CRETE – When the Ecumenical Patriarch called for a Holy and Great Council in the 21st century, inviting hierarchs from all over the world, shepherding the end of a 100-year process and securing the space was not enough. Virtually all the hierarchs had laptops and cell phones and, while the Holy Spirit was the force that brought together the Holy and Great Council hierarchs, an IT infrastructure was needed to get them connected.
Theo Nicolakis, chief information officer of the Archdiocese, explained that the infrastructure had to be built from scratch. The men and women of the Information Technology Department team toiled for months to give the hundreds of participants a trouble–free experience with their own devices and the facilities and tools of the HGC. The Council’s work simply could not be disrupted–there was a strict deadline for debate, revision, and approval of the six major documents it would produce – and the international media was watching. The watchwords were “redundancy, redundancy, and redundancy” to protect against mechanical failure, failure due to heat, and unforeseen failures. In other words, failure was not an option. “We had to make it fault tolerant and redundant, which is unheard of here, but is typical for the corporate environment in the U.S.,” said Nicolakis.
The only technical analog to what they accomplished in Greece is the 2004 Olympics, but an additional challenge was there was no recent experience upon which to base planning. “It’s the first time something like this had happened in 1,200 years and we had to think through how the council was going to operate – how translations would work, how the documents being worked on would be shared and show on screen in the auditorium in real time. On top of that, print copies of the documents had to be provided to every member of the Council in 10 minutes,” Nikolakis said.
The Department of Internet Ministries provided seasoned professionals to run websites for the Ecumenical Patriarchate, the HGC, and a separate website for servicing the media. They also set up, but did not manage the content of, the Ecumenical Patriarchate’s press office – three of the sites were brand new. They also broadcast live the opening and closing sessions and the press conferences, taking the feed from GOTelecom staff led by Nick Furris. A separate segment of the network was devoted to that. “We knew we had an impossible scenario. We had about 60 days to have an internet connection that didn’t exist, and everyone we spoke to said it couldn’t be done,” but Nikolakis’ people were undaunted.
Choosing the right strategic partners was critical. “You are on an island in the Mediterranean and there is zero infrastructure,” he said, adding that after examining everyone who had cables coming into Crete, they realized the only provider who could do the job was OTE. “We approached the office of the CEO, and OTE as an organization embraced the technical challenge, but they also understood the magnitude of the event.”
The other key partner was the Greek IT firm Pro4ia, led by its CEO, Sergio Deligiannis, which helped with network design and security and provided a help desk to support hierarchs, staff, and press. Deligiannis made his initial site visit in March to see what was in place and what needed to be built - from scratch: new high capacity internet connection, firewalls, network equipment, and the wiring and wi-fi interconnecting everything. They worked with highly motivated Academy staff and electricians to rewire the whole place, and for the work to be done quickly and to the highest standards. The analysis included a virtual simulation of the physical environment and heat maps that take into account both the building materials and locations that effect wireless signals and the numbers of potential users. It also told them where coverage begins and ends. According to Nicolakis, “this is one of the best designed networks in Greece.”
IT’S ALL ABOUT THE TEAM
“OTE told us from the start it would be very difficult, but we will do everything we can to meet your requirements,” Nikolakis said, adding “We had several meetings with them, and they came back with a solution that exactly met what we needed.” OTE had to dig a 1.6 kilometer trench for a cable from OTE facilities in Chania to the Orthodox Academy of Crete, the HGC’s site on the island’s far west coast, with a capacity of 1,000 megabits per second. That was backed up by a second wireless link to Heraklion – delivered ahead of schedule. OTE also put in entire protective layer to fight against hacking and intrusions, in addition to the HGC’s own security layer.
Many parts of the Academy had no data wiring, but its staff helped coordinate new installation. To accommodate the access points, wiring had to be run throughout two buildings and large courtyard areas, but they also had to build flexibility into the system because it was impossible to know exactly how everything would work at the unique event. “Even this morning, needs and requirements changed contrary to what we he first told,” Nikolakis said, and if we hadn’t built the framework we did, we would not have been able to adapt.” He noted, “There were 17 different wireless networks across this campus; each room had a different network, but we needed the same network everywhere so people did not continually need to re-log on, connecting the whole campus seamlessly. You can go from the monastery to these buildings to the beach – without disconnecting.”
The peak by midweek was “780 concurrent users-devices connecting to the network without anyone missing a beat. We could also scale up. If an additional 500 media people showed up, they could have been easily accommodated,” he said. Among the measures of success was the 15.5 gigabytes of audio, video, and photos from all the official photographers and other digital assets for the opening session which had to be delivered to the world. Andy Constantinou, the internet ministry’s graphic designer, could send in 30 minutes what in Jerusalem for the meeting of Ecumenical Patriarch Barthol- mew and Pope Francis would have taken about four hours.
Logistical Support Vital
The substance of the Holy and Great Council (HGC) were the discussions among the hierarchs of the Orthodox Church, but that monumental spiritual event, the likes of which had not been seen in 1,200 years, had a material dimension that had to be addressed: 21st century infrastructure had to be implemented, dozens of staffers organized, and hundreds of participants housed and transported – while the media was watching. From the start it was understood that the organizing committee tasked by Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew and chaired by Metropolitan Emmanuel of France and the people they recruited had to be top notch. The leadership came from the United States with the blessing of Archbishop Demetrios. With Michael Karloutsos as executive director and Andrew Veniopoulos, deputy executive director, the committee began to forward in January 2016 and the team crossed the late June finish line as winners.
“Michael and I thought carefully about staffing. In the past we had a core group of three or four people but this required a bigger team,” Veniopoulos said. They had to plan for up to 1,200 people, who had to be distributed among 20 different hotels because Crete would be in high tourist season. Motorcades were needed for 14 delegations passing with high security though narrow streets four times a day. The physical requirements were immense, but they were blessed with excellent partners. “The hotel operators went above and beyond. Our committee was responsible directly for six hotels and 240 rooms,” and while most churches made their own arrangements, some asked the committee to help them Veniopoulos said. “You are planning for every scenario – what if this group stays late, what if another wants to skip a session he said, and they basically built their own transportation system of busses and shuttles. They were also responsible for everyone’s luggage – the nightmare scenarios there are easy to imagine. “And we didn’t lose a single person or piece of luggage,” he said. “Everything was about planning and it pretty much took over our lives. After the logistics and budgeting there were other crucial considerations – like Church protocol and proper interaction with the primates."
"Maria Laladaki, who works for GS Travel in Greece, was a godsend,” said Veniopoulos. She did as much of everything as she could from little things like ordering flags and office supplies to taking care of hotels and travel within Greece and procuring vehicles. Laladakis and her team organized more than 100 cars along with Nick Spanos, the motorcade director. “We set up a system he executed perfectly,” Veniopoulos said. Also highly visible were the 24 seminarians from HCHC actively participated in and actively contributed to the various activities of the Council through the entire week–long event.
Michael and I sat down and worked out a schedule and system that ended up working very well. “Even people who had seen us succeed in the past couldn’t believe it – because it was seamless.” Audiovisual expertise was provided by Nicholas Petrakis of Podimatas Audiovisual, and Veniopoulos said “Angela Karageorgou, press officer for the HGC, Theo Nikolakis’ IT team “and Nick Furris, producer and director of GOTelecom made us all look good on TV and the internet.” Working with local vendors, Furris was producer/director for the live liturgies, opening and closing sessions, the Mikis Theodorakis concert, Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew’s daily messages with Fr. John Chrysavgis, and the daily press briefings. Karageorgou worked with the international press. “Michael met her a year ago. She worked for Antenna TV and other news agencies but she was also former Greek Prime Minister Andonis Samaras’ press director,” said Veniopoulos, who said “She did a wonderful job...they all did, and God bless them.”
Karageorgou was equally impressed with her colleagues. “It was with great pleasure and privilege to have witnessed and worked for the HGC as the press officer. Our team consisted of volunteers, members of the clergy and the laity. Experienced journalists, students as well as interpreters worked day and night to support media representatives from all over the world who covered this milestone for the Orthodox Church.” Karageorgou noted that “We experienced a lot of challenging moments, but Fr. Alexander Karloutsos, protopresbyter of the Ecumencial Patriarchate, supported us every single step of the way and advised us with kindness. Michael Karloutsos guided and empowered us for months; he comprehended our needs and put into practice unity and hope within our team.”
Archon Alexander Pristos played a critical role on the advance team and he was in a sense the face of the whole operation as he was posted at the entrance to the auditorium throughout the Council. Veniopoulos knew Pritsos was the ideal person to be there because his personal relationships and knowledge of Church protocol helped in the interaction with the hierarchs. “He understood what needed to be done. The perfect combination of seriousness and courtesy. It was especially important for him to be at the airport. I didn’t have to worry about a thing,” said Veniopoulos, but he added that “the most magnificent of all the things he did, and it was exhausting in that 100–degree heat, was teach the team of young stewards from America. They were all new to this and he was a great coach and those guys.”
Veniopoulos, who is one of the point men in the construction of the St. Nicholas National Greek Orthodox Shrine at Ground zero, was first recruited for important projects in 1997 by Fr. Karloutsos. His career includes working at MetLife, political endeavors, and helping run the family import business. His father’s roots are near Sparta and his mother is from Piraeus. In 1997 he was asked to help with the Patriarch Batholomew’s 18-city US tour. ”It was his first trip here and I worked directly with Fr. Alexander and Michael Karloutsos, Alex Pritsos and Lee Gounardes, who until about 2009 was responsible for the organization of such trips for the Archdiocese and had served as New York state director for Paul Tsongas’ Presidential campaign.” His nephew, Andrew Gounardes, is currently counsel to Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “Lee and Fr. Alex taught me and Michael all we know about logistics,” he said with deep appreciation. Told the mark of their success at the HGC, like that of the IT team, is that people barely noticed they were there, Veniopoulos replied, “You’re absolutely right,” adding that “As long as we had good communication with all the Churches and among themselves, everything worked out well.”