Maria Athanasopoulou: “I really believe that gastronomy tourism can be the tool that will make any tourist destination more popular and more attractive”
Maria Athanasopoulou, Founder of Respond On Demand, Chairwoman of the Board of Directors of the World Food Travel Association, a Master Culinary Travel Professional as well as the new name of professionals in the wine and wine tourism industry also appeared in the Wine Travel Awards 2022-2023 Jury list shared with us her business and life experience, professional path, the post-pandemic period in the tourism sector, the developing of the Greece tourism etc.
Ms. Maria, when you agreed to join the jury of the Wine Travel Awards, we were sincerely grateful, because we understand how much you are in demand and how many projects you are involved in – founder of the tourism marketing company Respond On Demand, the chairwoman of the Board of Directors of the World Food Travel Association, and also a Master Culinary Travel Professional. You are a member of the International Association of tourism writers and photographers and write many articles on the tourism industry and travel, you are the Ambassador of Greece to the World Food Travel Association and recently elected as the President of its Board of Directors. You are a participant in numerous projects and events every year. In short, the Greek saying ” Siga Siga” is not about you, is it? How do you manage to be on time with all the deals? What makes you all successful?
I am a woman who loves to work. Work for me is not just a way to earn money. It’s my passion, it’s a piece of my heart. I can even deprive myself of sleep to be consistent with my obligations. I also love to travel, which is part of my job. Although there are never restful trips in my job, they refresh me and I learn and see many new interesting things. I believe that if one is not passionate about his work, he will never be good at it!
But such activity requires not only a high degree of time management, but also the highest level of qualification. And you have such qualifications. For example, you have received a Master’s degree in Culinary Travel. Where did you study? Can you tell us about your professional path (education, career, experience)?
I graduated from law school and worked for several years as a lawyer. I got involved in travel writing and to this day I selectively write articles in various travel media when I think I have something interesting to say. I have also participated in many training seminars on tourism. My training on gastronomy tourism has been through the World Food Travel Association, which I believe is the most credible association in this field.
Which of these areas is the most difficult for you, and which brings you the most pleasure and drive?
I do not find any difficulty in my work, I study everything and try to find time to keep up to date with all the developments in tourism
Tell us about the Respond on Demand – for how long it has been cooperating, with how many tour operators and travel agencies, from which countries you work? As far as we know, you have collaborated even with such distant destinations as America and Australia. What exactly are the charms of tourist attractions in Greece that interest tourists from such countries?
I founded the tourism marketing company Respond On Demand in 2009. Our specialization is the organization of sales workshops in different countries, where we bring tourism entrepreneurs in contact with travel agents. My company’s database counts a very large number of tour operators & travel agents from all over the world (about 39.000 contacts). We also have great credibility in distant markets such as Australia and USA and we make sure to communicate with them frequently to maintain our good contacts. As to what makes Greece such a popular tourism destination, there are many reasons. In short, Greece as a tourist destination combines beautiful nature, ancient history, good food, very good wine and hospitable people. Who needs more when on holidays?
Considering that the pandemic hit the tourism sector the most, how did the agency survive this period – did you go online? But today, as we observe from the announcements of your events for October in Athens and for March in Thessaloniki, are you returning to live negotiations? What are the pros and cons of each format?
During the lockdown, all our activities were done online with great success. Today we are back to live events, I think we all agree that there is no substitute for human contact. We hope to continue this way, without any more unpleasant surprises in the years to come!
Today, observers of the world tourism market record good dynamics of recovery. How can you assess this process – which countries are emerging as leaders in the post-pandemic period?
I think that during the last two years, all countries have done their best to survive and adapt to the new circumstances. In my opinion, it does not matter which countries did a little better than the others. What matters is that all countries tried! Of course, the popular destinations have an advantage to the time of tourism recovery.
What areas of tourism, in your opinion, are receiving special development today? In our opinion, food and wine tourism can become an engine for the restoration of tourist flows in many countries – we are sure that you share the same opinion. Which countries, in your opinion, show the most interesting attractions in this area. Please name the loudest events or institutions in those countries that you liked.
I believe that every country, every city, every region, has its own particular gastronomy culture, which deserves and can be highlighted through gastronomy tourism. I cannot name a country, city or region because I really believe that gastronomy tourism can be the tool that will make any tourist destination more popular and more attractive.
Allow us to share our own observation: in our opinion, today the Balkan countries and, in particular, Greece are an underestimated area of gastronomic and wine tourism. We see this with our own eyes, such respected speakers who gave us interviews, such as Jancis Robinson, Andreas Larsson, speak about it. As far as we understand, you too write about this on the website www.toptourism.info: “Did you know that in Barcelona, Rome, etc., there were such gastronomic tours? The same could be the case in Greece or Cyprus…” And what exactly, in your opinion, prevented all this from being organized, promoted and offered to the guests of Greece a long time ago? Why is there such a lag (if you agree that there is)? Was it because of excessive taxation, lack of state or local support, conservative society, or something else?
I believe that both Greece and Cyprus have a very bright future in terms of the development of their gastronomy tourism. This is because they have authentic local gastronomy, with roots in antiquity, and offer extremely tasty and healthy recipes. In my opinion, because both countries are very popular for tourism due to the sun and the sea, there was no interest in the past to discover the potential of gastronomy tourism, but in recent years I see an improvement and an effort to develop this sector.
In other countries there may be different reasons why gastronomy tourism is still not fully developed. Each case is different, and research could give results to determine the cause.
Through which tourist attractions are the best ways to offer tourists the tastes of the country: are they festivals, tasting rooms, museums of wine or local products, master classes or visits to wineries and farms? We are not mistaken – you are the organizer of Taste Of Loutraki – The Corinthian Food Festival. To your mind, how is this event developing – is it being implemented as planned, or are there still some points that need to be worked out? If the second option, then what exactly does not satisfy?
All the above are ways of offering gastronomy experiences and if done properly they will be very popular.
In Loutraki (a small seaside town in Greece) we are organizing (Respond On Demand) a three-day food festival with the aim to communicate the local cuisine of the region and to increase the income of the local businesses through the increase of the visitors to the area. The first event was an outstanding success, and we look forward to the second one next year.
Tell us about the three – in your consideration – the most beautiful places in Greece, where you can taste a wine or a specialty that will impress any well-educated tourist.
I believe that there are much more than three places in Greece, wherever you go you will find truly remarkable local gastronomy and excellent wines.
Let’s turn to your participation in the World Food Travel Association. This community brings together a very large number of outstanding chefs, product manufacturers, etc. Tell us about this community in more detail, who exactly makes up its larger share, which professions are the rarest? What are the main tasks of the organization and what exactly is the role of the chairwoman of the Board of Directors, what will you do in the position to which you were recently elected? And which of these activities is the most interesting for you?
The World Food Travel Association, which I have the honor of serving for a second term as chairwoman, is the only international organization that has been exclusively involved in gastronomy tourism for twenty years or so. There is an expertise and a specialization that can assist gastronomy tourism to be developed in any destination. The activities of the World Food Travel Association are also relevant to every tourism professional in my opinion, since gastronomy tourism concerns hotels, tourist agencies, restaurants, cafés, local producers, etc. The Board of Directors of the World Food Travel Association, meets once a month discussing all matters relating to the functioning of the organization. I would like to mention that I am also an Ambassador of the World Food Travel Association and I have been working continuously for the development of gastronomy tourism in Greece and Cyprus for the last few years.
The World Food Travel Association, as far as we know, has been operating for many years. How do its goals change over time – or do they remain the same? Which organizations/companies support its development? What are your plans for the next year or two?
The World Food Travel Association monitors the development of gastronomy tourism around the world. And of course, it follows all the changes that occur in this sector, as nothing stays the same and everything evolves. In recent years, the study of culinary cultures and how they can be used to further develop gastronomy tourism around the world, has been a primary objective for us. This study led us to a project called Culinary Capitals.
Maria, you are a member of the Ιnternational Travel Writers Alliance writers and photographers. Tell us about this branch of your creativity. What areas or regions have become the heroes of your latest articles? Where can we get acquainted with them, what do you recommend reading first of all for those interested in gastronomic paths?
First, I would like to point out that most of my articles and photos are about Greece. I have been running a blog for many years, where you can find a lot of photos from many places in Greece. Through this activity, I promote my travels in general, the sights of the areas I visit and very often their local gastronomy. I write articles in many electronic magazines in Greece and other countries.
By the way, are culinary tourism and gastronomic tourism identical or are there differences?
I think that in general terms we are referring to the same thing.
What are your own plans for the coming year? Are you planning your dream trip?
I love traveling, I travel a lot for work and in my personal time and I consider every trip I take a dream trip!
Describe your working day in a few words, starting with the time you wake up.
I wake up every day at seven in the morning at the latest and work until late in the afternoon. On weekends, I get up at the same time, and I also work, but fewer hours.
The best food tourism guide is… (continue the sentence – either a guide publication or your own sources of information that you use in your travels)
I don’t use a specific guide, when I arrive somewhere I talk directly to the locals, get the information I want and then explore the information that impressed me.
Name your place of strength – where you like to rest, gain strength and inspiration.
In any coastal area of Greece!
Your most favorite dish and wine.
I love spanakopita (a Greek pie with spinach and feta cheese) and white wine.
If you could turn to all the people of the world, what advice would you give to humanity today?
To respect and understand each other’s different cultures and start systematically protecting the environment.