by Padraic Gilligan, Vice President, Industry Relations, MCI
Recently I spent a wonderful week under azur blue skies and long lingering sunsets on the Greek island of Santorini. When my mind wasn’t captured by the vicissitudes of the intriguing life of John James Todd, protagonist of The New Confessions by William Boyd, it was captured by the deft delightfulness of dialogue with Rita Smyth, my equally intriguing life partner. Occasionally, however, circumstances on the island caused thoughts and considerations more associated with work to wrestle their way to the forefront on my mind. These concerned the identity of Santorini as a destination, its brand positioning and the markets from which it was getting its business. I outline these thoughts here as 4 things that I’d do if I were the Mayor of Santorini.
1. If I were Mayor of Santorini, I’d bring in the Brand guys and create a compelling, consistent brand
I struggled a lot throughout my week there to understand what Santorini stood for, what was its unique, indispensable DNA that might cause visitors to go there in the first place and, more importantly, to return there frequently. During our week there, amongst general leisure visitors, we encountered honeymoon couples, older babyboomers, droves of cruise passengers and battalions of backpackers. I wondered how the small island could satisfy such a divergent and contrasting demographic? The dreamy romantic idyll sought by honeymooners quickly metamorphoses into a nightmare when the noise and nosiness of 100 camera-clicking cruisers stand between you and the view! Equally Babyboomers paying big bucks to stay at a luxury boutique property don’t want the relentless thump of backpackers’ Hip Hop and Deep House adulterating their enjoyment of Adele.
What Santorini needs is a clearly articulated brand strategy to target the specific demographics and markets that can generate the best return on investment balancing short, medium and long term yield and based around the creation and promotion of a sustainable tourism product.
2. If I were Mayor of Santorini, I’d highlight heritage and history …
Santorini has an extraordinary and unique natural history stretching back millennia to the formation of the island as a result of intense volcanic activity. Evidence of this activity is ubiquitous today around the island and makes for a compelling story which, at present, remains untold.
Santorini also possesses one of the most important archaeological digs in all of Europe. The site at Akrotiri, dating from 1600 BC, offers an insight into a very sophisticated and evolved society which placed a high value on artistic expression. It’s now open again, having been closed for 6 years, protected by a magnificent new building. The wall frescos found during the archaeological digs have been removed to Athens although perfect reproductions can be seen in the archaelogical museum in Fira. Neither the new building at Akrotiri nor the museum in Fira provides any collateral material either in print or digital format to help visitors understand how astonishing these archaeological treasures are.
If I were mayor of Santorini I’d create a one-stop-shop interpretative centre for the island where all visitors would go to discover the fascinating history and amazing heritage of this place. I’d link the interpretative centre by a series of walking and cycling routes to actual key points of historical interest around the island.
3. If I were Mayor of Santorini, I’d lose the cruises …
I have many friends in the cruise industry and I genuinely appreciate the value proposition for the various passenger sectors that patronise them. I also appreciate the economic contribution and impact of the cruise industry in terms of port charges, fuelling, local procurement of provisions along with the actual spend of disembarking passengers. However, having witnessed the impact of herds of day visitors on the tiny byways of Santorini I’m pretty convinced that cruises are costing the island community way in excess of what they are contributing. From a sustainability point of view the impact over a season on the fragile infrastructure of the island of tens of thousands of day visitors is incalculable. There’s a hidden, unintended consequence too, however. I believe day visitors encourage the price gouging that you occasionally encounter on Santorini where you’re charged €7 for a frappeé or €9 for an orange juice. Anyone staying for multiple nights on the island will not return to a place where they’ve been overcharged but you cannot count on future patronage from a day visitor so why not maximise your revenues now?
4. If I were Mayor of Santorini, I’d focus my marketing on food and wine
Maybe Santorini’s best kept secret is the quality of its food and wine. Its viticulture traditions go back centuries and the island produces high quality wine from un-trained vines that grow bush-like on the ground. The vineyards are actually well signposted as you drive around the island and they do offer wine tasting experiences. However, when compared to the visitor experience in Tuscany or Napa Valley or Stellenbosch, along with the ways each of these locations is marketed internationally as a wine destination Santorini is way behind.
When you avoid restaurants that display garish coloured photographs of its food and ask the locals for their insider’s advice you end up in places like The Cave of Nickolas near Akrotiri or Anogi in Imerovigli where we enjoyed delicious local specialities as good as anything we’d eaten in Italy or France. We loved the huge variety of fresh fish grilled over hot embers, the hand-cut chips deep fried in locally produced olive oil and the specialities Fava – a dip/paste made with Fava beans and Tomato Balls – the unfortunately named but delicious tasting fritters made with sun dried tomatoes.
When you go to Tuscany, Provence or Catalonia you go there partly for the gastronomy. Great food and wine is a key factor in the decision making process. If I were Mayor of Santorini I’d start telling the world how wonderful the food and wine are there.
It’s all about authenticity
Santorini currently presents itself as the curious hybrid offspring of diverse and divergent parents. It tries to keep them all happy and, in the process, risks being rejected by them all. The Backpacker parent wants cheap digs, drink and discos; the Honeymoon parent wants serenity, seclusion and sunsets; the Cruise parent wants snaps, snacks and souvenirs; the babyboomer parent wants lounge music, luxury, and lifestyle. Faced with this Santorini is confused and ends up trying to be all things to all people.
Santorini has both God-given and man-made assets that put so many other destinations in the shade. At present it is not leveraging these in the best possible way both in terms of present gain and mid to long term sustainability. Its assets pivot around a core experience of authenticity and this needs to be the foundation stone for a new brand positioning.
Padraic Gilligan is Vice President, Industry Relations at MCI and Vice President of Ovation Global, MCI’s destination services division.