COO Interview: Cassé of AccorHotels on Indian hospitality market

Jean-Michel Cassé, Chief Operating Officer – India and South Asia, on bringing luxury hotels such as Raffles to India, the ratio of branded inventory against unbranded and what it means for the hospitality sector, and the promises held by Artificial Intelligence

AccorHotels, Jean-Michel Cassé, Interview, Chief operating office, Indian hospitality

What sort of opportunities does the Indian market holds for AccorHotels?

India has always been, and continues to be, one of the most important markets for AccorHotels. In India, we have always followed the ‘Born in France, Made in India’ philosophy—a melange of our French heritage and Indian culture. The country has given us multiple opportunities that have helped us customise our offering to suit the needs of the market and the guests. In the hospitality industry, every aspect revolves around the guests and thus, all our brands at AccorHotels ensure that our guests ‘feel welcome’ at every touch point.

One of the most important aspects of our India operations is our strategic partnership with InterGlobe Hotels, which has given us the opportunity to develop and grow the ibis brand. We began the AccorHotels India operations with ibis a decade ago, and in a months’ time we will launch our 19th ibis property—ibis Kolkata Rajarhat, which will launch a new generation of ibis hotels.

For AccorHotels in India, our development priority is to densify in key cities and become the number one player by offering a variety of brands to consumers across budgets. We are always looking forward to present quality development projects. The growth of the Indian market is tremendous, and with the help of our consumers, we continue to grow our Novotel and ibis brands. Additionally, we are in active discussions to bring various luxury brands to India –from Raffles to Banyan Tree, and are continuing to grow our existing brands such as Fairmont and Sofitel.

How do you choose the destinations/cities in which you locate your hotels in India?
AccorHotels has presence in 22 key cities and plans to develop further in the existing and upcoming towns as part of our densification strategy. In 2018, we opened six properties—ibis Pune Hinjewadi, Novotel Goa Dona Sylvia, Novotel Kochi Infopark, Mercure Chennai Sriperumbudur, Novotel Chennai Chamiers Road, and most recently, our debut in Vijayawada with the 20th Novotel, Novotel Vijayawada Varun.

Our approach while selecting our projects and development is simple. We select markets that are hospitality-need markets, have the potential to grow and where business is flourishing. We map out the cities based on our customer preferences, and cities to which people travel the most.

Do you see Tier II towns in India as big growth markets? What is the kind of travellers they attract—business or leisure?
In Visakhapatnam, we have two very successful and great performing properties—Novotel Visakhapatnam Varun Beach and Bheemli Resort managed by AccorHotels. Our latest addition, Novotel Vijayawada Varun has been developed with the help of our existing partners Varun Group and we are confident of the success of this property as well.

For us, we do not earmark the cities on basis of their Tiers and markets such as Vijayawada and Visakhapatnam are not Tier 2 cities by any definition. These cities see a mix of business, leisure and ‘b-leisure’ travellers, and have tremendous economic growth as well. Our hotels in Andhra Pradesh also host several weddings and other MICE activities. Most recently, Novotel Visakhapatnam Varun Beach hosted the Indian national cricket team.

The state of Andhra Pradesh has a lot to offer, both economically and politically, and has earned many benefits that attract more travellers. It offers AccorHotels an opportunity to showcase our services.

What are the kind of opportunities that India offers to your brand?
Globally, AccorHotels has a portfolio of more than 30 brands, spanning from core luxury, lifestyle, boutique, regional to resorts and residences. With the help of our partners, we have been able to successfully roll-out nine of those internationally acclaimed brands in India. Our hotels range from luxury to economy, and we do not dissect our brands by giving them a number or a star rating. In fact, all our brands fulfill the demands of different kind of travellers and their demands across varying budgets.

We are eager to bring more brands into the country and are seeking opportunities to grow our network to more markets as well.

How much emphasis do you pay to creating popular F&B brands within your hotels?
Food & Beverage is as an important pillar to determine growth and popularity of a hotel. We at AccorHotels take pride in all our F&B offerings as they reflect the local cuisine while also offering international preparations. This enables our guests to build a connect with the local culture and helps the hotel to attract non-resident guests from nearby areas. Today’s guests are well-travelled and well-versed with international cuisines, which gives us an opportunity to showcase our offerings.

Our mission is to make the F&B offerings the heart and soul of our hotels by thinking like restaurateurs and delivering an experience that is excellent, relevant and authentic. One of the most popular and transformational F&B offerings has been ‘Spice It’ at all our ibis properties in India. It is inspired by home and street food, and will now serve a revamped menu that provides comfort food with a twist. Spice It serves one of the longest running breakfasts in India, starting from 4am until noon. We partnered with Studio Gourmet to conceptualise a unique food experience.

Moreover, we also have plans to bring in some of the best F&B concepts and outlets to India, across a number of our properties, which will showcase our popular chefs from across the globe.

What do you look for while choosing partners in India?
In India, our key partner is InterGlobe Hotels (IGH) group, and with the right approach we have established our in-demand economy brand, ibis. The group has a deep understanding of, and wide-ranging experience in the travel and tourism industry. With its diverse distribution channels, it is able to deliver a consistent experience. Moreover, Indigo Airlines, the domestic flight carrier, owned by the same group, rules the Indian aviation industry with more than a 40% market share.

Is there any decision that has backfired? Anything you should have done differently over the last 10 years, in hindsight?
Initially, when we planned or developed a hotel in any city, the destination was either well-developed or did not develop at all. There have been a few instances where a specific destination didn’t suit our work style. Thus, it is extremely important to judge where business will flourish and then choose the city carefully. One of the recent instances is Lavasa City, where we had existing and upcoming projects. But due to various reasons, bankruptcy was declared, and we had to pull the plug from those properties.

Can you share your insight about the Indian market for hospitality brands for other hoteliers? What are the lessons you have learnt? Any failures, and what have you learnt from those failures?
The Indian hospitality industry is expansive and has given all hoteliers a great opportunity to utilise the market. However, there are still multiple opportunities to seize and reach out to more travellers and guests. I would not like to say that we have had failures, but there is so much more to learn from the market we survive in.

This does not mean that this space is not flourishing. However, it means that there are still opportunities to explore.
It is easy to assume that mid-scale or budget hotels will perform better in a non-metro and smaller city. However, at AccorHotels, we believe that such markets can do much better with full service hotels offering specialities of various kinds. Thus, one can conclude that we need to expand our horizon and tap more key markets that expand the branded space.

AccorHotels is looking at strengthening its existing portfolio of luxury hotels in India. What has prompted that decision? Do you see India as an interesting luxury market for hospitality brands?
AccorHotels is the second largest group in the luxury hotel market across the world. This gives us an opportunity to develop and bring the renowned luxury brands to India. Our recent acquisitions of Fairmont, Sofitel, Banyan Tree, Mövenpick, Ansagna and the likes provide us with many more brands to showcase to our guests. We believe that the Indian market is ready and thus we will be happy to provide them with quality luxury brands. Also, as mentioned above, 60% of the branded space is ruled by the luxury segment; it proves that the consumers are ready to spend.

How do you leverage technology in your rooms, suites and across the property to offer millennial guests the experiences and luxuries they are looking for?
Technology has influenced every aspect of our lives and has also changed the way hoteliers approach their guests. Right from the time of booking the hotel until guests complete their journey and reach home, hoteliers leverage technical solutions to provide a seamless service.

Guests always look for easy, quick and hassle-free solutions and we at AccorHotels ensure that we listen to their demands. To do this effectively, we have introduced a new initiative known as ‘Reborn’ that aims at making the hotel and service booking simple and more appealing. According to a survey, by 2020, customer experience will overtake price and product as the key brand differentiator. Thus, to ensure that we fulfill all the needs of our guests, we have introduced Accor Customer Digital Card (ACDC), a safe and secure data base that allows us to share our guests’ preferences across our network of hotels for a greater experience.

Other key technological initiatives we have implemented include our interactive chatbot ‘Phil Welcome’, which allows the guest to access all possible services in and around the hotel and JohnPaul, a concierge service providing premium global brands with customised digital loyalty solutions. For insights on how we can improve and market our brands, hotels and enhance guest experiences, we also implemented the Voice of Guest (VOG), which collates comprehensive guest feedback through a variety of online channels.

The communities and the neighbourhoods which surround our hotels are also important to us. To cater to them, we have a local service platform, AccorLocal, which creates social connections and value for small businesses and staff members at our hotels to service the millions of people who live close to our hotels. This offers hotel services such as the gym, food and beverages to all those who live around the hotel.

As the guest spends a considerable time in the room, enhancing in-room technology experience for guests is also essential, which improves the WOW factor of the hotel and results in high guest satisfaction. We achieve this by emphasising on apps and technologies that are mobile device centric and allow the mobile device to communicate over WiFI with not just in-room technologies seamlessly, but also other hotel software like PMS for mobile check in-checkout, view or pay bills, POS for ordering in-room dining or merchandise, the Guest Management System to raise a request, keys, room telephones, etc
This enables us to give guests personalised services or messages based on the history and usage of the hotel apps installed on their devices. Moreover, we are also exploring to provide Wireless Charging stations in our premium rooms to enhance guest experiences. Of course, to do this effectively, we will need to re-work and improvise our WiFi devices and per user bandwidth in hotels for successful implementation of these enhancements, which will have an impact on the overall performance of the in-room technological experience.

AccorHotels has reshaped its core business around the idea of “Augmented Hospitality”—a refined vision for what a hotel stands for and the services it can provide to a community of customers made up of guests and locals alike. Virtual reality (VR) may have the power to transport people to other worlds without leaving their living room, but Augmented Reality (AR) will likely have an even greater impact. Many Artificial Intelligence tools are being explored and under deployment stage.
We see the way the mobile device usage is increasing, India hospitality is also picking up the trends of automation for services and providing mobile friendly platforms, keeping in mind the daily needs and requirements of a guest staying in the hotel, whether for business or leisure. New trends are being implemented for comfort and ease of using technologies for a better guest experience and for building brand loyalty.

Ibis Hotels has something called ‘social media sitters’ in some of their properties globally. Can you tell us about the concept and if you are planning to bring it to India?

‘Social media sitters’ is one of our very cool and niche initiatives implemented at ibis, ibis styles and ibis budget in Geneva and Zurich. It entails an Instagram-sitter looking after the hotel guest’s Instagram channel, while the guest can fully enjoy his or her trip, with zero digital stress. When a guest makes a reservation, they can put in a request for a personal ‘social media sitter’ and he/she will take care of posting pictures, comments and also taking pictures for the guest. During the duration of the stay, these ‘sitters’ also travel along with the guest for any local tours as well. Currently, we do not have any plans to bring this initiative to India, but you never know what might strike when.

What are the trends that are changing the way hotels are run?
Today, the key to any successful business is providing an immersive experiential service to guests and customers. This is also applicable to the hospitality industry where travellers continuously demand unique and exclusive experiences. They look for authentic, traditional and personalised elements during their trips. Room décor, elements of local cuisine in food offerings, folklore, meeting with native communities are some of essentials for the millennial traveller.

In an increasingly social media-dependant world, another important trend we are witnessing is that guests want everything to be picture worthy, which can be posted across their social media platforms. Be it a personalised note, bed décor, food and beverages served or even a small corner in the hotel, they all must be Instagram-worthy and aesthetically presentable.

Giving F&B an extra oomph is exactly what guests are looking for. Festival celebrations, ceremonies like Christmas cake mixing, food walks, Chef’s special tasting menus or even exclusive sit-down dinners entice and excite guests.

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