Athens readies itself for Olympic Games

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low." That one English word -- discernible amid a jumble of Greek lettering, on a roadwork sign at a handball and tae kwon do pavilion still under construction -- seemed to say it all about Athens' preparations for this summer's Olympic Games.

That is, until now. Despite local newspapers and global media outlets speculating that major structures like the Olympic Stadium roof may not be ready in time for the Aug. 13 opening ceremonies, event organizers, tourism officials and even U.S. operators to the Games say the Greek capital is in a sprint to what still promises to be a photo finish.

In fact, the Greek National Tourism Organization (GNTO) asserts that the successful, hitch-free Games it's predicting will help boost leisure arrivals from North America by up to 15% this year -- and many in the U.S. travel trade agree.

"I am very certain that everything will be ready for the Games," said Nikos Dimadis, president of the GNTO, in an interview at the organization's new headquarters in Athens.

Dimadis attributed any skepticism to Greece's backward international reputation and poor self-image.

"We are a country that has transformed itself into a modern European nation quite recently, so I understand [people's] questions," he said.

That said, on a recent visit I saw firsthand that many of the event venues -- such as the handball stadium at Faliro and the Helliniko Olympic Complex, which will host fencing, baseball, hockey and kayaking, among other sports -- are still unfinished. Also not completed are several infrastructure projects, such as the coastal light rail link that will link many of the sites.

And although Athens can boast of a new, world-class international airport and a first-rate, art-filled subway system, the completion dates for many other projects have been pushed back until late June, the delays further aggravated by unusually cold and wet weather since December.

Will ships come in?

In addition, Murphy's Law seemed to be kicking in at the last minute for organizing committee Athens 2004: Financially troubled Royal Olympia Cruises lost control of three of the 11 ships organizers had contracted to dock at the port of Piraeus as accommodations for officials and visitors to room-strapped Athens.

Athens 2004 recalled the $1 million in advance deposits paid to the company, and although eight other ships -- including Cunard's new Queen Mary 2 -- are still scheduled to dock, accommodations on the high end are now in short supply.

Accommodations manager Spyros Pappas -- who estimated that 90% of top-end hotel space in Athens has already been reserved by Olympic organizers -- is holding out hope for the Royal Olympia vessels.

"It seems logical that if there's a new owner, it would want to be in Athens, as well," Pappas said.

It's Greek to me ...

But not to worry, said Nikos Tsakanikas, president of operator Homeric Tours in New York.

"Being Greek myself and knowing the Greeks as I do, even if the night before [they] have to paint the streets, they'll take care of it," he said. "I have no doubt Athens will be ready, and I believe it will be one of the most beautiful Olympics we've ever seen."

And Homeric, which had reserved space on the so far unavailable Olympia Countess, has been able to secure space for displaced clients at area hotels -- although with some difficulty, said Tsakanikas.

Homeric and other operators selling tickets and packages to the Games said interest from the U.S. is high, but the pace of bookings has mirrored, to some extent, the slow start to which actual construction got off.

Don Williams, vice president of sales and marketing at Manhattan Beach, Calif.-based Cartan Tours -- one of two official ticket agents and tour operators sponsoring the U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC) -- said post-9/11 late-booking trends have caught up with Olympic travel.

That jibes with the results of a recent Travel Weekly poll, which found that around three-quarters of U.S. retailers expect to see most bookings come in fewer than six months before the Games, while about a third reported those later bookings are much closer-in than for previous overseas Olympics.

"We've slowly watched new travel trends come into the Olympic market, so we anticipated this booking period for Athens would be later than for previous Games," Williams said, adding that stand-alone event tickets are selling faster than tour packages that include air fare and accommodations.

But tour packages are selling, "and very well, in fact," said Homeric's Tsakanikas, which is offering a range of Olympics packages plus pre- and post-Games tours of Greece and Europe.

"I don't know what's happened, but in the last couple of weeks we've been getting requests from all over the place."

Homeric -- which sells as a subagent of the second official USOC-designated operator, Jet Set Sports and CoSport of Far Hills, N.J. -- is on target to rebound to sales levels last seen in the record year of 2000, he said.

"I don't know if it's only the Olympics or whether last year was just particularly bad, but we see a lot more interest in Greece this year -- and I hope it lasts, because we need it," Tsakanikas added.

For his part, Sead Dizdarevic, president and CEO of Jet Set/CoSport, said that tickets to Athens are selling better than to the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.

"We're seeing a lot of requests for triple and quadruple rooms for families," said Dizdarevic. "The most likely reason I can come up with is the timeframe of these games, being held in August."

Schoolchildren will be on vacation then, he noted, whereas the Sydney Games took place in September, after classes started.

"Considering the number of packages we have available, we're doing very well," Dizdarevic said.

Let the Games begin

So, can agents still get clients to the Games on time, and at a profit?

The answer is yes, according to operators.

Homeric is paying 10% on a range of four- to six-night stays in Athens from CoSport that include tickets to as many as seven sports events, up to three meals daily, airport transfers and accommodations on the Queen Mary 2 or at the Athens Plaza, Omonoia Grand Hotel or Hotel Achilleas.

Rates range from about $4,000 to approximately $14,600 for stays Aug. 12 to 30.

Homeric also offers add-on Greek island cruises and tours, "classical" tours of Greece and city stays in 10 European cities.

Meanwhile, Cartan is paying 8% commission on its six-night hotel-and-cruise packages, all of which feature guaranteed prices ranging from $4,989 per person for the tourist-class Cecil Hotel to $6,789 to $13,889 per person aboard the Olympia Explorer (should it dock under new ownership) or similar accommodations.

"It's sad because the Olympia Explorer's such a great ship [and] perfect for this purpose," said Williams. "If it's sold to new owners who want to use it in Athens, that would be our preference. If not, we already have options on other space to step in to protect our clients."

The firm will pay retailers 12% commission, retroactive to the first reservation, when 10 or more clients are booked.

The aftereffects

Whether or not that high-tech roof is raised above the Olympic Stadium by August, the Royal Olympia ships sail into Piraeus after all or clients can find suitable accommodations in time for the Games, Greek tourism officials are predicting immediate and longer-term benefits for local suppliers and international visitors alike -- which are, after all, the reasons cities bid to host the Olympic Games in the first place.

"Preparation for the Olympic Games permitted very important improvements in the general cultural landscape and the and specific tourism infrastructure of Athens," said the GNTO's Dimadis, specifically citing the subway system, highways and airport.

He also pointed to a project to link city-center archeological sites such as the Parthenon and the Agora by a promenade, an improvement in ferry services to the Ionian islands and an increase of up to 15% in new or renovated hotel accommodations across the Attica region.

"All of that creates not only an important infrastructure for the Games, but it's also integral to the future tourism development of Greece," Dimadis said.

"With all these developments, we will be able to present a new image of our country combining our traditional advantages -- climate, sun, beaches, sea and ancient culture -- with the new elements of a higher quality of service, a higher quality of infrastructure and more diversified opportunities for tourism," he added.

Those alternative tourism opportunities include ecotourism, meetings and incentives and -- predictably -- what Dimadis termed "athletic tourism," such as yachting and golf.

"The Olympics coincide with an effort already underway to move into a new phase in our tourism development," he said.

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

By the Numbers: Olympics bookings far from setting record pace

By Art Pfenning

ravel to the Summer Olympics in Athens is off slowly from the starting blocks, according to a Travel Weekly/NTM Research poll of 276 agents.

In fact, more than half of respondents (56%) said bookings for the Games are moving at a slower pace than for prior Summer Olympics held overseas. Only 4% of agents said bookings are better.

Still, this race does not necessarily go to the swift. The Olympics will not start until Aug. 13, and three-quarters of agents (76%) think many clients will be booking much closer to the start of the Games than in the past.

Most of those who are booking Olympics business report they are selling packages that include air and lodging (57%), but a third are booking just air (35%) and said clients are tending to fend for themselves when it comes to lodging.

Agents said clients are expressing the most interest in the opening (71%) and closing (48%) ceremonies and gymnastics (47%). Swimming (33%) and track and field (29%) also are popular events.

Security is clearly an issue for clients. More than four out of five respondents (84%) said clients are concerned about safety at the Games; another 79% are concerned about getting to the Games and airport security.

A third (33%) said recent TV advertising promoting the Games has helped boost bookings a bit. But 54% of those polled also said online travel Web sites are cutting into potential clients interested in booking the Olympics.

Art Pfenning is the research director for Northstar Travel Media, Travel Weekly's parent company. Send e-mail to [email protected].

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