A Greek Lesson
I think that one of the overwhelmingly consequential stories of 2011, was that of the Greek financial and social issues. The topic has been covered very thoroughly by the world media, so I am guessing that just like me, you will have mixed emotions about my fellow countrymen as a whole.
On the one hand, the irregularities (ranging anywhere from innocent mistakes all the way to blatant stealing – from both Europe, but also from the poor to give to the rich) have happened within the country itself. Unquestionably it has been the Greeks making their own bed (albeit messing up everyone else’s as a result) and that apportions blame squarely and wholly somewhere within the country.
On the other hand, under several very misguided and very unfair governments for almost 30 years now, it is typically the “non-thieving” hard-working type of Greek (majority) that is paying a very disproportionate price for all the irregularities that went on. Which is also hard to forget…
To use some culinary parallels to explain my views: whatever your position on the matter, I believe that the whole mess can be boiled down to a few key ingredients that have been cooked by certain people (from what in Greece is now called “the elite”) for almost three decades; unfortunately these were the same people that also happened to be in control of the books which were also thoroughly cooked.
From these few ingredients, the one that is very easily underestimated is complacency. And in my experience complacency is a very contagious disease.
“The Greek physics law of Inertia” – AKA the Greek version of “mañana”
The one thing for which I will dare to “throw a stone” to my countrymen is that us Greeks are pretty much governed by some cultural imperative, similar to the physics law describing inertia. When we aren’t doing anything, we are very likely to maintain our state and continue not doing much. (Incidentally, although much more rarely, the opposite also applies: when we somehow find ourselves in motion, we can find it difficult to stop). All this can make us relaxed company and great party friends, but in business it can be a disadvantage…
During the autumn of 2007, when our BABEL Multilingual product was still in its infancy, I was starting talking to hotels about multilingual versions of their websites, and international marketing packages. Knowing that Greece attracts people speaking foreign languages in their millions every year, I did some research in new hotels in the country that were more likely to use and benefit from our services.
Amongst many potentials, I remember finding a wonderful candidate. It was a five star property with some 450 rooms, in a prime location in Crete, near an airport (but far enough) and by a superb sandy beach. The hotel was independently owned, and only on the second year of its operation – which to me it meant that there would normally be a lot of room for growth of business. To cut a long story short, this property’s vital statistics made them an excellent candidate. According to my 'guestimations' at the time, they could find themselves generating some pretty impressive profits within the first season of using us. I couldn’t wait to talk to them.
Unfortunately, my initial enthusiasm quickly evaporated by the hotel’s lack of a booking engine on their website. In fact, there was no way to make a reservation at that hotel, other than calling them, or emailing them and hoping for the best. Obviously there is very little point in pursuing, finding and getting visitors to your website from abroad if you don’t have a way to convert them to customers!
For those of you that aren’t familiar with the issue of booking engines, I should briefly highlight here that for such a property having a booking engine is an absolute necessity. I don’t want to send anyone to sleep talking about a the different pricing models of agencies and the comparative costs; so let’s just say that in a country like Greece, a decent-sized independent hotel of this type on its second year of operation, would easily pay the equivalent of 30% for a reservation in commissions to all manner of agencies. Forgetting about the numerous benefits that further enhance the argument and necessity for a booking engine, I will just mention that when someone books a hotel on the hotel’s own website, the commission costs for that hotel would drop to anywhere between one and five per cent. It is relevant to mention here that agencies already squeeze hotels as much as they can, and as hotels have costs associated with servicing a room, bookings over the hotel’s own website represent a staggering benefit in profit levels – a 25% reduction in commission payments could be very nearly the entire profit on a room sold!
So why on earth would anyone not have a booking engine – I hear you ask. I didn’t know either and I was too curious to let this go, so I decided to find out. I picked up the phone, got through to the General Manager, and basically asked the question.
“Well, someone would have to manage it..” – came the answer.
[What? As opposed to bookings from agencies that are OK to be left unmanaged?!!]
I was shocked. That was a prime example of (these days already hard to find) old-style Greek public-sector complacency having permeated the private sector. Of all the people to show such lack of interest in the hotel’s well being, to hear such a blatant statement of laziness from a General Manager… To me, that was just wrong.
A year after this conversation took place, the financial world imploded. Today travel agents control the business for that hotel (and so many other hotels like it) and have forced the General Manager to drop her prices and increase the commission she pays to them. The owners were probably far too removed from the day-to-day decisions to identify the missed opportunity, and have now fully blamed the Greek corrupt elite for their misfortunes. Complacency and lack of understanding are a poisonous mixture for a business.
Following that incident (and a few more like it), and seeing the suffering of Greek hotels in these trying times for Greece, I have quickly developed a strong aversion to complacency. It is therefore with considerable worry that I share with you my suspicion that this affinity to a “mañana” approach to life is not entirely alien to Britons either…
Having worked with hotels from all over the world [and aware that I have no other evidence than our own contacts with the markets (hardly a statistically acceptable sample)] I would suggest that British hoteliers are on average less keen to move forward with international marketing than their international counterparts.
Despite us being a firmly UK based company, today only 23% of our clients are located in the UK – the rest are based pretty much everywhere else around the world. The hoteliers around the world to whom we sell our services seem to be much more aware that hoteliers sell to travellers and that these days travellers don’t come from the hotel’s neighbourhood, and they don’t always speak the neighbourhood’s language.
Looking at the flickering lights of the world economy today, I am strongly advising hoteliers to go after international business even if they do well domestically. Every incremental demand point is of benefit not only to the hotel’s pricing and yielding flexibility. It is also another point of safety in an unsafe world.
If the pessimists of this world are correct, there is a lot of pressure for everyone in the not too distant future, and it will be only those who are prepared that will stand a chance to thrive.
Thank you for reading,