Greece’s Hilton Athens Celebrates its Golden Anniversary
Bart van de Winkel,
Hilton Athens Area General Manager
Greece & Cyprus
On the occasion of the Hilton Athens’ 50th anniversary in the Greek capital, GTP caught up with Bart van de Winkel, Area General Manager Greece & Cyprus, to find out the hotel’s milestones, future plans and what exactly the city of Athens needs to attract more visitors.
A lot has changed in Athens since the Hilton first opened its doors half a century ago. Mr. van de Winkel shares with us his thoughts on the city’s current image problem and gives us his view on the crisis of the Greek economy.
By Nikos Krinis, GTP news editor
Bart van de Winkel has been the Area General Manager Greece & Cyprus at the Hilton Athens since January 2011, a position he took following five year’s as the hotel’s general manager.
Mr. van de Winkel began his career in 1982 at the renowned Hilton on Park Lane in London, UK, as Food & Beverage Control Clerk.
He then broadened his career by holding several positions in Hilton hotels worldwide: in the UK (London Hilton on Park Lane and the Kensington Hilton), Hungary (Hilton Budapest), Cyprus (Hilton Cyprus), Turkey (Hilton Izmir), Belgium (Hilton Brussels), The Netherlands (Hilton Amsterdam Airport Schiphol), the Hilton International UK & Ireland and at the Hilton Athens where he held the position of executive director from 1996 to 1998.
- GTP: Hilton Athens celebrated its 50th birthday on 20 April 2013. For you, which are the milestones throughout its history in terms of innovation?
Bart van de Winkel: Hilton Athens was the first international chain hotel, which had ever opened in Athens. In its 50 years in the city, Hilton has always been setting new trends and offering its clients unique services and experiences. For instance, Hilton Athens was the first hotel to promote Greece abroad and the first hotel in Greece to promote the traditions, food and art of foreign countries through its renowned food and culture festivals. It was also the first hotel to hold Barbecue parties, Easter feasts and Christmas celebrations. In this way, it has become an integrated part of the city’s social, cultural and business life and started to function in a multidimensional way in the city of Athens. It established the first art gallery in Athens, the so-called “Hilton Gallery,” which was a unique point of reference during the 60s and the 70s. Today, Hilton Athens does not just expose art as part of the hotel decoration but it incorporates famous art pieces in its whole existence. Apart from a permanent exhibition, Hilton Athens is constantly investing efforts in culture by hosting periodical exhibitions of Greek and foreign artists in its large, luminous lobby. These initiatives enhance the commitment of the hotel towards the enrichment of the Athenian art scene.
- Does the Hilton have specific plans after celebrating half a century birthday?
Hilton Athens will remain a point of reference in the city of Athens by offering the latest trends in hospitality, event organizing, gastronomy and wellness. The hotel will focus in offering value for money services to both foreign guests and the Athenians and will remain one of the most vivid and cheerful meeting points in the city.
- There is a lot of talk about promoting Athens as a city break destination but the results are not quite positive yet.
- Is Athens attractive as a city break destination?
- Where must the government focus on more so Athens can find a place among the most preferred city break destinations in the world?
- Can you name five reasons why Athens has yet to become an attractive tourism destination?
- If you were Mayor of Athens, what would be your top priority?
Athens has all the necessary qualifications to compete with many of the traditional European destinations: culture, art, food, nightlife, tourism infrastructure. Athens could be a great location for city breaks; there are tremendous amounts of hidden treasures.
Unfortunately there is a rather sad image of Athens. The last couple of years this image has been escalated more and more to the worse. It should be the priority for the Government and respective organizations to focus on this. Whether this is for city breaks and lifestyle, you name it, proactive promotion via EOT (Greek National Tourism Organization) and our various bureaus of tourism is essential. People will travel regardless of the prices when a city is in fashion, when there is something new to explore. Athens was well known as a destination place from the 50s and it has rejuvenated itself particularly after the Olympics. However, it needs to be promoted actively as such. It is not any longer like in the 50s-tavernas with plate smashing activities. It has great contemporary fine dining, excellent infrastructure and a very interesting art scene.
Apart from the promotion, Athens needs to become greener; we need to have more parks in order for people to be able to walk, to be able to “breath”. Third, the flight tickets to and from Athens are still very expensive compared to the competition. This is something that needs to be taken care of by the respective institutions. Fourth, the city needs to become cleaner. Fifth, the crisis management is missing when it comes to airport and port strikes. The tourists have invested a lot of money and time in order to organize their holidays and we need to have a plan B in order not to ruin their experience and therefore the reputation of the country.
If I were Mayor of Athens, my priority would be to make Athens and its inner city a place where people will want to live, walk, eat and will not be scared to get robbed. This would involve from where and how cars are parked to proper distribution of “citizen watch programs” etc. In addition, I would launch a program to train the population in basic hospitality values, so that all Athenians realize the urgency to become “ambassadors” of their own city. Last but not least, I would organize at least three truly big events, i.e. a formula one race, a film festival like in Cannes, a sailing event etc, in order to attract international exposure.
- What is the feedback of a Hilton guest upon arriving and upon leaving Athens?
They all admit that, despite the negative images which they have seen in the media, Athens is a safe city with an exciting, trendy cultural and entertainment scene to offer, as well as a unique nightlife. They sometimes complain about the strikes and delays in transportation means, but their overall experience is very good.
- Which are the top three nationalities which are loyal guests of the Hilton Athens? Which foreign nationality has been the fastest growing in 2012-2013?
Our current feeder markets are USA, UK and Greece but we also see a slight growth in travelers from China, Russia and India.
- As luxury travelers, both leisure and corporate, are becoming more sophisticated and demanding, which are the major opportunities and challenges you foresee? How is business travel proceeding at the moment in Athens?
Again, I would say that the biggest challenge is to promote the destination. It is true that negative publicity and political uncertainty have badly affected tourist arrivals last year. The tourism sector has suffered a negative impact in Athens by repeated images of protests, strikes and riots against ongoing austerity measures, particularly the closing of airports, ports, buses, subways and other means of transport. Provided that the city remains calm, a slight increase in arrivals should be expected, however, the competition with the neighboring countries is still strong. For instance, the MasterCard Global Destination Cities Index for 2012 ranks Istanbul as the fastest growing destination, putting it #5 on the list after London, Paris, Bangkok and Singapore. Sadly, Athens is not even included in the list. If you see the international market trends by STR Global, you will notice that the average hotel occupancy in Athens seats well behind Istanbul, Prague and Barcelona.
- A bill for the development of medical tourism in Greece is currently being prepared by the Greek Ministries of Health and Tourism. Would the Hilton seek certification and consider seeking the proper training to be included in a health-care package?
The project sounds interesting and we would definitely be positive to look into it. We have a fully equipped spa which offers the latest in fitness and wellness and we have recently launched our partnership with Symmetria Clinique in order to further expand in this field.
- Following an agreement with German Federal Deputy Labor Minister Hans-Joachim Fuchtel, Greek Tourism Minister Olga Kefalogianni recently announced that Greece’s tourism education will be linked with the country’s labor market through a pilot internship program. According to the program, students will be employed at private tourism enterprises through a paid internship during the course of their studies. Does the Hilton support this move?
Hilton Athens has always been supporting these initiatives and has educated some of the most renowned hoteliers in the Greek Market who are proud to have started their career at the Hilton Athens, even as trainees. Our HR department closely collaborates with all related institutions in order to be fully up-to-speed with all these programs.
- In an interview you gave to journalist Dimitris Mahairidis you had said “tourism cannot save the country… too many elements affect the Greek economy negatively.” Would you care to elaborate more on this opinion?
Let’s face it, to run a country is like running any type of Business, there are stakeholders, owners, investors, employees, suppliers. All these interested parties will need to be satisfied. To run any business successfully, it needs Revenue, without revenue you cannot manage, let alone control your expenses. As for the taxes, why do we not install, with immediate effect, proper follow up on tax declarations, go around town, pull the data and check the tax declaration of every impressive car or villa owner? Some years ago, inspectors were standing outside doctor’s practices -verifying the payments and checking the receipts of payment…some of you remember the effectiveness. Simple samples are plentiful at hand…surely we are all interested that the burden of the Government cost is shared equally across all shoulders. Is this not one of the Government’s slogans? By not paying any taxes, this has stimulated the black market to no end and at the end the country’s economy is suffering.
- Summer is almost here and there is much talk about Greece reaching a record level in arrivals. What do you predict for the Greek capital’s tourist traffic this summer? How are early bookings at the Hilton proceeding?
As mentioned above, the bigger picture needs to be seen and a long-term strategy needs to be adopted before start “celebrating.” The numbers for Hilton Athens seem positive but not for the city of Athens as a whole. We need to make sure that the tourists will not face images of violence in the city center. If the city remains calm, we should be expecting an increase but I’m afraid that the slightest violent incident in the city center can turn things to the worse. We must be very vigilant that we don’t put our city in this difficult situation again.