Argyropoulos was used to the vagaries of the luxury cruise business that had made him his fortune. Born in Athens, in 1962, the son of an engineer, Argyropoulos spent his life working in the luxury cruise business, including a spell in New York.
In 1991, came an assignment that was to change his life. The Greek cruise line employing Argyropoulos sent him to South Africa in search of new business. It proved an eye-opener for Argyropoulos and he saw a South Africa on the cusp of freedom where the shackles of uncertainty and sanctions were about to be cast aside. The country was about to be a booming emerging market full of people with money to spend, who wanted cruises, but didn’t know where to buy them.
Argyropoulos smelt cash and within a year had told his employers, politely, that he was setting up on his own. From a desk and a telephone in the corner of a Johannesburg office, Cruises International was born. His nose for business didn’t let him down and more than 20 years later he employs 20 people and turns over more than $17 million by sending Africans around the world on the finest ships.
On April 17, 2010, Argyropoulos had every reason to be pleased with himself. Business was bearing up, despite the recession, and he had just packed off 60 employees of a big South African pharmaceutical company on a dream cruise to Croatia and the Greek Islands—a break on the blue Mediterranean, in the gentle spring sunshine. It was even more pleasing for Argyropoulos that this cruise was a reward for people, like himself, who had beaten the recession by exceeding their targets. The tour group was to fly from Johannesburg to Istanbul, in Turkey, then on to Venice for a few days of cruising in the sun to the clink of ice over cocktails in frosted glasses. Even the name of the ship sounded promising: Splendor of the Seas.
Over this happiness loomed a dark, swirling, ash cloud.
Argyropoulos was sipping coffee quietly in the Johannesburg suburbs and making plans for the weekend when the telephone rang.
“Turkish airlines can’t land in Venice because of the ash cloud,” said the tour operator bluntly from Istanbul.
“We are now hiring a bus to drive through to Venice.”
This was a journey-and-a-half to Italy, via the Balkans, that would take 20 hours.
“At that moment I was quite calm, until I heard it was going to take 20 hours.”
Argyropoulos worked it out that by the time the group drove into Venice the cruise ship would have left. He phoned the group and told them to head for Dubrovnik, in Croatia, instead so they could meet the ship on Sunday night. That was that, he thought.
Then, at the crack of dawn on Sunday morning, Argyropoulos woke, with a start, and unable to sleep, went check his e-mails. To his horror, he saw that the Splendor of the Seas wasn’t going to Dubrovnik, the very place he had directed the unlucky 60 from Johannesburg. It turned out the cruise ship had waited in Venice for its missing passengers and ironically was going to skip Dubrovnik to make up time.
“So after 11 hours on a plane and 20 hours on a bus, with a driver who doesn’t speak English, they were going to miss the boat anyway. I had to inform the tour leader,” he replied, with something that you would find very difficult to print in this article.
“Now, this was a cruise that was supposed to be a thank you for working hard throughout the year. Now, here you had people [who had done] more than 30 hours of travelling, who were sweaty, dirty and uncomfortable, upset, anxious and angry.”
The only course of action was to send the bus back the way it came. The next chance of catching the Splendor of the Seas was in Corfu.
“I contacted my port agent in Dubrovnik on ways to get them to Corfu. I explored the option of chartering a flight and quite quickly this became impossible as they wanted letters of credit needed to hire an aircraft. With the ash cloud there weren’t many planes. The second option, was to charter a ship to sail to Corfu, which is about 12 hours. They would have made it, but we couldn’t find a ship.”
There was nothing for it. The bus had to go back the way it came towards Corfu. Argyropoulos had organized a hotel for the tourists and they were feeling a bit better. Even so, the tour operator waited until everyone was settled on the bus, before he informed them of the grueling journey ahead. It was to be a journey through Montenegro to Albania, then on to Greece and by ferry to Corfu—a trip of more than 11 hours. That was the plan before another setback struck. The bus driver said he had reached his driving limit, stipulated by law, and had to take a rest. The tour operator tried to find a new driver and bus, but, as it was a Sunday, this was impossible. It was decided to wait for the driver to rest, meaning another delay.
While they were waiting, panic went through the 60-strong group over whether everyone had a valid visa for the trip. Luckily, everyone had a Schengen visa in their passport.
“At the very least this was a dim light at the end of the tunnel,” says Argyropoulos.
“They left Dubrovnik at 5pm on the Sunday and at 10pm I had my last communication from the tour leader and she said the roads were very winding and narrow. It was raining, so the speed was about 40 kilometers an hour. Then at 6am on Monday, we tried to get in touch with the bus, unfortunately there was no cellphone reception. Eventually, at 8am in Johannesburg, I had an SMS to say they had crossed the border into Skopje in Macedonia and they would need another eight hours to reach Igoumenitsa to catch the ferry to Corfu.”
“I then calculated their estimated time of arrival in Corfu, which at best would have been five in the afternoon, which again would have been too late because the ship would have left Corfu by then. The ship couldn’t wait because of the cost of port fees, keeping up with schedule and available berths at the docks. I didn’t want to alarm the clients on the bus any further, so I allowed them to reach the border with Greece and once they were through the border I spoke to the people on the bus again and informed them of the situation.”
The tired and frustrated travelers took the bad news with remarkable aplomb.
“At that point, I was informed that the group didn’t want to chase the ship any further and wanted to enjoy the rest of the time in northern Greece. I gave some time to allow them to come to terms with the idea, then I called back and told them they had five days left, so it didn’t make financial sense to stay in northern Greece, where there wasn’t much to do, so I advised them to meet the ship in the next port of call in Santorini,” says Argyropoulos.
They drove to Thessaloniki, in northern Greece, where Argyropoulos had booked them flights on to Athens, luckily Greece had not been affected by the ash cloud. The group spent the night in a hotel at the airport in Athens and next day flew on to Santorini where—finally— they caught up with the Splendor of the Seas. There were four days left and they settled onto the cruise liner for a trip to Venice via Dubrovnik.
“Once they were on the ship they were totally spoiled and the crew went out of their way to do everything from cocktail parties to free laundry. They had a very, very, good time on board ship,” says Argyropoulos.
By the time the cruise ship arrived in Venice the ash cloud was gone and all flew back to Johannesburg.
“The feedback that we got once the group was back was that they understood the situation and as much as it was unpleasant they knew that everyone had tried their best to reunite them with the ship. We had done everything humanly possible.”
The cruise liner gave the group a complete refund for the days missed.
“Earlier this year they contacted to go another cruise!” smiles Argyropoulos.