ECONOMY

How a successful party makes guests think again and brings more business to the host

«It’s unbelievable what you guys have accomplished here,» says John Paul Nichols, president and chief executive officer of time-sharing firm RCI’s Latin America & Carribean arm, a member of the US Cendant travel services group, in reference to Athens’s Olympics-related infrastructure. «You have run better Olympics, cleaner Olympics, easier transportation Olympics… All the way around, if I gave Atlanta a 7, I would give this a 9.5. Not that the Atlanta Games were not good, quite the opposite, but I am really amazed with the infrastructure you have created,» he told Kathimerini in an interview. «The experience from the Olympics brings about a huge change in how the country is perceived as a travel destination. From my standpoint, it is a huge success,» Nichols said. He often repeated during the interview that this a big opportunity that Greece must exploit to the full. But why did not the expected number of foreign visitors to the Games arrive? «There are always excessive expectations about the presence of tourists and spectators in Olympiads,» Nichols says, adding that in Athens’s case a contributing factor was the worries about whether all the facilities would be ready and about security. He says the Olympics will have a lasting effect on tourism. «The perception of the country is changing, the positive view will make people think again of Greece as a tourism destination.» Greece has been a tourism destination for decades and the challenge for it is to be rejuvenated, for those who have visited in the past to feel that there are new things to see. «I think this view has changed after the Olympics, there will no doubt be a huge lasting impact on Greek tourism,» says Nichols. He adds that the view that the country’s infrastructure had not been renewed, at least according to European standards, is now defunct. «My perception today is that not only have you updated to current European standards but you’ve exceeded them, and I really mean that… I know that our parent company, Cendant, is now looking at a variety of investment opportunities in Greece,» he says, without going into more detail. The Cendant group includes companies such as car rentals Avis and Budget, the electronic reservation system Galileo, real estate franchising Cendant Mortgage, Knights Inn and Wingate. They are all among market leaders in their domain. In Greece, RCI appeared in time-sharing in 1990. Time-sharing is considered the fastest-growing sector of the tourism industry worldwide. About 5,500 hotels, 25 percent of which are in Europe, with 325,000 time-sharing rooms participate in the scheme. Sales total $9.4 billion. RCI has over 3 million members worldwide, with time-sharing rights in 100 countries. Nichols admits aggressive marketing policies were used in the past and harmed consumers, but explains that as the market has matured, such problems were resolved with appropriate legislation and regulation. Moreover, large hotel enterprises that have spent billions of dollars entered the business and have no wish to give their product a bad name. Time-sharing is particularly attractive for them due to high return and growth rates. The international trend now is for big chains, such as Hilton, Marriot, Radisson, Sheraton and Disney to enter into the time-sharing business. What about trends in the travel sector after 9/11? «People still travel. My numbers in Mexico are significantly higher in 2004 than in 2001… People get used to this kind of news. I happened to be in Istanbul when the bomb went off. I was in the most safe or the most dangerous place – the same hotel as the US ambassador – I can’t decide,» says Nichols, noting that Turkey’s tourism has not been hit. «What has happened is that travel patterns have shifted. Americans who used to go to Europe or Asia have turned to Mexico, which they perceive as a safer destination… There is no reduction in travel.» Naturally, there are market winners and market losers from such developments. «You cannot take travel patterns for granted… The sector is in a phase of important changes, irrespective of security issues. The ability to travel is so much easier today in terms of cost compared to 15 years ago, tourism destinations have increased. The world is changing every single day.» The winners and losers will be those that realize these changes. Concentration trends are increasing and the tradition of family-managed hotel businesses, particularly in the mature markets is ending. «This is so last generation, working in this way,» says Nichols. Closing the interview, he repeats: «I was really impressed with the Olympiad and I understand why every Greek is proud.» «I want to emphasize you have a golden opportunity, you must keep the momentum going from a tourism standpoint but also in other sectors. You must maximize the massive investment you have made in time, energy and money, because you have really exceeded expectations and now is the time to leverage that. Keep the momentum.»