With the news last month that the Association of British Travel Agents suddenly cancelled their plans to hold their annual travel convention here in Athens from November 23-25, rumors around town spread like wild fire. Some said that potential UK delegates (UK travel agents) just didn’t want to visit Athens, others said there were personality clashes between UK and Greek tourism leaders, and still others said the election of a new ABTA president not partial to the Athens venue was the reason. In reality, however, it was a series of small but potentially serious problems that forced the association to drop Greece and head for Spain.
According to the association’s corporate affairs director, Keith Betton, the basic problem was inconsistency. He says that unlike most countries, in Greece, when a ministerial change takes place (in this case the tourism minister) everything changes, and decisions are taken back to ground zero. With the change of the tourism minister, he says, we had no one we knew to talk to because all the decision makers were changed. Even within the Hellenic Tourism Organization, he says, all the decision makers we had spoken with were gone with the ministry change. Nonetheless, he says, the association decided to take this change with a grain of salt and try to continue.
But with that same government reshuffle, the city’s mayor was appointed to a ministerial post and she was replaced as well. And although most likely just a coincidence, the Athens Convention Bureau, (mostly funded by the City of Athens, the Attica Prefecture and ACB members), which had taken on the responsibility of organizing the ABTA convention, suddenly closed down, apparently due to lack of funds.
The association now had no personal government contact, had no one to contact with regards to their conference organization, and was having some problems with signing contracts with Athenian hoteliers because of a dispute over deposits and cancellation charges.
The Hellenic Association of Travel and Tourism Agents (HATTA) offered to step in and take over the organization of the conference. With some reluctance, Mr. Betton, who has been responsible for dozens of ABTA conference preparations, agreed to continue. However, within a very short period the person he was in contact with at the travel association also left, and that was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
He phoned Marbella, Spain, which had been readying to bid for the next ABTA conference, and he asked if it could handle this year’s conference on short notice. The city wholeheartedly agreed and said it would have everything organized and ready well before the November convention dates. The decision was made and Greece lost not only the opportunity to flaunt its revitalized capital to more than 1,600 British travel agents during the lonely winter period, but also our country lost the positive influx in visitors that follows such conventions.
Politicians must stop playing musical chairs with the public sector and instead stock it with professionals, hand down their preferred policies, and then let the professionals do their job. Politicians in every other developed country have done so and everyone is the better for it.
The private sector must take a lesson from this minor disaster as well. Greece was selected more than a year ago, yet up until the decision last month to cancel Athens, not even agreements for hotel rooms had been signed. There are times when it’s just not profitable or appropriate to exploit a situation.