This week I had the opportunity to speak to the Kourelis brothers, Alexandros, Vaggelis and George, founders of the Greek travel startup, Visit Meteora. With over 20 years of experience in the industry, I was struck by how humble and helpful they were, their strong grasp of the local state of affairs, their enthusiasm, and their somewhat boyish charms.
Recognising problems as potential business opportunities
Having previously worked in a family-run hotel for more than 20 years, they noticed that visitors would often come to the reception desk to ask about the different tours and activities they could do whilst in Meteora. Despite the great potential that Meteora had, “a local tour operator provider and destination management organisation (DMO) simply didn’t exist.”
The brothers also found that the majority of their visitors never spent more than a night in Meteora. They saw the potentially positive impact that tourism could have on the local economy. “We understood that the only way to bring change was to create a DMO and at the same time to launch a variety of new travel quality products that will keep our visitors engaged for more than a day.” In other words, they wanted to give tourists a reason to stay longer by giving them more unique things to do and a one-stop shop to find it all.
George had the business idea for a DMO and worked on it for almost two years before sharing it with his brothers. It wasn’t long before the idea took off.
We became passionate with our new project and the rest is history.
“There’s a Greek saying, that goes “one cannot put two watermelons under one armpit”,” the brothers told me. I Googled it to find that it meant this: that everyone has their limits and two watermelons are often difficult to carry, unless you’re a Greek Spartan. This led them to get more people involved in the project. Soon, they formed a team of six young, educated and passionate individuals, each working incredibly hard to build Visit Meteora.
Remembering Visit Meteora’s first few months
As they told me about the first few months of working on Visit Meteora, I felt sheer enthusiasm and excitement bounce off our email correspondence. The Kourelis trio said that they were driven by creativity and excitement, not caring that they didn’t have more than a few desks and PCs. “I remember that the first few months, no one wanted to leave the office, we were like workaholics.”
Their first booking came in 2012, on Christmas eve for a hiking tour on Christmas morning.
“Of course no one had checked emails that night as we were out for a Christmas party and we all went back home in the early hours of the morning.” It wasn’t till the next morning that they realised that they missed the booking. “Finally, we contacted the client and offered a free tour the same afternoon.”
Working towards a bigger picture
Three years on, the start-up has not only become a successful tour company, but also full-fledged DMO. George explained that “the initial plan was to create a private DMO company and a local tour operator company simultaneously.” They knew that the lack of tourism infrastructure in Meteora meant that as a tour company, they had to promote the whole destination, including hotels, tourist attractions restaurants and outdoor activities - pretty much acting like a DMO.
“You need to keep your customers up to date with a blog, produce high quality images and videos, invest some time (on) social media, work with travel bloggers, run a dynamic site and produce high quality content with useful information about the destination that will not only help the travellers but will also boost SEO in order to bring more traffic to our website. So we decided that that business model will become very successful, if we manage to make it happen.”
“It was very challenging that we had to be a local tour operator and at the same time do things like a public tourist information office – (be located at a) central tourist spot, create and offer free maps everywhere, work on media trips and familiarisation trips, produce audiovisual content and create new products.”
The large scope of work also came with its own benefits. The brothers found that they were able to influence the creation of a whole new destination brand by improving the quality of tour products offered.
We feel proud that we’ve helped our small community through laying the foundations for a sustainable and responsive touristic model.
Really understanding a good marketing strategy
The conversation shifted to online marketing and social media, naturally, since that’s one of the big topics we cover on this blog. Visit Meteora has two to three people involved on their social media platforms, from creating content, photography, editing and publishing.
“Basically social media is just another vehicle to present our products and our brand. When it comes to beautiful destinations with photogenic and unique sceneries like Meteora, it is an easy and safe way to create quality content.”
And if you offer the ability to book online, your content might be the last thing standing between you and a booking.
“High quality and diverse information, trip planning tools, attractive visual material including video and photo sharing applications, multilingual content, B2B and press sections and efficient SEO saturation/meta-tags are all “must” elements of a successful website.”
Social media is definitely something you can’t ignore as it has become the new word of mouth, but with a megaphone!
“One of the most important decisions we ever made was to hire a full-time developer and create everything you see online in-house. The visitmeteora.travel website is the result of team work, and our social media couldn’t any be different.”
I checked out their website on my phone too and found that it was optimised and responsive, a feature I’ve not seen much of from other tour and activity companies. According to George, “Having a mobile responsive website today is definitely a must.”
"Looking at our Google analytics reports we saw that a 40% of our total traffic came through smartphones and tablets. Using TrekkSoft's booking engine we are able to track every single booking and see the number of the online bookings that come from mobile devices. Mobile usage is exploding and positive user experience is very important.”
“One of the biggest benefits of responsive design is that the size of the template is designed and based on screen size, not device. This means that no matter what screen size someone is using to view your website, it will always display properly for that screen size. So, in the future, as new devices (TVs, watches, glasses, etc.) are being used for web browsing, your responsive site will still look beautiful.”
“Another reason that makes the responsive websites really important is because responsive design is preferred for SEO, Google prefers responsive web design over mobile templates.”
For any tour company that is still considering whether to do it or not, I have to say that introducing a responsive website is no longer “a nice feature”, but rather an ought to do thing that literally impacts the growth of your business.
Reaching out to bloggers, vloggers and content creators
As part of their overall marketing strategy, Visit Meteora has worked with numerous bloggers and vloggers to promote Meteora. Last year, after TBEX 2014, they hosted 50 well known travel bloggers from around the world as part of familiarisation trip.
They also recently hosted the Meteora and Mt Olympus media trip 2015, which aimed “to introduce the world to mainland Greece as an adventure and experiential tourism destination.” The idea stemmed from a personal bet to see if collaboration projects can work out in the region for events like this. It was carefully planned, months in advance, with support from great sponsors.
Media professionals, bloggers, filmmakers, social media influencers, content creators or just plain adventure lovers got a taste of the experiential and adventure activities on offer in mainland Greece, during their seven-day stay in Meteora, which ended late October.
“I can say that everything went perfect and we are looking forward to read the blog posts. The most difficult moment was when the capital controls took place last summer. I was one tiny step away from cancelling it.”
Advice to other start-ups
Based on their vast experience in the travel and hospitality industry, I wanted to know if there was anything the Alexandros, George or Vaggelis would have liked to have known about before diving into a different industry, albeit closely linked. I was provided with a good dose of Greek wisdom.
“Like any journey in life you make the first step not knowing what lies ahead. In the beginning you are always full of excitement of what sort of new things and experiences you will encounter along the way.”
At the end of the day what matters the most is not the journey per se, nor the destination but this build-up of experience that you accumulate when facing all the difficulties or the mistakes that you will inevitably make.
“The journey always makes you wiser as you fail and make mistakes and try to learn from them. So, we feel that every mistake and every failure we made so far it has been a great opportunity to learn something new. We are who we are today because of the mistakes and failures we had to face and overcome in the past. For that we wouldn’t want to change a thing or to know something we didn’t in the past.”
Onwards and upwards
Finally, I asked about their plans for the future, about Visit Meteora, the team behind the magic and their hopes for the destination and their community.
“Our team hopes for the best possible results in the near future. We are aiming to increase the duration of stay of visitors and to attract more of them with even more things to do in the area. Hopefully, our online bookings will double and we will be able to sell different types of packages, not only for Meteora but for visiting the mainland of Greece in general.”
“Ideally, we want it to be possible to buy or reserve tours, activities, accommodation and even restaurant bookings through our website. We want to act as a one-stop-shop for visitors by providing a wide range of information for the destination’s product mix as well as centralised hotel and event tickets reservation system.”
“I hope our staff and guides will remain as they are now: passionate about what they are doing, spreading the word about how it all started and what we have accomplished so far. We are very proud of our team!”
“Bottom line – it’s what it is all about.”
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