NEW YORK – When travelers have great hotel experiences, they may not know the boss’ name, but when they thank the staff that takes good care of them at amazing places like the Atlantis Paradise Island, the latter know the name of President and Managing Director George Markantonis – and he knows theirs.
Earlier this year his peers honored the man who has thrived in the Bahamas and held top positions at Caesar’s Palace in Las Vegas, NV as Caribbean Hotelier of the Year.
“When I was at Caesar’s Palace nice years, I didn’t think anything would happen would keep me interested or occupied,” he told TNH during a New York visit.
When the KerznerFamily asked him to join Atlantis, he was skeptical, but they said “please come and chat with us. “So I flew to the Bahamas, saw this amazing Atlantis and I said ‘you know, this is different.’”
First, however, he continued career-long pattern of taking on important assignments that though not attractive, serve to catapult talented people higher.
The Kerzners wanted him to open an Atlantis in Dubai. “The last thing I had in mind was running off to the Middle East after 9/11 with two sons so I said ‘no thank you.’”
They again asked him just to fly there for a weekend with his wife, Sarah. After a day, the couple said “this is the next adventure.”
After a year, Markantonis was asked to “Las Vegasize” the resort, which had a family orientation. He added nightclubs with acts he used at Caesars, celebrity chef restaurants, and all-adult swimming pools.
Regarding his own recruiting philosophy, he said “we have strict values. We look for passionate, energetic, enthusiastic people,” but good character is also important.
He also looks for people who don’t think they should be in hotels – like himself.
“I was going to be a lawyer. I worked at a hotel when I needed a six month job before school started.”
He began by checking in people at the front desk. “I liked interacting with people, but I also had a sense of responsibility to make sure they had a great time…It became a mission and from the way my supervisors were responding I saw they wanted me to stay.”
But he felt he let his family down. In a twist on the Greek Diaspora experience, he was the only one in his family who did not go to college.
He explained to his father he had to stay because they were going to promote him. “Promote you to what? You have been there five months. You’re nineteen.”
He responded, “Assistant Night Manager,” at the 700 room Westin in Johannesburg, South Africa. He had fun, too. “All the strangest things use to happen on that shift.
He continued to be promoted but was surprised when they sent him to manage a restaurant to broaden his experience. “I can’t even make a sandwich,” he told them, but his success led to becoming the hotel’s Deputy Manager at 25.
When he was offered Director of Conference and Convention Services in Dallas, TX he thanked them, but said “I don’t even know what that is.” They said “You don’t need to. You know rooms, you know food. Conference services need both.”
By then he had learned his lesson. After Dallas, he was eager to handle major problems in El Paso and Toronto Canada, and was promoted to director of operations at two Westins in Houston.
“Always say yes because you get rewarded,” he says to young professionals.
But his biggest reward was meeting Sarah.
“My wife is Jamerican – father’s Jamaican, mother’s American.” She was raised in Jamaica and he was raised in Zimbabwe. They met when she worked at the Westin.
Their two sons, Minas (17) and Michael (14) were born in Las Vegas and next month the couple celebrate their 20th anniversary.
They postponed their honeymoon for a year, and when Markantonis was first offered the Caesar’s job he said “I’m going on our honeymoon” and told TNH “It was wonderful – Skiathos, Santorini, Mykonos…I introduced my wife to the homeland.”
When he returned, Caesars Palace was still waiting, and when he visited he fell in love with the mystique and the history.
He was promoted six times during four hostile takeovers. “In Las Vegas it’s automatic – they cut all the key people. I must duck well because I was the only one to survive.”
He added, “In every role, you have to work hard and have passion, but you have to have luck.”
He has also had many mentors, but he said of his parents “they are my absolute heroes and role models. I have spoken them every day for the last 30 years.”
His father is a retired senior manager with Price Waterhouse and from him he learned “to do the right thing, what they expect you to do even when they are not looking. You need a conscience. I need to be able to sit in front of mom and dad and tell them what I did and not have them say ‘a son of mine did that?’”
He also values his Greek connections, including “my annual shot of Greece,” and the Orthodox Church – he is involved in the Greek Orthodox Church in the Bahamas, and supports Holy Cross Seminary in Brookline, MA.
There are 359 Greek families in the Bahamas. “Most are from Kalymnos and the Greek flag flies all over – they are the largest ethnic group there. The hotel sponsors the annual Greek Festival and the biennial Hellenic Ball and he hopes to install a Greek restaurant in Atlantis.
Markantonis closely follows the Greek tourism industry. He said it helped make Greece come out of its depression faster than most people expected but believes it has a huge potential.
“There has been some really impressive stuff done in hotel chain upgrades in the past two year…but they need have higher end hotels, but they are making great progress,” he said.