Can Greece gain added value via luxury?

If semantics is a useful tool in any business, it becomes crucial in the case of the luxury industry, a world in which one person’s conception of something unique may be another’s notion of everyday life.

What is luxury in this day and age? A five-star exclusive resort holiday or detoxing from city life while picking olives in a grove? Can luxury be guilt-free at times of crisis? Should a country like Greece invest heavily in upmarket tourism and aim at the highfliers alone? Can luxury trades lead to the creation of new jobs? How can Greece capitalize on its natural gifts and prosperous past?

While a number of Greeks were poised to receive notices for an increased luxury tax (aimed at swimming pool and yacht owners, among others) expected to add millions of euros to public coffers, the 2nd Business of Luxury Conference took place at the Hotel Grande Bretagne in Athens on November 21, raising a few recurring questions.

“A country is not a brand; a brand is a person, there’s always an anthropocentric element involved,” argued Dimitri Katsachnias, partner and strategic director at the France-based Air Paris advertising agency, where clients include Christian Dior and Guerlain. “When Salvatore Ferragamo made green shoes, he wasn’t thinking, ‘I want to make luxury,’ he was thinking of Sophia Loren’s feet,” he continued.

“Does celebrity equal talent? Is information on a par with knowledge? Does consensus point to a strong opinion? Is ambition the same thing as genius,” asked the brand strategy and communication expert. “Are savoir faire and savoir vivre a sign of luxury, or simply a matter of culture?”

The Greek luxury sector is a niche market which has enjoyed international recognition for decades. The origins of jewelry house Zolotas, for instance, are traced to mid-1880s Ermou Street, where founder Efthimios Zolotas catered to his clientele.

“Heritage branding is the light that gives people the impetus to make something unique; in time we trust,” noted George Papalexis, current Zolotas CEO. Being inspired by your own past in order to create something very modern, said Papalexis, is when heritage validates a price premium.

Heritage does not necessary involve an illustrious brand history. From apparel to jewelry, footwear and furniture, Zeus and Dione (according to Homer, the two were the parents of beauty goddess Aphrodite) is a very young Greek brand that “embodies the rich Hellenic heritage into today’s everyday items.” Speaking at the conference, Zeus and Dione co-founder and creative director Mareva Grabowski spoke about scouting for manufacturers and small production units across Greece to collaborate with the brand in terms of know-how and craftsmanship. A year since entering the market with sale points at two luxury hotels on Myconos and Santorini, the label is expected to count 27 sale points by next summer, with a collection of garments ranging from 125 to 800 euros, among other items. According to Grabowski, the company examined the possibility of producing its collections in lower-cost countries such as China and Turkey, but decided to keep it local in an effort to boost Greek industry and its “living traditions.”

A taste for luxury does not have to lead to financial ruin thanks to entrepreneurs like Oliana Spiridopoulos, who established in 2005. Initially a cyber space for renting luxury accessories, the online venture subsequently started selling some of the items, before venturing into garments and, more recently, menswear. Besides dedicated customers in Greece, the company also works with clients in Qatar, Vietnam and Thailand. “Luxury is moving toward the custom-made and the tailor-made. When it comes to luxury, hierarchy is not necessarily a bad thing,” said Spiridopoulos, citing giant Louis Vuitton working on entry-level bags.

Hospitality factor

“Greece is the world’s most beautiful country and Athens the world’s ugliest capital,” stated Yannis Tseklenis, a well-respected figure in the world of fashion and design who made global headlines with his prints and garments in the 1960s and 70s, attracting international attention to Greece. “We should become an expensive boutique,” said Tseklenis, who suggested tourism education courses at local schools. “We want fewer tourists, but different tourists.”

Package tourism is an integral part of the local landscape given the existing infrastructure, argued Giorgos Drakopoulos, managing director of the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises (SETE). Drakopoulos noted that average expenditure per capita for tourists in Greece stood at 616 euros in 2012. Visitors from Australia, Canada and the US topped the list of big spenders while those traveling from France, Britain and Cyprus were to be found at the bottom of the spending list.

According to Katerina Katopis, investor relations and marketing director at Dolphin Capital Partners, each guest at the newly established Amanzoe resort in the greater Porto Heli area in the Peloponnese spends an average of 1,500 euros per day – the figure takes into account the fact that 50 percent of their accommodation fees have been paid prior to their arrival – and get to do some olive picking as well.

A collaboration between Aman Resorts and Dolphin Capital Partners (the latter secured the 100-million-euro investment while the former undertook the hotel’s architecture and 200 staff management), the exclusive, 96-hectare Amanzoe comes with 38 guest pavilions, for-sale-or-rent villas, a library, a helipad and do-not-disturb signs in the form of “komboloi” (worry beads). Greek raw materials, including marble, were used for the decor.

“Britons, Germans and Americans top our clientele. Many of them are coming to the country for the first time, while others had traveled to Greece as backpackers, went on to make their money and never returned – until now,” noted Katopis.

For Barbara Avdis, founder of the Yades Greek Historic Hotels network and chairman of the Historic Hotels of Europe’s board of directors, turning castles and convents into high-end accommodation facilities means developing a European luxury heritage through the continent’s rich and diverse culture. “We complement history and heritage, culture is a living organism, something we experience and savor,” said Avdis, noting the importance of service and the value of diversity.

While Greece has no shortage in terms of heritage, it does lack a consistent strategy to promote it. Rarely has the country worked on a coherent, unified promotional campaign for an extended period of time, a marketing minus that does little to assist Greece’s image abroad, the experts agreed.

There was also consensus on the fact that when it comes to Greece, the “less is more” mantra, which highlights simplicity and authenticity, was the country’s best bet. But is the country ready to go the extra mile to accommodate its high-end arrivals?

“Luxury is not a separate and distinct tourism product; Greece is a great primary product and when the client purchases the end product what lies in the middle is the added value,” said Drakopoulos. “Is the country ready for visitors willing to pay 300 euros for a private Acropolis visit when the site is closed to the general public? Or would that be considered a sellout move?”

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