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In this issue of The Faster Track we begin a new series about entrepreneurs whose love of travel inspired them to launch their own hospitality business. To kick off, we meet the engineer-turned-hotelier behind the Aristi Mountain Resort in northern Greece
The Zagori is a mountainous region two hours’ drive from Thessaloniki. In the days of the Ottoman empire it was a thriving trade route: the wealth created in those days left a legacy of handsome villas, monasteries and – the signature of the region – remarkable stone arched bridges.
The 20th century was a cruel time for the region as it struggled through war, poverty and depopulation. But in the past decades, its fortunes have revived as a new breed of adventurous, active traveller has rediscovered its sublime and traffic-free meadows, riverscapes and gorges.
But the Zagori needed a top class resort and someone with the passion to build one. It found such a man in Vasilis Iosifidis, a civil engineer who founded the Hydromanagement company in Thessaloniki.
What attracted you to the Zagori?
In 1999, after repeatedly visiting the region and hiking its countless beautiful trails, I searched for the perfect place that would be my village. And that village was Aristi.
The place where I chose to build my house had a breathtaking view of the Vikos Gorges’s eastern wall. At that time there was only one guesthouse in the whole village. I felt the beauty of this place needed to be shared: so I took the decision to build a hotel.
How tough was it starting a new venture in a new industry in your fifties?
It took nearly three years to design and construct the resort with my good friend and architect Thomas Tsatsopoulos. It was maybe the most productive period of my life. It was as if we were starting our professional life from the beginning. We felt like young professionals taking on their first project. Almost everything was a new experience: the materials, the construction rules, even the communication with the workers.
What advice would you give to your fellow CEOs/owners thinking about going into hospitality?
Owners who come from a non-hotelier background must have a vision, a strong emotional motive and most definitely the guts and the nerves to cope with such a challenge. If you haven’t got all of the above it would be better to keep away. And, of course, they have to have in mind that financially speaking this is not the best possible move: it is not an investment that offers healthy short-term yields.
Describe your feelings when the resort opened its doors for the first time...
It might sound funny but, although I invested a lot of energy during the construction and I oversaw every minor detail, when that first day of opening came I wanted to run away.
I realised I was not the type of person that could become a host. Yes, although I wanted to offer a very special space that projected all I have dreamt about hospitality, at the same time I knew that someone else had to be in the frontline. My role had to be supportive.
The challenges are many: you have to recruit the right staff and find solutions to the many technical problems you encounter in a remote area such as ours. It requires strong nerves, vigilance and imagination while dealing with justifiably – or even unjustifiably – disgruntled guests. One needs the expertise of a psychologist in order to operate such a business effectively.
Aristi Mountain Resort & Villas, Greece has been nominated for World’s Leading Eco-Lodge 2017 in the 24th annual World Travel Awards