modern history.

The country has come a long way since 2008, and after years of fiscal consolidation and structural reforms, the Greek economy is starting to show the first encouraging signs of rebalancing and recovery. In April this year Greece’s prime minister, Antonis Samaras, spoke about the country’s economic future with a sense of optimism – talking of a return to growth within six years, something that a few years ago even the most sanguine of Greeks wouldn’t have deemed possible.

This sense of financial optimism is being felt no more clearly than in the capital, Athens, a city that in 2004 was in buoyant mood after the success of hosting the Olympic Games. This landmark event proved to be the catalyst for the building of new road and transport infrastructure, the construction of conference and exhibition venues of varying size, the revamping of hotel accommodation and the updating of telecommunications facilities.

SOLID FOUNDATIONS

This groundwork helped lay the foundations for the development of the MICE industry – which, like many sectors, suffered during the economic downturn but is now seeing resurgence. Eva Batzaki is director of sales and business development at the Athens Hilton.

She says: “The recent stabilisation of Greece’s government and economy, reported by the international media as a success story, has contributed to the uplift in demand for Athens.” Batzaki says that 2013 was the first good year for international MICE groups since the recession, “and for the first half of this year Greece held the presidency of the EU, and even more international meetings were booked in Athens because of this”.

The Hilton Athens last year celebrated its 50th anniversary – opened in 1963, the hotel was once described by founder Conrad Hilton as the “most beautiful Hilton in the world”. It was the first international chain hotel to open in the Greek capital and was groundbreaking both architecturally and in terms of size. The 506-room hotel is located close to the city centre and 30 minutes from the airport and has a range of MICE areas, with 22 meeting rooms as well as a ballroom with seating for up to 1,100 people.

Batzaki admits it isn’t all plain-sailing in the MICE sector, with the increase in bookings at the Hilton Athens being driven purely by international business, with pharmaceutical companies its largest draw. “Our biggest market over the past 18 months is the UK – perhaps it’s the weather. But, domestically, we’re still yet to see any sign of improvement, so we are quite heavily reliant on the rest of Europe. But I do envisage that changing soon”.

Julia Curtis, head of sales at Gray Dawes Travel, believes confidence has started to return in booking Athens as a meetings destination, especially with “safety in the city stabilising”.

“Safety has been an issue in the past, but things appear to have now settled down and confidence in Greece as a conference, teambuilding and incentive destination is returning,” she says. “Buyers are starting to see the potential of Athens – flight connections are good, and underground transfers from the airport are excellent, which is always an important consideration.”

CHANGING PERCEPTIONS

The global image of Greece is beginning to change, but Yiorgos Stavrou, sales director at Sofitel Athens Airport, believes the negative press his country received has had a detrimental effect on MICE business.

“The real downturn in MICE bookings came when the global media started reporting on our problems,” he says. “Travel arrangers would wake up and see sensationalised news reports about protests and violence. If you see this on a regular basis you will probably think twice about sending your travellers, or holding an event, here. Safety for the individual and also for the investment is, of course, going to be a top priority for managers, but that [negative] image will take a long time to erase.”

So what is Athens doing to attract MICE organisers? Iossif Parsalis is managing director of Marketing Greece, a non-profit organisation working with government to promote Greece as a business destination. He says Athens’ mix of business and leisure offerings makes it an ideal MICE location.

“Our conference hotels and venues are equipped with the latest technology, and offer an extensive array of professional services and amenities,” he says.

BREAKING RECORDS

Tourism as a whole is proving to be the main driver of economic growth for the country. Statistics published in March by Marketing Greece showed that 2013 was a record-breaking year for the industry, with 17.9 million international arrivals and €12.2 billion in direct tourism revenue.

That potential was increased further recently with no-frills carrier Ryanair announcing it is to start operating flights from a base in Athens and in the second city of Thessaloniki, as part of a €206 million investment. The Irish airline will add nine routes from the two bases, including services to London, Milan and Warsaw. Increase in UK business was also enhanced earlier this year with Greece’s national airline Aegean launching twice-weekly flights from Birmingham to Athens.

Parsalis believes that with tough competition from other European cities, repeat business is not only one of the most challenging areas but also key to future success.

“When you see groups of smiling business people strolling along the Grand Promenade, in the shadow of the Acropolis, you know they will return home to spread the good word on Athens,” he says. “Our goal is to ensure repeat business from congress, incentive and meeting planners – and we’re certain that, once they do hold an event here, they will return.”

ATHENS: KEY VENUES

Zappeion
4,000sqm, suitable for exhibitions and small conferences. A 984sqm central atrium can host conferences, concerts, cocktails and parties up to 1,500 participants (standing) or dinners for 350 people. Conference rooms can support 120 participants.

Onassis Cultural Centre
Multiple spaces and halls form a total internal surface of 18,000sqm, which is spread over seven floors and nine underground levels. It has the capacity to hold conferences, corporate events and meetings for up to 880 people.

Starwood Arion
The Arion Resort and Spa has eight meeting rooms, all with sea views. The Alexander ballroom can accommodate up to 200 people.

IHG Athens
The Intercontinental Athens boasts the highest number of meeting rooms of any venue in the city. On the seventh floor of the main building, the Ethniki Rooftop has more than 2,000sqm of unobstructed open-air function space and views of the Acropolis.

Sofitel
Located at Athens International airport, the conference centre consists of ten fully equipped meeting rooms.

Grand Resort Lagonissi
Located 40 minutes outside of Athens city centre, Lagonissi’s meeting rooms overlook the Aegean. Its main meeting room has a capacity of 1,350 delegates, plus an open-air terrace.

Useful websites

Discover Greece is the official website of Marketing Greece. If you are looking for travel inspiration DiscoverGreece.com has everything you need to know.

Aegean Airlines – The largest Greek airline offers direct daily flights from Heathrow to Athens, as well as many other parts of Greece.

The official website of Athens and Attica Hotels Association can be found here

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