Athens’s new potential as a tourist destination following the 2004 Athens Olympics was confirmed in 2006, as the average occupancy rate of Attica hotels increased by 10 percentage points last year, although no special discounts were offered. Those involved in the sector, such as the Association of Attica Hotel Owners, insist there is a huge upside potential to promoting Athens as a conference and exposition destination, using the «citybreak model» and highlighting the city’s cultural offerings and the metropolitan area’s very long coastline. They also refer to successful models used by other European cities which can be emulated by Athens, after being adapted to reflect local realities. They believe that, in cooperation with the government and local authorities, they can boost the marketing of Athens as a unique destination and make it attractive as such year-round. A poll published by Kathimerini last Sunday shows the overwhelming importance attached to the tourism sector as a factor that will help boost the whole economy. Asked which sector has the best growth prospects over the next five to 10 years, 47 percent of respondents chose tourism, while 9 percent chose agriculture and 8 percent industry. Kathimerini spoke to two sector experts, Panos Panayiotopoulos, general manager of Athenaeum Inter-Continental, and Giorgos Galanakis, an executive director of Lampsa, the company that owns the Hotel Grande Bretagne. We asked them what must be done to further develop Athens as a tourist product. Panayiotopoulos said that the top priority is to create an international conference center and advertise it starting immediately. He is optimistic about business growth in 2007 and adds that Athens hotels can offer clients as any amenities as hotels in any other big city. How do you think the state can contribute to the private sector’s efforts to boost hotel occupancy rates in Greek cities? The top priority – action which I have repeatedly advocated and will continue to do so – is to create a big conference and exhibition center in Athens. Conference tourism is growing very fast and its economic benefits, both for the hotels and the local economy, are high, since we are talking about well-off visitors. The lack of an adequate facility in Greece and, especially, in Athens, does not allow us to compete in this market. Building a conference center in the Faliron Delta has been under discussion for too long. It is important not only to implement this project as soon as possible, but also to focus on its promotion long before it is ready. We must not, under any circumstance, remain idle while it is being completed, but we have to pre-sell this new tourist product in the most effective way possible. Otherwise we will lose at least two years. According to the data at your disposal, do you believe that 2007 will be another good year for Athens hotels and, if so, why? Yes, 2007 will be a good year, since bookings, at this stage, are exceeding last year’s. The publicity surrounding Athens because of the Olympics, but also due to more intensive marketing abroad, has helped increase the occupancy rate. The word-of-mouth factor is also not negligible: Those who stay in Athens recommend the city to first-time travelers in turn. How would you assess the level of Athens hotels’ infrastructure, services and prices compared to other global destinations? I think we have nothing to envy from other big cities around the world. What do you think of Greece’s presence in international tourist expos and what should the state do, on its part, to improve it? To improve the Greek presence in international tourism events, the state must train representatives/salespeople to facilitate those who show interest, depending on the kind of business they have. These representatives should have a specific sales strategy and set measurable goals (e.g. number of nights spent, number of arrivals by country, number of conferences and attendees by market, turnover from internationally acclaimed conference organizers etc). Their remuneration must be tied to these goals to provide incentives. Greece must tap the developing markets of China and India to attract more visitors Giorgos Galanakis, executive director of Hotel Grande Bretagne owner Lampsa, agrees with Inter-Continental’s Panayiotopoulos on the need to complete the planned conference center as soon as possible. He also argues that the money hotels pay local authorities should be directed to personnel trading and recommends that Greece tap the Chinese and Indian markets to ensure future growth. What actions do you think the state must undertake to promote urban tourism? We believe that building a modern conference center is a must. This center must be operated entirely as a private entity and without state interference. The management must be undertaken by a company with international experience in organizing conferences and exhibition and not to any firm linked with existing hotels. On the other hand, it would be good to include hotels as shareholders. Conference centers helped the economy wherever they were built. I often get the feeling that, here in Greece, we are trying to reinvent the wheel. On many issues we could adapt our model to the model followed by London, Barcelona and other cities. There must also be a significant reduction in the «visitors’ levies» paid by hotels to local authorities, which make little sense. Oblige the hotels to use the savings to train personnel or for advertising. A recent study shows that many foreigners do not know that Athens probably has the largest coastline of all big European cities. What can we do to promote this? The fact that Athens has a large coastline hasn’t paid off. This is easy to explain – coastal roads were laid in a haphazard way, the coast has been degraded and, therefore, this area is no longer appropriate for high-level tourist units. As for promoting the city, and the country as a whole, let’s look at the example of countries in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, even North Africa, which spend 10 times as much as Greece in tourism promotion. Which markets must we tap to attract tourists and why? The developing markets (e.g. China, India) must be targeted. There is plenty of prospects, since there is a lot of admiration for ancient Greece in these countries. We must, however, offer competitive prices and services. With the euro, the Chinese understand very well where they are getting less for their money.