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The view from Greece

Next-gen Agapi Sbokou is a director of sales and marketing at the Blue Palace Resort & Spa in Crete. She talks to Campden about how Greece is changing, why she joined the family business and her outlook for the future.
Agapi Sbokou is a director of sales and marketing at the Blue Palace Resort & Spa in Crete

Agapi Sbokou is a director of sales and marketing at the Blue Palace Resort & Spa in Crete.

The vast majority of people in Greece see a European future for the country. They don’t want to leave the euro. The reason they are so angry is that the cuts were not explained properly at the start; people didn’t know what was going on, or the enormity of it and they were totally unprepared for this.

Family businesses have been a big feature of the Greek economy for a long time. After World War II, before my time, until the 1970s there were a few big family businesses. Then after the junta ended in 1974 a new generation started. We’ll have to see how these cope with the transformations in the Greek economy, and as they transfer to the next generation and move from a patriarchal system to a more hierarchical structure.

My father started our family’s hotel business, but my grandmother was also an entrepreneur who exported hand-woven traditional tablecloths and rugs to the US, Canada and Australia. 

My father won a scholarship to MIT, but my grandmother wouldn’t let him go. She gave him some money and told him he had to do something with it for the family. He was 26 years old at the time and tourism was looking hot, so he built a hotel on the island of Crete. We now have a total of five hotels in Crete and another in Rhodes. I got involved in the family business about 10 years ago. I had studied law, and I didn’t think that tourism would be enough of a challange for me. I had finished my MBA at Cass Business School in London and was just about to start a new job when my father called me saying he wanted to build a hotel on some land he’d owned for a long time.

It was a place that he really loved and he wanted to use it for something really special. I thought this would be a tremendous opportunity for me to leave my mark. That became the Blue Palace (pictured, right), the flagship of our group.

It was a tremendous challenge, joining something at the start. In the late 1990s, I had been working at the investment banking arm of the National Bank of Greece and it was very intellectually stimulating. We were advising the Ministry of Finance on IPOs and major projects such as privatisations of public sector companies. It felt a bit strange at the beginning working in the family business, but I soon discovered that starting a new hotel was stimulating too, to be building something from scratch and determining all the little details. And it was very important that there was a creative part, and also that it involved people. It wasn’t just number crunching. It was very rewarding on many levels.

There is a very, very clear vision in a family business. In a family organisation you feel you work with a clear philosophy that remains constant. It has an integrity which goes back to the true values of a person, and isn’t just a statement that some group of people sat down and wrote. This can be very inspiring for the team. My sister is an architect and she has been involved in all the new-build hotels and renovations in the last 10 years. Other members of the family also work in the operations side. If they have a passion for it, I’d love to see my children work in the business too. But passion is important. If they’re not passionate it would be better off in the hands of a non-family manager.

The tourism industry in Greece needs to have a clear strategy for the years ahead. I’m a member of the board of SETE, the Association of Greek Tourism Enterprises, which is working on a strategic plan for the tourism sector. We want to cut down on government red tape, sort out the tax system and build a brand for the country. We want to make Greece one of the world’s top 10 tourist destinations by 2020. Up until the start of the recession people didn’t really care about tourism even though it is our biggest sector, and accounts for 16% of Greece’s GDP. Now people understand that it should be supported. Ordinary people have opinions about how the government should treat tourism.

There is a big part of the Greek population that was used to being taken care of by the state. But now the mentality is changing. For example, most people agree now that the public sector has to be cut. This is now considered common sense, and that is a very big step. We have come a long way in the past two years.

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