Exclusive Interview with Jean-Michel Cassé, COO – India & South Asia, Accor

Jean-Michel Cassé, COO – India & South Asia, Accor, has spent the last decade establishing the global hospitality brand in India, creating new segments, transforming and adapting the group’s well-established formats. He speaks about the challenges and opportunities offered by the Indian market, as well as the learnings

Jean-Michel Cassé, Accor, Hotelier India exclusive interview, Hotel news

The journey, from exploring new markets to preparing to open up after a rather tough COVID-19 induced lockdown, has been full of adventure, new learning and discovery for Jean-Michel Cassé. In conversation with Hotelier India, he speaks about the challenges, transformations and learnings.

What has your journey been like as a hotelier in India?
I have been associated with Accor and the hospitality industry in the region for more than a decade. This journey, with the support of partners and colleagues, has been a tremendous one. From just one hotel in Hyderabad to now more than 50 hotels, I have seen the group progress at every step.

In my tenure, we have launched more than 50 hotels in the region. Every one of these properties is unique and with individual memories attached. Our current portfolio is a healthy mix of diverse quality brands that also enjoy the benefit of great locations.

When we entered the market, the majority of hotels were either super luxury or non-branded, with a limited presence of internationally branded hotels. As Accor, we presented different brands across various segments for every kind of customer and helped bridge that gap in the market by creating demand, starting with our midscale and economy brands.

Our first hotel complex, with one of Asia’s largest convention centres at the time, the Novotel Hyderabad
Convention Centre, came at a time when no one was talking about hotels focused on MICE. Also, our first ibis hotel in Gurgaon opened doors to the branded economy segment, hitherto unexplored. We were offering an international brand at affordable rates when both branded and non-branded properties were offering steep prices.

With full autonomy and support from our head offices in Paris and Singapore to grow our network in the region, we established a team of highly engaged and talented executives to explore all possible opportunities, work with our partners, and developed brand-defining products at all key locations.

Since the beginning, we have had our various departments such as HR, design and technical services team, development, sales & marketing and other teams integrated to transform Accor into a successful brand. This early-stage environment offered me a wonderful entrepreneurial opportunity to interact with investors, owners, designers, consultants, teams, and so many people through the journey of building and opening every single hotel, something I will truly treasure.

What have been the challenges of the Indian market?
For every opportunity, there is a corresponding challenge. The Indian market is full of possibilities for the hospitality industry as there is so much more to explore. However, it does throw up a few challenges, especially for a new hotel being setup.

A challenge we face is the lack of quality in the training of employees. One of the reasons for this could be dearth of good institutes. Also, retaining the workforce adds up to the process as the hospitality industry faces high attrition rates. It becomes the responsibility of hospitality groups to provide continuous benefits to staff members and ensure constant further learning for their growth.

Pullman and Novotel New Delhi Aerocity has some popular F&B outlets.

What are the opportunities India presented to you?

The region provided me with the best of partners, owners and associates to work with. We have developed quality hotels across the country and yet, there is so much more to explore. We have developed trust and confidence with our owners and this is the reason that 75% of our current pipeline is with our existing partners.

The market is dynamic and guest needs are ever-evolving. The Indian hospitality industry always fulfils the demand. Accor’s densification strategy has been successful because of the demand created in various zones. The Indian market allows you to showcase the best products and lets you experiment as well.

How has the industry transformed over the years in India?

There has been a fundamental shift in the expectations of travellers and industry has evolved, from being product-centric to client-centric. Hotels have revaluated their approach to customer service.

Travellers today are demanding immersive experiential services. They want unique and exclusive experiences that are authentic, traditional and personalised. The Indian traveller is very tech-savvy, well-read and well-travelled. In earlier days, a holiday was supposed to be at the nearest hill station or a relative’s house or a famous pilgrimage.

Travelling options were few and there was a very small choice of hotels available. With time, hospitality brands have got a chance to showcase their services and offerings. The rise of middle-class families, low-cost airlines and great discounts has helped the Indian traveller explore more.

Nowadays, a hotel stay is not about a huge room with a good view—it is about the personalised welcome note for the guest, a pillow menu, a chamomile tea bag on the side table for good sleep. Every corner of the room and hotel must be pictureworthy.

From the time guest’s checkin until check-out, every step of the way—personalised notes, bed décor, F&B, hotel aesthetics, must all be social media worthy. Guests want to enjoy exclusive events: it could be a game of cricket, a chef’s special sit-down dinner, experience the local culture, or even a music festival. Loyalty programmes have become key in both luxury and economy hotels.

Novotel Hyderabad Convention Centre came at a time when no one was talking about hotels focused on MICE.

As a brand, what do you think are Accor’s advantages?

In India, Accor’s strategy has always been ‘Born in France, Made India’ philosophy—a melange of French heritage and Indian culture. Accor offers something for everyone, and because of our densification strategy, we have hotels across segments and experiences in a single city.

For example in Goa, we have Novotel properties that are perfect for a family holiday, a Mercure for those looking for rejuvenation and wellness, and an ibis Styles catering to the young crowd who want to holiday on a specific budget but with the complete experience.

A notable advantage is our ibis and ibis Styles brand. Globally, ibis has been a leader in the hospitality sector since 1974. The brand has been shaking up economy hotel standards by offering travellers and residents a new customer experience.

With the introduction of ibis in India, we presented vibrant economy hotels, an international brand at affordable prices and customers pay for what they use. ibis hotels are very functional with no unnecessary amenities. The guest is at the centre of attention, with dedicated and efficient service.

The brand’s enviable reputation and soaring guest satisfaction scores are driving this network’s growth. Even in India, ibis is one of our most popular brands and has a high recall value.

Is India ready for your luxury brands such as Raffles and Sofitel Legend?
The market for the luxury segment in India is growing and in certain cities, we are seeing an increasing demand from the well-heeled and upper-middle-class travellers seeking a slice of the luxury experience. According to a report by Hotelivate, the branded hotel space in India is led by the luxury segment.

Of the 160,000 branded hotel rooms in the country, approximately 60% belong to the luxury, upscale
and premium segments. Demand continues to fuel this segment.

What are the benchmarks you set for Accor and how much do you think you have achieved?
Our targets were always set according to Accor’s values of trust, respect, innovation, guest passion, sustainability, employer-friendly, and so much more. When we entered the market, we wanted to be a recognised brand with our portfolio of quality products and services.

Our introduction in India is based on the foundation of a great partnership with InterGlobe Enterprises, with whom we have jointly created InterGlobe Hotels and pioneered the growth of the branded economy hotels segment with ibis and ibis Styles.

Also, we have always aimed at developing and empowering our teams and employees. Our industry is becoming more sophisticated, complicated and tech-savvy, and it is our responsibility to provide all possible resources to our teams to be up to date.

The needs of the hospitality sector have become very sophisticated and this requires expertise in various fields such as revenue management, building talent and developing the culture of an organisation, guest experience, loyalty, driving digital and social media, marketing along with on-ground operations, which is absolutely the key.

And all these have to be synced to create a successful brand. We are always looking at providing learning experiences for our employees to grow and imbibe the knowledge they can.

The Grand Mercure brand is patronised by people looking for wellness experiences and rejuvenation. Photograph: Grand Mercure Mysore

Would you want to recall any experiences that changed your perception about India and Indian hospitality?

There has been no specific experience that changed my perception. But there is something unique about India that no other country offers.

When I came to India, I had a mindset because we feel hospitality is the same, hotels function the same way in any part of the world. But it was not true for India. Indian market is different, the demands are
extraordinary, and I had to internally persuade and push my colleagues in the headquarters that with India, a lot of things will have to be unique and approached differently.

As an example, ibis in Europe works with limited facilities. However, in India, ibis is almost full service  and an experiential-led hotel. Also, ibis Music and ibism are some initiatives our guests have appreciated.

We created Spice It, which was our first step in food innovation to serve home-style cooked meals. The brand in India offers meeting rooms, some select properties have a swimming pool, alfresco area. One would not find such facilities at an ibis in other parts of the world.

What are the new formats, innovations and genres that Accor has helped establish and nurture under you?
In my tenure, Accor has done various innovations and advancements across its brands. One of the most important is the digital transformation to improve direct booking through the brand’s website and mobile application.

We have been able to secure more than 70% of bookings through TARS (The Accor Reservation System, which interfaces with Web and mobile applications), the internal reservation centre, hotels, travel agencies and online comparison sites—encompassing around a hundred critical applications operating 24x7.

ALL- Accor Live Limitless, our loyalty programme, is another feather in our hat in terms of a key growth initiative. Our teams have been working to provide exclusive customer experiences through various partnerships and campaigns. Through ALL, we thrive to bring innovative and exclusive experiences across various segments.

Another important aspect is food innovation—not just at our restaurants, but also for our MICE segment. Looking at the guest’s preferences, we have a vegetarian restaurant at Sofitel called Tuskers. Pullman and Novotel New Delhi Aerocity, one of our key dual properties, caters to a large MICE demand and also has some popular food and beverage outlets.

The launch of Le Jardin at Novotel Kolkata Hotels & Residences was a distinct story of glorious gastronomy and beautiful banqueting The open terrace banquet with a majestic bottle garden and a grand spiral stairway is spread across 18,000sq.ft. We have been working with our partners Studio Gourmet to provide the best culinary offerings at our hotels.

Starting from Spice It, where we revamped the menu to provide comfort food with a twist reflecting various Indian cuisines to KA.01 at ibis Bengaluru City Centre, the first rooftop bar at any ibis and in fact, rarely any economy hotel provides the option of multiple dining options.

We also ensured that at events, food is one of the important elements and we need to make some changes
there as well. We have upgraded our food menu, especially for the MICE segment, which now consists of fresher as well as unique dishes.

Fairmont Jaipur is Accor’s first and only Fairmont property in India. The group has planned opening a few more hotels under the Fairmont brand.

How do you rate the Indian hospitality segment in comparison to that in the rest of Asia? Where does India score and where does it lack?
Every market has its charm and it will be unfair to rate it. The advantage of the Indian hospitality market
compared to regions such as Vietnam, Singapore and Thailand, is its dependence on domestic tourism.

Many markets in Asia rely highly on international travel. Additionally, some of our hotels in India are as good as any other properties in other parts of the world. Take Novotel Hyderabad Convention Centre, one of Asia’s largest convention centres. Pullman New Delhi Aerocity is one of the best properties in the Pullman portfolio globally.

The Indian market has great scope as the region has potential for branded rooms. In India, we have only 160,000 branded inventory, which is very low compared to Asia. The industry should explore and evaluate opportunities in the future.

Also, another scope for improvement is the room rates, which are lower for a market such as India we can work towards improving that.

What kind of changes are you implementing in your hotels that are opening up after a rigid lockdown?
As we open doors, the most important element for us is the safety and wellbeing of our guests and employees. We are taking all precautionary measures to maintain a high standard of hygiene and avoid any physical contact between the staff and guests. We are maintaining social distancing in our hotels, especially in the common areas.

At Accor, we are adapting and adjusting to new measures for our guests and employees. While there will be no flaws in the service, everything will have a shield to it. We have launched the ALLSAFE label, which represents our new cleanliness and prevention standards that have been developed and approved by Bureau Veritas, a world leader in hygiene and cleanliness inspection.

The ALLSAFE label has 16 key protocols, which assure these standards will be met by our hotels in anticipation of the progressive reopening across regions. Every hotel will also have an ALLSAFE Officer to ensure all protocols are followed.

  • All our properties will follow strengthened cleanliness protocols. Strict new cleanliness standards
  • will be implemented and monitored in all Accor hotels and will include an enhanced cleaning program with frequent disinfection of all sensitive areas.
  • Comprehensive safety and hygiene training program will be put in place so that all employees have the skills and training necessary to protect themselves and our customers.
  • Accor is implementing new standards to ensure social distancing measures and special reception measures while registering customers.
  •  In all restaurants, Accor is enriching its healthy and sustainable food charter to better respond to the current context, with new food safety standards going beyond government and local regulations.

After a turbulent period, our hotels are gradually reopening and business will pick up thanks to the power of domestic demand. With the country finally in an unlock phase, we have started operations in some of the Accor properties. As the situation evolves and as per the state advised guidelines, we will gradually open the remaining hotels for our guests as well.

In India, ibis is almost full service and an experiential-led hotel. PHOTOGRAPH: IBIS STYLES GOA

Of all the challenges, the COVID situation must be one of the most difficult you have faced. What are your learnings and how are you hoping to salvage the situation?
It would not be an understatement if we say it has been rather tough! It has been more difficult than ever expected, but in the end, when we look back, it will be a very rich adventure.

After witnessing multiple situations such as the Mumbai attacks and economic recession in 2008, one of the key learnings has been that occupancy levels always return. The solution for recovery is to not drop rates now, because if we do, it will take back the industry to where it was 10 years ago. The hospitality industry was enjoying its days of glory till the end of 2019; however, slashing prices now will not help the hotels to revive quickly.

The magnificent Imperial Suite stretches over 1,700sq.ft. and cocoons guests in its luxurious living spaces.

What do you think will be the long-term effect of COVID-19 on the industry? How many quarters do you expect the business to be down?
The pandemic has brought behavioural changes in people. It is likely to change the way people will travel. The world will continue to practice safe distancing until the pandemic is controlled to a great extent and there is a vaccine for it.

But there is always light at the end of the tunnel. We foresee that domestic traction will begin in November-December this year. Guests will start travelling to nearby destinations for staycations and weekend getaways. Slowly and steadily, through the first half of the next year, guests will begin travelling internationally as well.

We are hopeful that by the end of 2021 November or onset of 2022, the hospitality industry will fully regain its pace.

Sofitel in India is a perfect mélange of French art de vivre and warm Indian hospitality.

What are your takeaways from India as a hotelier and an individual?
An important takeaway is that people in India, wherever you go, never treat you like an outsider. That is also true for the industry. Be it our employees, our partners, media fraternity—it is like a huge family gathering with deep-rooted values and this is true for every city I have been in and every person I have met along the way.

We have so many competitors in the market, but when you meet them at various conferences or meetings, there is never a sense of any rivalry. We all meet like a family and as an industry which sees great potential in the region for everyone. This cooperation and sense of oneness, I have not witnessed anywhere else.

What kind of legacy have you helped created for your successors?
I have worked in various regions. The one thing common everywhere was my voice as a sole voice of Accor. However, that is not the case with India. People around me, from my core team, colleagues, to our partner agencies, owners, it is wonderful to see everyone talking so passionately about Accor.

Everyone is attached to the brand as if they own it and this is the legacy that will continue. Accor’s values and its philosophy are engrained in every person who works or has worked with the brand.

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