For travel agents trying to book clients on luxury trips to Greece, the options aren’t as bountiful as you might expect in other popular European destinations.
In a recent report, Hospitality Valuation Systems (HVS) noted how luxury lodging is not easily defined in Greece due to a “lack of a reliable classification system.” At of the end of 2015, there were 9,757 hotels throughout the country, but only 16 percent of total hotel room supply was classified as five-star. (Reliable data for villas and similar alternative lodging are less readily found.)
But successful luxury agents working with local tour operators and destination management companies (DMCs) are reaping the benefits of their expertise and contacts with high-end lodging, ground transportation and experiences in Greece.
Greece came in as the top destination in Virtuoso Travel’s 2018 “Hot 10” list for summer vacations, recording the largest percentage of year-over-year bookings growth. (Bookings are sourced from Virtuoso's U.S. and Canadian travel agency members and reflects future travel for June, July and August 2018.)
Cece Drummond, managing director, Virtuoso destinations & experiences, said Greece’s luxury travel tourism has been benefitting from a slow-building momentum. “We started noticing a few years back, that while Greece was struggling, little by little, clients and agents were seeing deals, that Greece had smaller crowds, and people started taking off there.”
Attending the American Society of Travel Agents’ Destination Expo this April, Eleni Micheli, contracting manager for AXIA Reservation Management, representing ten Greek “luxury” accommodations, said, “it is so important for agents to come to Greece, and spend 7-8 days, to see the level of luxury we offer.”
New investors are boosting Greece’s luxury travel experience
As Greece emerges from its long financial crisis, investment dollars are beginning to flow back in to the country, especially into its tourism industry, with many savvy entrepreneurs focused on the luxury market.
Spiros Catechis, CEO of Villa2be.com, is a former Wall Street analyst who recently returned to his home island, Corfu, to develop luxury hospitality venues for international travelers, including 5-star villas.
Catechis told Travel Market Report that the more discerning traveler is very interested in less popular Greek islands, if they can find the total package in one place – including higher-end experiences, from ground transportation, to dining options, to accommodations. As a result, investors like him are expanding their holdings.
“More and more investors are here because they realize luxury travelers know Corfu offers the experience and the privacy they require,” Catechis said.
Corfu received a boost in July 2016, when the Bravo network filmed a destination wedding episode there. “Million Dollar Listing” stars Ryan Serhant and Emilia Bechrakis hosted the affair at an 8,100-square-foot villa on a 9-acre estate, located in the northern town of Villa Avlaki. (The 6-bedroom, 6-bath home typically rents for $75,000 a week.)
“This program created a lot of positive attention for luxury travelers and investors,” said Vassilis Kontos, owner and managing director of Hellenic Connections, a travel agency and inbound tour operator based in Corfu.
In fact, discerning travel agents and travelers find Greek villas comparable in quality to other popular European destinations. “Americans are often surprised at the level of luxury that can be offered in Greece today, but the typical luxury traveler knows differently,” said Elena Fotiadi, marketing director at White Key Villas, a 12-year-old company that markets 300 properties across Greece and offers travel agents 10 percent commissions.
Diane Panagiotopoulos, president of La Greca, another Greek DMC, said most of her American luxury travelers are couples and honeymooners, looking for the smaller islands and very exclusive experiences. She also is seeing an increasing number of family travelers and multi-generational groups who are looking for privacy and very high-end care. “Often, we are dealing with people who need to travel incognito,” she said.
Eugenia Pereira, a luxury travel specialist with the Argo Travel Group, a 65-year-old Athens-based DMC, urged American agents to seek out hidden gems like the Porto Zante Villas & Spa, a five-star property located on Zakynthos Island, off the west coast of Greece. Porto Zante, a Virtuoso preferred property, offers tremendous privacy, Pereira said, and very unique local experiences.
Virtuoso works with four different DMCs in Greece, “and they are telling us a lot of clients are asking for villa rentals.” Among the 22 properties Virtuoso has in its preferred portfolio for Greece, Drummond noted Sani Asterias at Sani Resort, on the Kassandra Peninsula near Thessaloniki, as an example of how luxury can be found outside the popular tourist islands.
Panagiotopoulos said American agents also might be pleasantly surprised by the boutique properties they can find on islands like Paros, Naxos, Skiathos, Patmos and Oinouses.
Exclusive experiences beyond accommodations
Panagiotopoulos said that the broad availability of Lear jets and yachts has opened up the opportunities for exclusive and luxurious itineraries for the American travel agent networks she works with, like Virtuoso, Tzell and ProTravel International.
“If a client wants to go in peak season, I can rent them a yacht, and they can have the captain take them from Milos to Naxos, to Santorini, as long as the weather cooperates,” said Joan Coutroulis-Schwartz, a travel advisor at Lake Shore Travel, Deerfield, Illinois.
“It can not only be amazingly luxurious, but it doesn’t have to be out-of-the-park expensive, either. People also forget the Peloponnese south of Athens, which has some lovely luxury properties,” Coutroulis-Schwartz said.
At the villas in Porto Zante, Pereira said, “you can go swimming with sea turtles. There are local fishermen who fish that day for the dinner you enjoy that night. This is what luxury travelers have come to expect.”
White Key Villas receives an assortment of requests from clients and agents, everything from providing helicopter transfers, to securing a Russian-speaking tutor for the child of a guest who wanted to provide an educational opportunity while they vacationed in Greece recently.
“The American luxury traveler wants to feel the life of a local Greek, to feel the culture and lives of the places they are visiting,” said Paola Kolenda, FIT and leisure groups executive at Concept Tours, in Athens. Her company will take a client staying on Mykonos to the nearby, uninhabited, five-square mile island of Rineia, for swimming and an outdoor barbeque.
Antonis Chatzis, managing director at Athens-based Be a Greek, an 18-month-old DMC, said he is also seeing a heightened interest from luxury American travelers in small islands, like his home of Tinos, an island adjacent to Mykonos.
Known for its ancient marble sculpting craftsmanship, Tinos and its School of Fine Arts, the primary institution tasked with working on the restoration of the Acropolis in Athens, is very popular with high-end American travelers.
“Having been to the beaches, the wineries, on Crete and Santorini, these are the kinds of things Americans are looking to do now,” Chatzis said. Agents can earn 15 percent commissions on the company’s tours.