Athens Olympic bookings: Boom or bust?


NEW YORK -- With the Summer Olympics in Athens swiftly approaching, U.S. interest in -- and attendance at -- the Games this August is as hard to read as a photo finish in the 100-meter dash.

Depending on which tour operator, official ticket distributor or tourism functionary is asked, Americans either are avoiding Greece in droves or are helping to make the Athens Olympics -- set for Aug. 13 to 29 -- one of the most popular ever.

Operators such as Konstantinos Georgiadis, general manager of Amphitrion Holidays in Washington, had expected the return of the Games to Greece more than a century after their revival in Athens in 1896 to result in a bookings bonanza.

The Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) fueled such expectations with predictions two years ago that 500,000 U.S. travelers might visit in 2004, up from 146,754 in 2002.

But Georgiadis, who is also president of the 11-member American Hellenic Tour Operators Association (AHTOA), said he's only achieved between 25% and 30% of projected sales to date, although that's an improvement on the 10% to 15% recorded at the beginning of the year.

"Things are now picking up, but I would say the general public has been less interested than we expected," he said.

On the other hand, John Klados, vice president of marketing and sales at Homeric Tours in New York, also an AHTOA member, said his firm's Olympics-related bookings should account for up to 33% of all 2004 sales, an improvement on his initial goal of just 25%.

That's despite the negative media drumbeat that Americans will avoid Athens due to security concerns, the Iraq war and a weak dollar.

"Honestly, as far as Homeric is concerned, we're doing very well with the way we're selling [Olympics] tickets, as part of packages that run the gamut from economical to super-deluxe," said Klados, adding his average U.S. client is booking a two-week stay, with one week's worth of event tickets.

Although GNTO deputy U.S. director Chrystanthos Petsillas said the tourist board has found ticket sales are trailing those for the 2000 Games in Sydney, Australia, official ticket agents Cartan Tours, in Manhattan Beach, Calif., and Jet Set Sports and CoSport, in Far Hills, N.J., said U.S. purchases are on track.

Don Williams, vice president of sales and marketing at Cartan, said 90% of 100,000 tickets allocated to the firm were sold.

"Greece is selling very well for us, and we expect these Games will be one of the best ever in terms of success [if] not ... [in] numbers," he said.

Games organizer Athens 2004 said that worldwide only 1.9 million of 5.3 million tickets are sold, but it's reached 75% of target revenue.

For his part, Sead Dizdarevic, Jet Set Sports/CoSport president and CEO, said Athens is selling better than Sydney.

In any case, operators such as Amphitrion's Georgiadis take a longer-term view.

"The Olympics will help Greek tourism in coming years," he said, citing infrastructure improvements and media coverage.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to [email protected].

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