The Road To Recovery: Accor MEA CEO Mark Willis On Taking A People-Focused Approach, Immediate Wins, And Bouncing Back
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It was at the second day of the 2020 Arabian Hotel Investment Conference (AHIC) held in Dubai in late September that I got to meet with Mark Willis, CEO for the Middle East and Africa at Accor, at his suite in the Rixos Premium Dubai Jumeirah Beach Residence (JBR), one of the many hotels that fall under the umbrella of the Paris-headquartered global hospitality company that he works for. In my conversation with him, I found that Willis exhibited all of the gracious characteristics one would typically expect from someone who works in the hospitality business, and yet, his charm couldn’t belie the fact that he is working in an industry that hasn’t yet completely recovered from the economic repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic that hit the world in 2020.
But while Willis didn’t deny the dire straits that his sector has found itself in over the last couple of months, he remains almost incredibly optimistic about the road ahead. “I think, from an Accor perspective, like many of the big brands, we’ve obviously been heavily impacted by the last six months,” Willis says. “And now is the time to look forward and take a positive position on what that future looks like. We have a portfolio of wonderful brands at Accor, and everything to play for. The market remains subdued, of course, but that won’t last. And you’ll see as you move out of 2020 and into 2021, the dynamics of business and the demand of our industry will start to come back, I’m sure.”
Glimmers of this hopeful future that Willis foresees are already starting to show- he’s actually been privy to it thanks to his role at Accor. With over 35 brands in the Middle East and Africa, Accor currently has a portfolio of 300 properties and over 65,000 keys in the region, covering all segments running from economy (think Ibis) to luxury (think Fairmont). As such, it’s easy to see that the COVID-19 pandemic must have dealt a big blow to this hospitality enterprise’s operations in the region, with it having to suffer through everything from cancellations to closures through the course of the crisis.
This was especially evident in its operations in the UAE, where Accor is (with over 64 hotels across the country) the largest operator across all brands. But today, it’s the resumption of Accor’s business in the UAE (and the reception to it) that is one of the clearest indicators of the recovery that’s slowly happening across the region’s hospitality landscape- over 75% of its hotels in the country have now reopened, and there’s a tide of consumers flocking to them as well.
“While there are obviously changes on the horizon, we are opening hotels in the right way, following local legislation and working with government entities,” Willis says. “From a practical perspective, you can follow all the legislation, implement social distancing, etc., but you can still also provide a wonderful experience at a hotel level. No more so than this hotel where we are sitting today, the Rixos Premium Dubai JBR, which, for September, is running figures ahead of last year, which is just wonderful to see. Regional demand, and now, international demand is starting up again, as people look to travel, or start to travel, with Dubai being a destination of choice.”
Mark Willis, CEO of Accor Middle East and Africa. Source: Accor MEA
It’s signs like these that Willis is using to bolster his belief that things will be looking a lot better for his enterprise (and the hospitality industry in general) in the months to come. “I think that there will be a very positive period next year, hopefully on the back of global trends,” Willis says. “Things will start to improve. Here, you’ve obviously got key demand drivers: religious tourism into KSA, and here in Dubai, of course, we’ve got Expo 2020 from Q3 into Q4 next year, which will have a huge effect, I’m sure. I think, from a global perspective, and not just in relation to Accor, I think others will take a similar approach of positivity. Today, at AHIC here in Dubai, we’ve seen [data intelligence provider] STR talk about growing statistics, increases in occupancy and rates globally, no more so in China, now touching about 50% occupancy levels month-on-month, which is super positive to see- obviously, they are a little bit ahead of the of the pandemic versus everybody else, but, yes, definitely, demand is returning. Yes, it’s slow, and, yes, the outlook remains uncertain, but, I think, from an Accor perspective, we continue to remain positive and look ahead to the future and what that business landscape is going to look like, and indeed, how we’re going to function accordingly.”
Now, if we go by the principle that one’s actions today are a signifier of things to come, then Accor seems to be on the right track for a world after the coronavirus pandemic, given what Willis tells me the company has been doing through the course of this crisis. “As we’ve gone through the last months, Accor has taken a very people-focused approach to the pandemic,” Willis says. “We’re a business entity, of course, we’re a commercial entity, and focused on that, absolutely- but this has been a definite period of focusing on our people, our customers, and indeed, our owners, and making sure that we all come through the pandemic, and the way that it’s impacted our business, together, as positively as we can.”
Willis placed his team first when listing his company’s priorities when navigating the COVID-19 crisis, and this was ably demonstrated by Accor through the launch of its ALL Heartist Fund in April, with the “ALL” being a nod to its “Accor Live Limitless” brand promise. Following consultations with its main shareholders JinJiang International, Qatar Investment Authority, Kingdom Holding Company, and Harris Associates, Accor announced its decision to allocate 25% of its 2019 dividend payment -which came around to EUR70 million- to this Fund that was aimed at assisting the company’s 300,000 employees in a variety of ways. Besides pledging to pay for any COVID-19 related hospital expenses for employees without social security or medical insurance, this Fund also aimed to support, on a case-by-case basis, furloughed employees suffering great financial distress, as well as individual partners facing financial difficulties. Accor Chairman and CEO Sebastien Bazin also announced he’d forego 25% of his compensation during the crisis, with the cash equivalent being contributed to the Fund as well.
Mark Willis, CEO of Accor Middle East and Africa, and Fahad Al-Alloush, CEO of Al Raya Real Estate. Source: Accor MEA
Talking about the Fund and its roll-out, Willis confesses to me that when it was first announced, he was quite skeptical about the impact it would have- but he was soon proved wrong. “When it was first brought out, I really had an anticipation that it would be a very overly bureaucratic, administration nightmare to do,” Willis admits. “But that hasn’t been the case at all. It’s been very simply put together, under very clear direction from our CEO: the Fund is available to support our team members that are impacted by COVID-19, in whichever way, shape, or form… And that has been a wonderful fund to have at our disposal. Here, in my area specifically, we’ve granted over 2000 grants- and, obviously, that’s escalating now as we move forward.”
When it comes to the customers, Willis says that Accor has been doing pretty much whatever it can to try and encourage people to return to the company’s properties through every stage of the COVID-19 crisis. One of its earliest efforts in this regard was in May when Accor launched the ALL Safe initiative in all of its hotels, which saw it develop intensified hygiene and prevention measures in partnership with Paris headquartered certification company, Bureau Veritas, and then implement it across all of its properties to safeguard guests’ health and safety. “I think the collaboration with Bureau Veritas has been very positive in assisting us with implementing ALL Safe, which has been a very well put together, structured program implemented across all the brands, at all hotels, looking at both the operational practicality of dealing with COVID-19, and also making sure that guests are as safe as they can be when they come to our hotels,” Willis adds. “We also put in a 24-hour help line, which has been done with [insurance company] AXA, which, again, I thought would not be utilized as much, but it actually has been so well received, not least from an information flow perspective from our guests.”
Willis also points out that given the uncertain climate we are all currently living in, Accor has also made use of flexible booking policies and attractive promotions to try and entice people to return to hotels again- small things that have, as he put it, “made a difference.” At the same time, given the current market conditions, one would perhaps assume that new developments, signings, and openings in the hospitality industry would have come to a standstill- but that’s absolutely not been the case at Accor, Willis says.
“Have things slowed down? Yes, of course. They’ve slowed down, especially on the opening front, as we work with our partners, and indeed, we’re advising some partners to slow down with openings, for sure. But it hasn’t stopped in any way, shape, or form. No more so than here at AHIC, which normally is a place for signing hotels- we signed two super hotels today, a Rixos that will open in Deira, Dubai, called Jewel of the Creek, with Dubai Developments. It’s going to be a fabulous hotel when it’s up and built, and once we get to opening, that one will be an amazing addition to that area of Dubai. We’ve also signed in Jeddah today a Swissotel Living with our partners there (it’s the first one in the Kingdom), and again, it’s going to be a super project.”
Willis also proudly points out that Accor is also in the process of opening new properties in the region- Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk recently opened its doors, while the Grand Mercure Dubai Airport is also set to be welcoming guests very soon as well. All of this serves to reiterate Willis’ statement about Accor still moving ahead with its long-term plans, despite the uncertainly that surrounds the market at this time. “Yes, the climate is tough, but also, it’s still developing, it’s still working forward,” Willis says. “A lot of our investors have also got a long-term view on how they invest… And while COVID-19 is impacting us today in 2020 and into 2021, they are looking far more forward, and I’m sure organizations like that will continue to develop as we move forward.”
Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk. Source: Accor MEA
I feel that this forwardthinking outlook is something that Willis also possesses, especially as he shares with me his almost buoyant expectations about the future of the sector he’s built his career in. “The industry will recover,” he declares. “At some point, the pandemic will come to a close. The desire to travel will kick back in, the desire to do business face to face will kick back in. The outlook today is extremely uncertain, but I really, really believe that the hotel sector will rebound fully. And with the introduction of a change to the current landscape (and that probably comes in the form of vaccine), I think we’ll see an immediate spike in return to travel. You can see key destinations around the world being heavily, so heavily searched, on Google, I read some statistics recently on that saying Dubai was at the forefront of it, which is wonderful to see… So, change is coming. People are looking, they are searching, and again, where people were being super cautious only two months ago, that is starting to turn a corner.”
Of course, Willis’ conviction about this stems in part from the way his company and its leadership has been navigating the COVID-19 crisis so far- while there have been plenty of twists and turns, Accor’s focus on what actually makes up its business -i.e. their people, their guests, and their owners- has helped it ride this wave all the same. “If you’re trying to devise a very detailed, very structured, strategic plan to deal with COVID-19, I would question that one, because the dynamic changes so much,” Willis adds. “Focus on the key elements of your business, see how you can assist those elements, and [use that to] try and get yourself through this very difficult period- and I think Accor has done a good job in that.”
At this point, I ask Willis to share his advice for people leading businesses through the times we currently live in, and he replies with two pointers almost instantly. “Honesty over everything, number one,” he says. “I made a career out of being honest. And that may sound like quite a strange comment- everybody will tell you, ‘Oh, I’m totally honest all the time, and I speak my mind.’ But there have been times where me being honest and me speaking my mind in a transparent way has not been good for our business. I can assure you that has not been 100% welcomed all the time. But, I still believe in honesty over everything- we need to be transparent when there’s a need to convey a message. You know, people inherently have no issue conveying a positive message. But, no more so than in the last six months, there’s been a lot of times where we’ve been needing to convey a negative message or a troubling message, whether it be with our owners, or with our team members, etc., and that’s when you have to stand your ground, take a breath, and convey that difficult message. Do that in the right way, and people will always respond to you, if you’re giving what you feel is one, the correct message, but also, what is the solution attached to that, in your opinion.”
Brasserie Boulud, Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk. Source: Accor MEA
Willis follows this piece of advice with a note on leaders needing to surround themselves with the best people they can find. “Too many times, I see under-utilization of the skillsets of the people around leaders,” he says. “For me, one thing’s for sure: I’m the leader of Accor here in Middle East and Africa, I’m the CEO, but I can tell you nine times out of ten, I am, for sure, not the smartest person in the room. And when you get these super specialist guys that I work with, and as I mentioned before, I try and surround myself with the most fabulous people I can, you know, many, many times, you are better off asking their opinion, and them feeling comfortable telling you’re wrong, or taking the discussion in a different direction, than you being an overbearing CEO or leader. And that’s been especially the case for me these last six months, where I really value the fact that I’ve got a very transparent rapport with my team. And there’s been many occasions where a dialogue has taken us in a totally different direction that I thought it would- and I don’t believe that makes me any less of a leader. So, yeah, trust in the people around you.”
Indeed, when it comes to his personal strategy when leading Accor in the Middle East and Africa, Willis is someone who believes in a collaborative approach when it comes to working with those around him. “My leadership philosophy has always been one that is centered around my team and the people that I work with,” Willis explains. “Invariably, I’m not that good, so I put a huge amount of effort in surrounding myself with the most wonderful people that I can. And I’m really good at that- and I think you can see that in the team that’s been assembled at Accor. And that philosophy has remained, even through this crisis.” And that is a mantra that that will stand him in good stead for the long run, Willis says- and judging by what he has accomplished with that strategy so far, I think it’s safe for all us to take his word on that.