Our group landed in Athens on election day – a clear, hot Sunday afternoon in early May – and, despite surprising returns that removed the two ruling parties from power and set the stage for another election cycle a month later, the city was quiet. There weren’t even any protests or demonstrations in lovely Syntagma Square, just across the street from the Parliament of Greece, and the epicenter of the country’s political life.
That left nothing for us to do but check into the graceful, light-filled Hilton Athens, our first host hotel, and take an Athens Sightseeing Bus tour of the 3,000-year-old city, during which we never knew if the next turn would bring a view of the Aegean Sea to the south or, more likely, the Acropolis in the center of the ancient metropolis, high up on its hill, a mirage shimmering through the ages. Back at the Hilton, we enjoyed a buffet dinner of classic Greek foods, emphasizing fresh, basic ingredients such as olive oil, lemons, cheese, chicken, and lamb, complemented by a selection of excellent local wines.
The next morning, our trip began in earnest. Most of our group were meeting and event planners, so ACB went heavy on business properties. Athens’ hospitality and tourism infrastructure received a massive upgrade in preparation for hosting the 2004 Summer Olympics, and today the city offers nearly 500 hotels with more than 29,000 guest rooms. We visited 13 of those properties – at a variety of sizes and price points, many offering rooftop event space with irresistible views of the ever-present Acropolis. (See “On the Itinerary,” bottom of page.)
We also toured an impressive portfolio of conference and trade-show venues. The sprawling, 1.5-million-square-foot Megaron Athens International Conference Centre is located in the heart of the city, surrounded by landscaped gardens, terraces, and walking paths; its variety of meeting and event space includes four acoustically perfect auditoriums that can accommodate from 400 to 1,960 people. The Zappeion Conference & Exhibition Centre, opened in 1888, is a gorgeous neoclassical structure that sits on 860,000 square feet of land in the National Garden of Athens, with more than 40,000 square feet of exhibit space and, at its center, a circular open-air atrium ringed with Ionic columns. In a six-floor, late-1920s building opposite Parliament, the B&M Theocharakis Foundation for the Fine Arts & Music offers an intimate series of meeting facilities, including a 180-person auditorium and three floors of impeccably lit gallery space.
A half-hour drive from Athens’ city center, next to Athens International Airport, we visited the ultra-modern Metropolitan Expo, whose more than half-million square feet of interior meeting space includes both cavernous exhibit halls and human-scale conference rooms. From there we continued to the magnificent Byzantine Estate of George Nassioutzik, carefully built to resemble a centuries-old villa on 17 heavily forested hillside acres, with 25,000 square feet of indoor function space and 43,000 square feet of lawns and gardens. And then it was on to the seaside, to the Westin Athens Astir Palace Beach Resort, our second host hotel, and a jewel of the sparking coastline known as the Athenian Riviera.
Amid site visits and networking receptions with professionals from Athens’ meetings community, we enjoyed the full gamut of Greek hospitality and culture – from a family-style lunch at an authentic taverna in downtown Athens, to a moonlit dinner on the terrace at Orizontes Lycabettus, atop Mt. Lycabettus, with the Acropolis seeming to hover just out of arm’s reach; from a personal tour of the stunning Acropolis Museum and the Parthenon, to an evening cruise along the Athenian Riviera.
At press time, with the country locked in debate over austerity measures and the eurozone, Greek voters were preparing to head to the polls once more. Whatever the outcome, it seems unlikely to change the fact that Athens, which has already given the world modern democracy and philosophy, has so much to offer.
For more information: athensconventionbureau.gr.
On the itinerary in athens:
- Athenaeum InterContinental Athens: 543 guest rooms/suites; 130,000 square feet of meeting space
- Athens Ledra Marriott Hotel: 314 guest rooms/suites; 18,000 square feet of meeting space
- Crowne Plaza Athens City Centre: 193 guest rooms/suites; 21,000 square feet of meeting space
- Divani Apollon Palace & Spa: 280 guest rooms/suites; 27,000 square feet of meeting space
- Divani Caravel Hotel: 471 guest rooms/suites; 43,000 square feet of meeting space
- Electra Palace Hotel Athens: 155 guest rooms/suites; 7,500 square feet of meeting space
- Hilton Athens: 506 guest rooms/ suites; 65,000 square feet of meeting space
- Hotel Grand Bretagne: 320 guest rooms/suites; 12,000 square feet of meeting space
- Metropolitan: 374 guest rooms/suites; 17,000 square feet of meeting space
- New Hotel: 79 guest rooms/suites; 5,300 square feet of meeting space
- NJV Athens Plaza: 182 guest rooms/suites; 2,900 square feet of meeting space
- Novotel Athens: 196 guest rooms/ suites; 11,200 square feet of meeting space
- Westin Athens Astir Palace Beach Resort: 162 guest rooms/suites; 24,000 square feet of meeting space