“The tall doorman in the green suit” is how most people who work, live or frequently pass through Syntagma Square in downtown Athens know Dimitris Taktikos, even though they don’t know his name. Taktikos has stood at his post in front of the elegant entrance of the Grande Bretagne for the past 35 years. To regular guests at the historic hotel, the doorman is a friend; for most Athenians, he is as integral to the landscape of Syntagma as Parliament, the National Guard and the fountain in the square.
Even sitting across the table from me, his impressive height – 1.93 meters – is impossible to hide. “I’ve become an attraction. Japanese tourists come and ask for selfies and there are even stuffed toys in my image,” he laughs, referring to a souvenir teddy bear dressed in the Grande Bretagne livery at the hotel’s gift shop.
There was a heat wave on the day of our meeting and he was looking at an eight-hour shift on his feet in temperatures approaching 40 degrees Celsius (104 Fahrenheit), yet it was still a good day in his book. “Life has taught me to start my day in a good mood, not to mind whether it’s hot or cold, wet or dry, not to look for a reason to complain. I guess it’s one of my things. Guests and colleagues often comment on how I always have a smile on my face. I wake up in the morning feeling healthy, I come to work smiling. Regardless of whether it’s a hard day or an easy day, I have to be the same, always,” he says.
On an ordinary day, he might open the doors of dozens of limousines, often carrying heads of state or international celebrities, not to mention prominent businesspeople. He commutes to work on the metro from Peristeri, the western Athens suburb where he was born and still lives today. He never went to university but learned English in his 20s so he could travel to Canada in search of work. None of this is worth talking about, though, he says. “My story really began when I decided to apply for a job at this hotel.”
How it all began
Taktikos applied to the Grande Bretagne in 1984 after a stint at the Mont Parnes Casino on Mount Parnitha. “I will never forget my first day at work. I had never set foot in the hotel before, had seen it only from the outside, but everyone in Greece had heard of it. I broke into a cold sweat as soon as I walked into the lobby. I felt this huge weight on my shoulders. I applied though, but waiting for the answer was agony,” he reminisces.
He got a job working in the restaurant and a few months later asked to be considered for the post of doorman after a vacancy appeared. Human resources had had the same idea.
“I didn’t want to be a run-of-the-mill doorman. What is a doorman, when you think of it? He is a person who greets guests. I wanted to make it more than that, something more important. I wanted that position at the front of the hotel to become something bigger,” he says. “It is important that you’re not just a person standing in front of the hotel helping with the luggage, but a friend. This is what I have strived for and I think I’ve succeeded to a degree.”
Needless to say, Taktikos has welcomed hundreds of famous guests over the years. “Names?! Alain Delon, Sophia Loren, Catherine Deneuve, Roger Moore, Sean Connery… oh, and Elizabeth Taylor… What a star! She wasn’t in the best of health when she came, but she was a real star in my book!” In 2007, he welcomed US President Bill Clinton, who was staying at the Grande Bretagne during a visit to Athens. “He could have been an actor. He has that star quality.”
Another one of his favorite stories concerns another famous actor, whose name he will not divulge. “He had gone to Mikrolimano [in Piraeus] for dinner and came back in a taxi. After I opened the door for him and he entered the hotel, I saw that the taxi driver just sat there mumbling something. ‘Is something the matter?’ I asked the driver. ‘Because I told him how happy I was to have him as a ride, he left without paying me,’ the driver told me. I could talk for days about the things I’ve seen, but that’s just the point: I see but I don’t talk,” says Taktikos.
“Anything can go wrong at the door,” says Taktikos. “Syntagma is a tough location. It’s not just the pollution and noise, but sometimes you also have to deal with protest rallies and tear gas.” His temper and reflexes are often put to the test when he finds himself standing between the hotel and trouble on the street, usually related to protest marches in front of Parliament.
One of the moments he remembers most clearly was when a makeshift bomb had been planted in a trash can near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in 2000. “The bomb went off right outside Parliament and a piece of shrapnel flew right past me. We take precautions, of course, and when protests become violent we all go inside and bring down the metal shutters. But I have learned to live with all that.”
Taktikos’ job, and that of his colleagues, is to “look out for our guests, give them information and help them when they need it. My job is to provide solutions.” An off-day is “simply inexcusable,” he says. “You are the first person a guest sees and no one wants to see a scowling face.”
He remembers going on holiday to Rome and being quite unimpressed by his Italian counterpart at the hotel where he stayed. “I watched him. He was never able to give guests the information they asked for. I learn addresses but not because the hotel requires me to know them, but because I want to be able to direct the guests, to tell their driver where they need to go. It’s no trouble. I want our guests to know that I am there for them. I will tell them, for example, to mind their bags when they’re leaving the hotel, so they don’t get robbed. I will tell them how much they need to pay for a taxi ride.”
Thirty-five years on the job has taught Taktikos how to read people’s faces. For example, he knows that if a guest looks at his name tag, they are happy with his services. “It means they want to know your name.”
Speaking about the intimacy that can develop between the doorman and guests, Taktikos insists that there is a red line that “should never be crossed.”
“You will never embrace a guest, for example, but you need to stand close enough so that they can see your eyes and see if you’re being sincere,” he says.
“I could have had thousands of letters from guests that left here happy with their service, but I don’t hold on to them because I know that there will be more guests the next day and that I have to be at my best every single day. What does being the best mean? It certainly doesn’t mean being infallible because that’s simply impossible. It means making as few mistakes as possible,” Taktikos says.
Just a few months ago, Taktikos was ranked by Marriott International among the “best of the best,” receiving the J. Willard Marriott Award of Excellence. Around since 1987, the annual award is bestowed on 10 professionals who have stood out in the hotel sector for their contribution, character, dedication, hard work and perseverance.
“The hotel nominated me and then the answer came, telling me that I was getting the award and had to travel to Washington to accept it. I didn’t think it was such a big deal at first, but then, when I reached the United States, I realized that it was the biggest event of the year for the company,” says Taktikos describing his and his fellow recipients’ arrival at the multinational giant’s headquarters.
“We walked down an aisle flanked by 1,500 executives and employees, who were waving flags and blowing horns, and were welcomed at the end of it by the Marriott family. The big boss was standing out in the rain to welcome us. It is such an amazing recognition of my service,” says Taktikos.
“I’m a very lucky man,” says Taktikos, who is due to retire in two years’ time. “I have a lovely family and a wife who has been a rock through some very bad times – when my son was very ill as a child. I can’t imagine what would have happened if she hadn’t been such a rock. I met her at the hotel – she worked in accounting. We fell in love here, grew closer, got married and had our children.”
He prefers to take his days off midweek instead of at the weekend and likes to spend them at what he calls his “sanctuary,” a quiet summer home near Kamena Vourla, a seaside town in Fthiotida. He hopes to retire there when the time comes.
“That’s where I want to spend the rest of my life after I retire,” he says. “I don’t know how much I’ll miss everything I’ve experienced here after all these years, but I have so much to remember, I will be able to live on the memories.”