ANTONIO ANDROUTSOS

Panama 2020 | ECONOMY | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Antonio Androutsos, Retail Entrepreneur, Panama, on the gastronomy sector, the effects of the pandemic on the hospitality industry, and medium-term growth.

As a successful entrepreneur, how would you characterize the country's environment for fostering entrepreneurship, whether in the gastronomy sector or otherwise?

Panama is a country that, due to its history, idiosyncrasy and global outlook, has created over time the environment, propitious framework, and strategies to promote the entrepreneurship of multiple industries such as gastronomy, technology and telecommunications, logistics and transportation services, finance, tourism, and many others. That was exactly what I found in Panama upon my return. I was able to witness first-hand the formation of thousands of MSMEs and their growth, becoming the engine of the country's economy. The ease of settling into the country and the multiple benefits are one of the main attractions that make Panama an ideal place for the development and innovation of entrepreneurship.

What are the main challenges that must be overcome to encourage more entrepreneurship in the country?

Entrepreneurship poses multiple challenges that are addressed in the country every day such as promoting the formalization of enterprises, access to flexible credit, simplifying the procedures needed to establish a new company, reducing the tax burden for entrepreneurial projects, constant training and, above all, the identification and appreciation of entrepreneurs as managers of high-impact changes in the economy. These are key aspects that are being implemented, leading Panama to be much more competitive and a global benchmark.

What long-term impact do you see the COVID-19 pandemic having on Panama's hospitality sector?

The hospitality sector is a key sector in the country. The development of the hotel industry added to tourism and the promotion of gastronomy as a country brand and distinctive seal are key, and COVID-19 has put many of the projects on hold; however, Panama has visionary, hardworking people who know how to roll up their sleeves to get ahead. In the long term, COVID-19 will have a positive impact on the hospitality sector in terms of the development of important aspects such as improvement in customer service, the development of disruptive and highly creative ventures, the reformulation of projects aimed at putting the customer at the center of any idea (“customer centric"), and leveraging innovation and digitization to be more efficient and profitable.

What is the most effective way for Panama's government to support the country's private sector—in particular, the hospitality sector—during the pandemic and recovery period?

The hospitality sector was one of the worst hit sectors in Panama during the pandemic and support for it is key in terms of reactivating the economy. This industry generates thousands of jobs and sources of incomes. The government is promoting some measures for the sector and will continue to create mechanisms for its prompt recovery. In any case, the current situation means the most relevant actors of hospitality in Panama such as gastronomy, tourism, and hotels will work together and strengthen itself when creating a national strategy to export concepts that position our country as the “destination and the experience that you cannot miss" and not as one more “alternative" to many others. For this, the government must maintain a clear strategy and understand hospitality as one of the main axes for the economic recovery that we long for.

What are your plans for Suvlas for the remainder of 2020 and 2021?

For now, the main plans between now and the end of the year with Suvlas are to achieve the opening of all the branches and franchises that were affected by COVID-19 as well as the incorporation of collaborators. Likewise, we must adapt to the new reality and become more efficient, at the same time seeking to optimize the “food cost" of the entire operation. Additionally, we are preparing for the international expansion stage for the remainder of 2020 and during 2021, seeking to take Suvlas to international markets and thereby share to the world what we are capable of creating in Panama. However, these are not our only plans. From Meze, a site that represents the gastronomic culture of Greece in Panama and an enterprise that I have led for more than a year and a half, we have plans for the remainder of 2020 and during 2021 to continue sharing our passion and transmitting a unique experience. Likewise, as part of something positive and a product of the COVID-19 pandemic, I began venturing into the development of a differentiating concept of specialty coffee, which is completely new at the regional level and which I hope to promote a before and after in the industry.

What is your general outlook for the economy in the short to medium term?

In the short term, the Panamanian economy faces a complex but not discouraging situation. Due to its strategic geographical position and its role in the world trade concert, Panama can once again generate interesting levels of growth in the medium term. It is not an easy task, but it is possible if we all contribute on our end. Entrepreneurship will be key in all this, and we are all prepared and believe that success can be achieved. We must continue to be what we are: “Panama, the bridge of the world, heart of the universe."