Upwardly Mobile

With more than 6,800 rooms across seven brands in different segments and a large pipeline, AccorHotels can now only move in an upward growth direction reveals Jean-Michel Cassé, vice-president, operations for the brand BY BABITA KRISHNAN

Many years and many countries later, Jean-Michel Cassé still retains a child-like enthusiasm for the hospitality industry in general and AccorHotels in particular. This Frenchman, who has never worked in France, has traversed the world from Cuba to Egypt via the Middle-East to India, getting exposed to diverse cultures and people including heads of state, kings and queens along with businessmen and celebrities from all over the world.

This roller-coaster ride lead him to the Indian shores in 2008 when he took up the reigns as senior vice-president, operations, India for AccorHotels. Looking back at the seven-year journey, Cassé says, “We had one hotel back when I came here and today, we have 36 – all across India, different cities and different brands. So the journey so far has been very exciting.”

THE CHANGE
Cassé strongly believes that the customers have changed and they are forcing the industry to change. He recalls how till some years ago, hotels were planning the life of their customers staying with them. “Today it’s not the same. Your customers know what they want, how they want it and where they want it. Should you not be able to comply, your customer will go elsewhere because there are many options. And this, I believe, has been the biggest change in terms of customer’s expectations,” he shares.
Another change is the quality of service. With international chains like AccorHotels and other coming into India, training makes a difference. “The customers are global. Hence, they want to find the hotel for which they have a loyalty programme and the product service and price positioning that they are used to anywhere in the world, right from New York and Paris to Delhi. It is that simple and boils down to the distribution. And this is really where international operators, are able to serve as a platform which works in the best interest of India,” feels this industry veteran.

THE BRAND
With seven brands spread over 36 properties and three convention centres, AccorHotels has each one positioned differently, based on the service offered and the price positioning. Cassé feels buoyant about this
financial year as for the first time in 2015 there has been a reversal of the trend and “We have a state where demand is higher than the supply for the first time India. Occupancies across the industry have been higher than 62%.” Cassé is convinced that this is the time to build on the ARR of every brand and move it back to its own category and “then every product and offering will have the subsequent selling price.”

One of the biggest differentiators between the various AccorHotel brands is the space offered and this according to Cassé, becomes central to the price positioning as well. The other differentiators are by way of the services offered.

GLOCAL ADAPTATION
Being a global brand, AccorHotels had to incorporate slight changes in some of its brands to suit the Indian market. “We have been doing some tweaking and adaptation and as we like to say ‘we are born in France but made in India’. One of the most obvious things was the inclusion of F&B in Ibis. “Ibis has 1,000 hotels across the world with a strong brand presence in the economy sector and it does not offer F&B. But in India, we need to have one. This was the first adaptation made – breakfast of a few simple dishes,” he reveals.

Other adaptation came in terms of construction in Ibis’ where globally there are no meeting rooms. But this was an important business attraction and one finds every Ibis having meeting rooms in India. “We have added fitness to Ibis as well,” he adds.
In the budget segment, Formule1 is designed globally, as a box of rooms that would not have worked in India without F&B. “Appreciating this, Formule1s are built close to a mall with strong F&B options,” Cassé explains. “This way we can concentrate on the core business of this brand that is rooms, and for the rest we rely on supporting partners in the same building.”

BRAND STRATEGY
AccorHotels is well positioned in the economy, middle scale and upscale segments. With the opening of Pullman Aerocity and the existing Sofitel BKC in Mumbai, the company is making inroads in the upper upscale and luxury segments as well. The acceptance and recall of both the brands bodes well for AccorHotels and Cassé is confident of having a Sofitel in Delhi and a Pullman in Mumbai and both the brands in Bengaluru or other big cities as well. “As an expansion strategy, we would like to have either a Pullman or Sofitel in the luxury division in Goa on the coast as a pure resort positioning,” Cassé reveals his wishlist, drawing inspiration from Asia Pacific where AccorHotels have Sofitel and Pullman as resorts and leisure destinations. “We would really like to showcase these on Indian soil since our Indian guests travelling to Singapore or Thailand already know our capabilities in this direction,” he shares.

Another brand on his radar is Grand Mercure which has been adapted to make it an “Indian Grand Mercure with the tradition of food service like any Indian five-star hotel complete with a traditional welcome.” This, he says, has been possible because it is a brand flexible enough to allow any adaptation. Since it is open to acquisition, conversion and rebranding of any existing hotel, Grand Mercure has already generated interest of some single property owners. A case in point being an existing palace hotel in Baroda that will be rebranded and launched later this year.

“We have been growing, but it is a combination of both strategy and opportunity. And having grabbed those opportunities and our know-how getting recognition, more are sure to follow,” Cassé declares. He believes that Novotel Hyderabad Hotel and Convention Centre had a big hand in establishing the Novotel brand in the country – being the only international convention centre in India at that time. “Today, thanks to this property, we are recognised as successful convention centre operators as well,” he admits. With two more convention centres – Lavasa and Jaipur – now open, MICE is a segment that AccorHotels is aggressively looking at consolidating its leadership position in.

TRAINING & DEVELOPMENT
Cassé feels that the challenge in India is not the lack of people, but to get quality in these numbers. To tackle this, AccorHotels organises an innovative student competition every year – The Take Off! Student Challenge. Launched worldwide in 2012 with universities, business schools and hotel management schools, it allows students to work on different fields of hospitality, customer experience and innovation. They are evaluated by AccorHotels professionals and academicians with different cultural backgrounds. “We have received tremendous response from Indian hotel school students in all editions of Take Off. Team from Ecole Hotelier Lavasa won the award in 2013 and were part of this year final selection in Paris,” he reveals with pride, being closely associated with this school.
Also, trainees are recruited through road shows conducted by the GMs in major hotel schools across India and through the variety of social media channels. Cassé shares that the AccorHotels Jobs India Facebook Page has more than 70,000 fans and the company has hired 8-10% of its employee requirements through Facebook.
AccorHotels is committed towards developing its workforce and giving everyone a fair chance of growth within the company. “Our internal mobility rate has increased by 50% since 2012. 75% of AccorHotels India GMs were promoted through internal mobility and in 2014-15, 100% GMs positions were filled through internal movements,” Cassé shares. Programmes like International Hospitality Managers Program (IHMP) or New-Gen Leaders attract the best of hotel school graduates to be fast tracked in executive positions. But not all training is on ground. Academie AccorHotels India is a self-sustaining virtual training set-up headed by a campus manager and supported by 27 multi-brand certified trainers to drive brand and behavioural training. “We have a 1:1 hotels to trainer ratio and conduct, on average, two man days of training per employee,” he explains the commitment of the company towards its personnel.

GENDER DIVERSITY
In AccorHotels India the gender diversity stands at 15%. “We have been given an objective by our global chairman of increasing it to 50%. Though that is quite a challenge, in Australia 50% of the GMs are women. This only shows that it can happen,” says Cassé, who has been given an intermediary objective in the coming 3-4 years to be able to grow from 15 to 35%. And is supported by the internal organisation WAAG (Women At AccorHotels Generation) that has been set up to help all women in the group, globally, achieve greater recognition and develop their careers. It also has men as part of the group and plays an active role towards attaining gender equality.
The WAAG network focuses on issues like gender marketing that proposes innovative services aimed specifically at the women staying in AccorHotels properties; mentoring, where women members can be mentees, women and men can be mentors, mainly in the context of career development and/or on returning to work after maternity or paternity leave for example, or benefit from advice on joining an executive committee, etc.; and external relations that forges relations between WAAG and other women’s networks.
Cassé believes in including employee families also within the AccorHotels fold by giving them an experience of the hotel where their child/spouse is working. “This works specially for women as the family concerns about safety are put to rest. We are also trying to look at the various comforts and flexibilities that we can extend according to the position and job. This will help change some mentalities, but will take time,” he admits.

DIGITAL INITIATIVES
AccorHotels is transforming on a strategic, digital and managerial level with the full range of digital channels that aim to place it ahead of the curve in a fast-changing industry. “Our new digital ambition will allow us to expand our operational excellence throughout the industry value chain, to better anticipate customers’ expectations, and to bolster our leadership in the long term. We are investing 225 million Euro over a period of five years and are leading the charge as far as the industry is concerned,” shares Cassé, explaining the slew of initiatives designed to transform guest experience by being able to anticipate their needs.

Marketplace is an industry-first initiative where the AccorHotels.com distribution platform has been opened up into a marketplace open to a selection of independent hotels. In time, the objective is to offer more than 10,000 hotels in 320 key cities worldwide, or a three-fold increase in the number of hotels on AccorHotels.com. The group is also launching the new version of its mobile application AccorHotels with all brand applications united in this single app. It aims at being one of mobile device users’ top three travel apps and offers an enriched experience at every stage of the customer journey. “The app will be updated every three weeks to ensure it remains timely,” he adds.

Recently AccorHotels announced the worldwide implementation of a digital solution that revolutionises guest welcome in its hotels. “The objective is to use digital technology to offer customers an unprecedented personalised welcome, less devoted to administrative formalities, making the associate entirely available to greet guests, cater to individual needs or simply help them save time,” he explains. This service, designed in close collaboration with the hotel operating teams, will be offered to all loyalty card or subscription card holders and to customers booking directly through AccorHotels’ booking options.
Preempting online security concerns, the company has a strong internal IT security team responsible for protecting and designing strong network and information system of the group (reservation channels, PMS, POS, etc.) for any intrusion (external or internal), and to reduce the impact of IT insecurity on the business or guest data assures Cassé.

GREEN INITIATIVES
Though the company has been following sustainable practices for over two decades, two years ago, it launched PLANET 21, with which it made 21 commitments to environmental and social responsibility, covering a wide range of topics, including the health of employees, reducing impacts on nature and strengthening ties with the community. This has resulted in an overall 15% reduction in water consumption, 10% decrease in energy use and carbon emissions, 70% of its hotel properties promoting locally sourced products and 100% ban on serving endangered seafood species. PLANET 21 has been recognised as a best-in-class programme in Asia-Pacific.

Also, as part of the CSR activities, Accor Centre of HOPE provides short-term vocational training to underprivileged youth for employable skills, and under the Mallika Sewing Programme, AccorHotels in Hyderabad have supported a community of 60 women living with HIV/AIDS become self-sufficient.

LOOKING AHEAD
Recognising that as a hospitality brand, AccorHotels is finally getting its due, Cassé admits that he is always excited to introduce new brands to the Indian market. On top of his list is MGallery, the luxury boutique hotel brand that, he feels, would be instantly accepted here. “MGallery is managed by Sofitel Hotels and these boutique standalone properties would be good in northern India or by the beach in a resort destination. Another brand that would work well here is our serviced apartments brand Novotel Suite,” he says. With the Novotel brand recall, we tend to agree with this. However, for Cassé, the priority is to strengthen the existing seven brands before spreading its wings further.

While the pipeline is very robust with 10 properties expected to open this year and 35 others in various stages of development, Cassé is looking at consolidating his position as a brand to reckon with. And we say ‘Amen’ to that!

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