‘Serial entrepreneur’ Stelios Haji-Ioannou takes on the big boys again, this time at sea

«We quite like standing up against the big boys,» says the easyGroup founder, Stelios Haji-Ioannou, adding «we are a bit like Robin Hood.» He has every right to say so. Eleven years ago he started the low-cost airline easyJet and really stood up against the big airlines. It is now a big airline itself, owning more than 100 aircraft. Since its setup, the group has expanded the term «easy» (meaning low-cost service to everyone through innovations) to 15 diverse companies. One of them is easyCruise, launched last year with one ship at the Italian and French Riviera in the summer and in the Caribbean in the winter. Haji-Ioannou’s latest project takes his «battleground» to the Aegean Sea with «pocket» cruise ships: Just 100 meters long and with a draught of 4.75 meters, to be constructed from scratch at Neorion Shipyards. The group’s aim is for four cruisers of this type. «This is a relatively small cruise ship with cabins for 500 passengers, but offers the comparative advantage of being able to dock in smaller ports, too,» explains a beaming Haji-Ioannou in an interview with Kathimerini. He adds that easyCruise wants its customers to feel «more like an atmosphere aboard a yacht rather than a big cruiser which is at sea all night and makes you feel that in essence you are trapped in a Las Vegas hotel.» That is the reason why its ships will depart from Faliron instead of Piraeus and will make weekend cruises to Myconos and Syros, and four-day cruises during the week to Santorini, possibly calling at Paros, Naxos, Milos or Serifos. «We want to offer very small cruises that are missing from Greek islands. Most typical cruises go as far as Turkey, have casinos, duty-free stores and other criteria of route choice. You spend many hours at sea and most Greeks do not consider this as vacations,» Haji-Ioannou comments. The cruise’s cost will average 50 euros per person per night, aiming primarily at a 30- to 35-year-old audience. «Our intention is not to keep people on board. We wish to create a new market and therefore our ships will remain at the ports for most of the day and throughout the night. We want to leave our customers free to choose whether they will stay on the cruiser or visit the island and experience the nightlife there, go to a restaurant or a bar in the area etc.,» says the founder of easyGroup. He believes that this will make easyCruise more popular with local business people and other bodies, compared with other cruisers. The construction of the vessels will take about two-and-a-half years. Their price cannot be announced as it is still under negotiation. This is probably the first significant venture of Haji-Ioannou in the country where he was born and raised. EasyGroup’s activities are mainly concentrated in Great Britain, where he studied and now lives, as well as in certain other countries in Europe. Even easyJet, with many flight routes across Europe, has only a handful of flights to and from Athens. «The answer to the question about easyJet is simple: The Athens Airport at Spata, because of Hochtief, is the third most expensive in Europe, after Charles de Gaulle and Orly in Paris. This certainly does not help us develop more flights,» says the Greek-Cypriot magnate. «Were the Elefsina or Tanagra [military] airports to open [for commercial flights], easyJet alone could carry up to 2.5 million passengers per year to and from Europe as well as domestically,» he continues, adding that he recently submitted such a proposal to the Greek government. «Putting aside easyCruise that has the peculiarity of operating in Greece even without being a Greek company (e.g. with a Cypriot flag), I have always looked for a local partners, someone who would want the franchise of my other ventures,» reveals Haji-Ioannou. «For better or for worse, I do not know the Greek market well enough; in other words, anyone living here would do it better,» he notes. Hotel chain expands EasyHotel, another member of the easyGroup announced yesterday its expansion to the Middle East, North Africa, India and Pakistan. The company signed a franchise deal with investment company Istithmar Hotels for the creation of 38 easyHotels within the next five years. The deal with Istithmar will allow easyGroup to penetrate the Arab world and the Indian subcontinent. EasyHotels will open in India (8), Dubai (6), Saudi Arabia (3), Pakistan (3), Lebanon (2), Egypt (2) and 1 each in Sharjah (in the United Arab Emirates), Kuwait, Bahrain, Oman, Abu Dhabi, Ras Al Khaimah, Qatar, Morocco, Turkey, Syria, Libya, Jordan, Tunisia and Algeria. Each hotel will have 80 to 120 rooms. «When do you decide to abandon a venture that does not bear fruit?» is Kathimerini’s last question. «I have never done that yet,» is the confident answer from the «serial entrepreneur,» as he likes to call himself. «I try to make the appropriate changes so that the venture remains operative.» He concludes by saying that «anyway, no company is static. You try something, you spot the errors, you correct them and you proceed. If we start shutting down group enterprises, people will not trust our brand name anymore. This trust is very important,» stresses Haji-Ioannou.