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Mark Willis, Chief executive Officer, Middle east & Africa, Accor
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Mark Willis, Accor’s recently appointed Chief Executive Officer of EMEA, talks to SPACE’s Can Faik about the future of the Accor brand…

Accor is a world-leading augmented hospitality group offering unique and meaningful experiences in almost 4,800 hotels, resorts, and residences across 100 countries. With an unrivalled portfolio of brands from luxury to economy, Accor has been providing hospitality savoir-faire for more than 50 years.

What was your background in hospitality prior to working for Accor?

I worked in kitchens in London in the 1980s, a time when the Roux Brothers couldn’t be beat and sous chefs like Gordon Ramsay rose through their ranks. Kitchens were not a very friendly place at the time, but for some reason I fit in perfectly. I worked alongside two German female cooks for a while, and I distinctly remember they could each cook me under the table. It was a difficult time, but I loved every minute of it. That’s where I gained my sense of discipline, and learned the importance of getting the right people on board. It’s easy to get lost in the intricacies of hospitality. But at the end of the day, we’re in the business of making people smile.

Where are you based?

Dubai, United Arab Emirates

What does your current position involve?

To put it simply, it is to take Accor in the Middle East and Africa to the next level by driving growth and financial performance, positioning our brands and focusing on what matters most – our people and our guests.

What do you enjoy most about your role?

No two days are ever the same. I know that sounds cliché but in our industry, in our region and with a group like Accor this is very much true.

What are the complexities of meeting the demands of shareholders, fulfilling the growth of your management team and delivering the brand’s values to the guests?

As you pointed out there are complexities and a lot of moving parts involved. Everything from the over 30 brands that are part of our group’s ecosystem, to ‘Augmented Hospitality’, the broader range of services from bespoke concierge service to the ability to browse luxury private villa options and more. This combined with the fact that I am building a management team at the regional level, fully immersing Africa into our operations as well as Mövenpick (acquired in September 2018) and heading up the integration of the South African based Mantis Group (we acquired a 50% stake in April 2018).

But it all comes down to our guests, our people and our valued partners. While we have the scale and the platform for growth and development, to the extent that Accor has been called a ‘serial acquirer’, we also have the scalability, focus and the transparency in communications to work with our partners, in order to drive performance and drive guest satisfaction.

What does Accor have to do to stay one step ahead of its competition?

I believe the answer isn’t really about staying ahead of the competition but what gives Accor an enduring quality. Being part of a group with more than 4,000 hotels from more than 30 different distinct brands can be difficult. Yet I’m a firm believer in the simplicity of what we do: every guest, whether they’re paying $50/night or $400/night, expect good value for their money. It’s our job to provide them that value.

That’s why we have brand custodians who vigilantly protect each brand and ensure it’s giving guests exactly what they expect. We closely monitor technical specifications like room size, furnishings, and design to provide a reliably positive guest experience. Most importantly, though, good guest experiences come from the little things, the housekeeper that smiles and says “hello” as you walk back to your room. Those moments are what Accor is all about and that’s what gives our group an enduring and unwavering quality.

With a number of new Accor hotels opening across the world over the next few years, which one in particular are you most excited about?

Accor opens one hotel every 33 hours so, as you can image, there are just too many to name. Raffles London is worth mentioning here. The project, which was announced in 2017 and will open in a few years is steeped in history; its location is the Old War Office, home to the UK’s most important and influential leaders of the twentieth century, including Sir Winston Churchill.

In the Middle East and Africa, quite a number of openings come to mind, including the first 25Hours Hotel, outside of Europe, opening in Dubai in 2020 with an eclectic design and a great rooftop; Sofitel Wafi, another first as the largest Sofitel brand in the region, complete with SoSpa, and close proximity to upscale retail with Wafi Mall. In Africa, Fairmont Rabat Sale and Fairmont Taghazout, located in the capital city of Rabat and Agadir, respectively, will open in 2020 and further demonstrate our group’s ability to deliver branded residences to this thriving market. The list goes on and all are the most interesting from a design and construction perspective.

What is your plan for Accor in the Middle East and Africa?

With our acquisition of Mövenpick in September 2018 – which coincided with my announcement as Chief Executive Officer for Accor Middle East & Africa – Accor became the largest operator in the region, with over 260 hotels in 36 countries and another 100 hotels in the immediate pipeline. Yet our overarching task remained: how do we bring together such diverse operations, commercial activity, talent, culture, and other vital support functions under a single umbrella?

For me, it’s best answered by remembering that at its core, hospitality is about making people smile. Once that ethos is truly ingrained into an organisation, it trickles down to the hotels, the staff and the guests. Successful integration requires a clear operational structure that recognises and values new skill sets and expertise. It’s how you turn a corporate office into an effective support office.

Another area where I am putting a lot of effort around is how we attract, develop and retain top talent in such a competitive, dynamic industry. With new hotels opening across the Middle East and Africa almost every week, employees have no shortage of choice when it comes to both where and how they work.

It’s why we’ve placed so much focus on putting the guest at the heart of everything we do, recognising behaviour that demonstrates trust, respect, innovation, sustainable performance, and passion for our guests. As a vehicle for delivering our expertise to 25,000+ colleagues in our region, our training ‘Academie’ offers co-designed programs, virtual and digital platforms for interactive engagement, and a more blended approach with the introduction of mobile learning.

Have you noticed any particular trends in hotel interior design?

One of the enduring trends that we are seeing in our industry where Accor is setting the pace is laidback luxury. A luxury hotel experience is no longer seen as being austere and rigid. There is a shift in the meaning and promise of a luxury hotel and one of those traits that Accor has correctly pointed out is laidback luxury and laidback living. The focus around this trend is to create a ‘home away from home’ feeling, especially around the guestroom experience.

Our brands in the luxury space from Raffles, Fairmont to Sofitel and So/ clearly demonstrate within the outline of their brand promise i.e. French ‘art de vivre’ for Sofitel, which also finds expression in the design; edgy and provocative So/ and an emphasis on wellbeing with Swissotel i.e. dedicated wellness rooms.

How important do you feel hotel design has become when launching a new hotel?

It is very important. Our guests today are by and far well travelled and this combined with the endless flow of information, makes them very well informed and very assertive in their travel choices. My Design & Technical Services team is tasked to really get behind the psychological and emotional aspects of the travel experience and ask the question – ‘how does a guest want to feel’ at a hotel. We also need to take into consideration the environment that we operate in and cultural sensitivities as well. For example, if I were to design a lobby in Europe, what would come to mind is an open space, communal areas and décor whereas in the Middle East, I would design a lobby that balanced openness combined with separate seating areas to ensure guest privacy.

One of the benefits of Accor is the wide range of brands from economy, midscale to lifestyle and luxury and our guests can benefit from distinct designs and atmospheres based on what they want to experience.

During your time as a hotelier, you’ve no doubt seen quite a few trends come and go. Are there any that you have been reluctant to embrace in your properties, and if so why?

If I can answer this question with a trend that I believe has longevity instead is lobby design. Today and more than ever moving forward the traditional lobby looks a lot less ‘traditional’ than ever before. While relaxation and cosiness are fitting moods to create, it goes beyond that to a communal space. This is also an example where working with F&B and IT from the onset is key, as it informs the overall design of the lobby. With F&B, we look at where a lobby café/ lounge is located and how it fits in with the guest journey as he or she enters the hotel. This could translate into the coffee/tea area adjacent to check-in to ensure functionality i.e. guests enjoying a cup of coffee as they go through the check-in process.

An example of this is what Accor has just introduced at the end of January with the revitalisation of the ibis brand, including flexible public area layouts and the removal of traditional check-in desks to allow for great human interaction and connection.

Let’s finish with the issue of work-life balance. How do you aim to achieve a good balance and what do those closest to you think of your attempts?

My balance has always been my family and especially my wife and best friend Jeanette, who is very famous in our household.

I also engage in my personal passions as much as I can. Most people know I love mountains and to climb, but they are probably unaware that I’m petrified of heights. I’m also a keen photographer and have my own Instagram handle: @Mark_hotelier

You’re overseeing a highly diverse region in the Middle East and Africa. How do you think about diversity and gender equality within Accor?

I don’t agree with the whole ‘male fraternity’ thing that often develops in big companies. Four years ago, I employed the first female GM in Saudi Arabia, and we’re up to many more there now. I’m doing the same today wherever women are still underrepresented. Accor is an extremely agile, dynamic organisation, which means we’re able to move fast in these areas.

Accor launched its renewed commitment to diversity and inclusion last October with RiiSE, the two ‘ii’s’ representing both women and men. You can be good at what you do, and you can work hard, but we all need some help along the way.

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