NEW YORK – The founder of Homeric Tours, Nikos Tsakanikas, from Thermo, Trichonida, is not merely one of the successful Greek Americans who migrated from Greece back in the 1960s: He is the man who made airplane travel to Greece possible and affordable for many middle class and working Greeks in America who had not visited their homeland for decades.
Nikos Tsakanikas always believed that Greece could be a major tourist destination for Americans. That was one of the main reasons Homeric Tours did something which, back then, was considered a very risky move: He invested in the New York-Athens route, starting with mostly Greek-American clients and expanding, year after year, to non-Greek target groups.
Today, Homeric Tours offers fixed and flexible travel arrangements to a variety of locales, such as Greece, Italy, Egypt, Cyprus, Morocco, Central and Easter Europe, Jordan, Turkey, and Israel. Tsakanikas is also an investor in the San Marco hotel in Mykonos.
The National Herald: Let’s begin with what Homeric Tours is doing today.
Nikos Tsakanikas: In 2019, we are proud to celebrate our 50 years in the U.S. tourism sector, organizing trips of exceptional quality in Greece, Italy, Israel, Egypt, Turkey, Morocco, Portugal, Cyprus, Croatia, and many Central and Eastern European countries. Although our activities have expanded to many countries in Europe, the Middle East, and Africa, Greece remains the favorite destination for us and our customers, whom we serve with pride. Over 50 years not only created a big company but a better company, to serve future generations of Greek Americans and Americans. “WE BELIEVED IN WHAT WE DID”
TNH: What was the situation 50 years ago, regarding the flight connections between Athens and New York?
NT: There is no comparison with today. That era was completely different in all respects. Air travel to Greece was not affordable, not only for the Greek immigrants, but also for American tourists. Actually, it was considered a luxury. The most affordable means to travel to Greece was the boat – and you can imagine what that was like. As a result, there were many Greek-Americans who actually had never visited their homeland, and I had met Greek immigrants who had not been back to Greece for 10, 20, 30 years, maybe more. Can you feel that? Can you put yourself in their place?
TNH: So, how hard was the beginning for you and Homeric Tours?
NT: As far as I remember, when we started, we just had an office and two black phones. Our office was located at 40th Street, in Manhattan. We knew what was happening in the industry. Our goal was to make a flight to Greece affordable for these people. These frequent flights from the USA to Greece would combine a fast journey, affordable prices, and high quality services. In general, Greece was not a top destination in the U.S. market but we knew that its potential was much higher than that.
TNH: What was your initial plan, when you decided to invest in the Athens-New York route?
NT: We made our plans and worked with American companies such as TWA and Pan-American. The results were soon to come. To our great satisfaction, more and more Greeks began to travel to Greece. The next step was to introduce the first Jumbo jet-747 airplane tickets on the market. This was an innovation, a radical change in travel to Greece, since Greeks finally had the opportunity to travel frequently and at a good price, also using family packages.
TNH: Were the Greek-Americans and Greek immigrants your main target groups?
Greeks of the Diaspora were our main target group back in the day, but we believed that we could attract American tourists. So we created the first tourist packages. Besides, what I was saying back then and I repeat now is that Greece is a major tourist destination, and it has an endless potential. All you need is the right promotion. I want to believe that I also contributed to this. The promotion of Greece is something that Homeric Tours is still doing today.
TNH: Were you afraid that this project could fail?
NT: I can’t deny that we too big risks, but that’s because we believed very much in what we did. We love our job passionately. We made the right decisions, we chose the right partners and finally we succeeded. We worked tirelessly and, with the support of the Greek-Americans, we made it.
TNH: When did you move to your current offices?
NT: After a couple of years we relocated to the corner of 48th Street and 5th Avenue. Finally, we moved to our current offices, 55 East 59th Street, in 1991. In addition, we have offices in Astoria, Brooklyn, Stanford, CT, Hicksville in Long Island, and in Athens, at Syntagma Square. Today, Homeric is one of the top 50 travel agencies in America. Also, the new generation of my family is involved. I am talking about my daughters, Nicole and Alexandra.
“WE NEED MORE AMERICAN TOURISTS”
TNH: It has been decades, so many things have changed, but what is the main difference regarding Homeric Tours, compared with the early years?
NT: Back in 1969, we focused on the Greek immigrants. The 90% of the people who traveled with us came from the so-called “national Greek market.” The remaining 10% were Americans. These were tourists who had bought vacation packages with air tickets, hotel accommodation, cruises on the Greek islands, and tours of archaeological sites. Now these numbers have been reversed. The purely American tourists account for 80% of our clientele.
TNH: What about the new generation of Greek-Americans? Could we say that they don’t travel as often as their parents or grandparents, considering the fact that they were not born in Greece and, maybe, they are not as interested?
NT: No, not at all. New generations of Greek-Americans still visit Greece. Many of these customers, who now travel to Greece as adults, used to travel with us, with their parents or grandparents, back in the day. This does not only happen because of the attractiveness of our tourist packages, but also thanks to our excellent customer service. My colleagues and I are proud of this.
TNH: How did the internet explosion and the many online travel agencies affect your company? Now everybody has access to many websites, which sell air tickets and provide similar services.
NT: We have shown significant adaptability to online services and we have developed our website. Customers can visit our site, see our travel packages, and make a reservation just by using a smartphone. If they want to, of course, they can call or come to our office, to discuss further details.
TNH: For example, why should I, as a customer, prefer Homeric Tours over just clicking on the other travel websites?
NT: When you make a reservation with a travel agency like the Homeric Tours, you are talking with real people, who can guide you. With a reservation on a simple website, you don’t have this. Especially if a problem occurs, there will be nobody there to help you find a solution. Also, in addition to the tickets, we also create travel packages. We provide hotel reservations, cruises and attractions. We create bridges between America and Greece. I can clearly state that Homeric Tours has brought more Americans to Greece than any other travel agency in the world. Including major travel agencies.
TNH: What is the message you would like to send to Greek-Americans?
NT: We would like to thank the millions of customers who supported us over these 50 years and have contributed to our success. We promise to keep offering outstanding services to all of our clients. I am and will always be deeply grateful to the Greek Community, who trusted Homeric Tours and me personally. Our base will always remain the Greek community and we never forget that.
TNH: Many people believe Olympic Airlines should have remained active. For many decades, Greece had a national air carrier that connected directly, throughout the whole year, Athens with New York. By 2009, Olympic Airlines actually ceased such operations, when Olympic Air bought the name and changed the logo. It is a different, privately owned airline. Did things become harder for the travel agencies after Olympic’s shutdown?
NT: First of all, the fact that there is no national air carrier in Greece is very bad for the country itself, not just for us the Greeks and Greek-Americans. Olympic Airlines should have remained active. I don’t know any other country, with the numbers of tourists that Greece has, that doesn’t have a national air carrier. The Greek State needed to keep Olympic Airlines open and active. After all, the people who board a plane and travel to a country, also spend money on other goods and services, such as taxis, hotels, cruises, shopping.
TNH: On the other hand, we have multiple direct flights to Athens now. One company, Emirates, is active all year long.
NT: Remember, there was no direct flight between New York and Athens for years. But now we have three or four airlines that travel directly. The problem is that, if something happens and the reservations for Athens drop, they will suspend the route without a second thought. That is why Greece should have a national air carrier.
TNH: As a professional, do you believe that we may, somehow, see a Greek airline operating transatlantic flights to Greece some day?
NT: As it is today, I don’t think that Olympic Air will even think about it. On the other hand, there is Aegean, which I believe should find a way to operate in America, as a Greek airline.
TNH: During the last 10 years, we have seen airlines that operated the route, but suddenly ceased operations or discontinued the flights after a short period of time. How do you protect your clients from these unpleasant situations?
NT: We are very cautious and strict when it comes to choosing the airlines that will cooperate with us. It goes without saying that we study the situation carefully, before we guide our clients to book a ticket with an airline. Beyond that, the problems you mentioned about unreliable companies will always occur in our industry.