The City of Athens’ MICE and tourism industry was hit hard during the economic crisis, but concerted efforts by the CVB, national stakeholders and locals prove the Greeks are well on the way to recovery. By Robert Cotter

When fragile European economies began to shudder from the shockwaves of the US-triggered GFC, it was the peripheral countries that were shaken up most drastically, none more so than Greece and its capital city: Athens. The political turmoil and social unrest of the economic upheaval was broadcast internationally, which had an inevitable impact on the city as the bedrock of the Greece’s MICE industry and more widely on a country used to 20 per cent of its GDP stemming from tourism. Faced with having to wrestle the consequences of the crisis and adapt to an era of austerity, the Greek MICE and tourism industries have had to become adept at doing more with less, whilst at the same time demonstrating to the world that they are still an attractive, competitive and viable proposition.

“The problem for Greece in general and for Athens in particular was the negative image created mainly during 2009-2011, because of political instability, certain incidents of unrest and social turmoil. But this was an image that was highly exaggerated by foreign media,” explained Alexia Panagiotopoulou, marketing and sales director of the City of Athens CVB.

“The main challenges for us have therefore been to prove the obvious: that the destination is safe and functional, as well as to convince potential clients that their events and participants are not in any kind of ‘danger’ or any other hazard.”

Setting out to disprove the negative media portrayal of the city and rebuild their international reputation as a quality destination, Greek MICE stakeholders quickly swung into action and began working together to rebuild confidence and explore new ideas. The first step in this was to actively nurture political support for their industry as part of a solid platform for economic recovery, which also helped address organiser doubt at a critical time for scheduled events.

“Several conferences and meetings were cancelled during those three years and the destination was being avoided by organisers and clients in terms of future events, but events that did take place, despite concerns and hesitation, proved to be very successful, fruitful and flawless, with most participants expressing a high degree of satisfaction,” Ms Panagiotopoulou said.

These events, which were three major European Society of Cardiology (ESC) conferences planned to take place in Athens in December 2012, June 2013 and June 2014, have thus far received testimonials from participants stating it was “one of the best conferences they have ever attended”.

Having rescued the event from potential cancellation, being able to garner such praise was unquestionably aided by the range of initiatives that were also set in train by the Greek MICE industry, as well as the spirit, industry and belief of the people involved.

“Extensive direct communication with all parties involved, a much greater number of site inspections and FAM trips, getting reassurances from the local authorities and stakeholders, and extensive yet sincere use of social media have all been some of the main directions that the key players followed in order to turn the situation around,” Ms Panagiotopoulou said.

An example of a successful initiative is “This is my Athens”, the city’s Greeter’s Programme aimed at tackling the negative effects of the crisis. Consisting of volunteer Athens locals showcasing the city and assuring visitors of its safety and friendliness, the campaign runs exclusively on social media and has already attracted more than 400 volunteers and hundreds of free walks so far.

“The City of Athens CVB is also investing in actions which will strengthen the existing tourism infrastructure, convey a unified and competitive identity for Athens, and promote the city abroad,” she continued. “The goal is to portray all that Athens has to offer to as many people as possible. And to achieve this we have started organising a series of annual workshops and forums, branded as Travel Trade Athens (TTA), dedicated to showcasing the destination through B2B appointments between international hosted buyers and local suppliers as well as through FAM trips. The first TTA took place in April 2013 and we will build on its success in the next event that we are in the process of organising for April this year.”

Last October, the bureau also held a joint initiative of the City of Athens and the United Nations Development Programme, the Black Sea Tourism Forum and Workshop to promote the image of the city and its unique characteristics as an ideal MICE and leisure destination.

Whilst the City of Athens CVB was tirelessly working to raise the city’s profile around the world, MICE stakeholders were also working hard in a spirit of togetherness against the crisis, playing a key role in boosting the city’s profile through efforts including the opening of historic sites not previously accessible to events.

“A good example of such cooperation has been the organisation of the World Philosophy Congress,” Ms Panagiotopoulou said. “To meet the needs of the Congress, the Ministry of Culture, Ministry of Tourism, the Municipality of Athens and the City of Athens CVB all worked closely together to successfully host an event that is of major importance to our city, with approximately 3500 delegates staying in the city for seven days. To meet the wishes of the organisers, all of the stakeholders worked closely to have sessions at some of Athens’ most significant sites, such as the archaeological site of Plato’s Academy, Aristotle’s Lyceum and Odeon Hedorius Atticus, which had not been used in the past for such purposes.”

National stakeholders such as the Greek National Tourism Organisation, the local tourism associations and transport companies like Aegean Airlines have been very supportive of the TTA initiative and have sponsored part of the costs needed to organise the event, according to Ms Panagiotopoulou.

Since 2008, Greeks have often said that “crisis is the mother of invention”. Such a concerted approach to tackling crisis has led to initiatives that are setting benchmarks for how the global industry can become more streamlined, more competitive, and offer higher value.

“We believe that in every crisis there is an opportunity,” Ms Panagiotopoulou stated. “For the city of Athens especially, it was the opportunity to re-evaluate the city’s leisure and business tourism services and to record all the improvements that we need to work towards should we wish to enhance the city’s tourism product.”

“As a result Athens is nowadays a highly competitive MICE destination, not only thanks to its rich cultural identity, but also thanks to its very low prices and value, especially compared to other European and regional destinations.” m