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Mark Willis, The Newly Appointed CEO Of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, Is All Set To Build On The Brand's Rich History Out Of Its New Headquarters In Dubai Mark Willis, who was previously the CEO for India, Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at Accor overseeing a portfolio of more than 520 hotels in operation and development (across more than 20 brands within the group) is now the CEO of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

By Tamara Pupic

You're reading Entrepreneur Middle East, an international franchise of Entrepreneur Media.

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts

Following the announcement last year by Accor Chairman and CEO Sébastien Bazin that debuted a new structure for the company worldwide featuring two divisions with distinct areas of expertise (a premium midscale and economy division, and a brand-led luxury and lifestyle division), the Group's leadership team had a tough task of deciding who'd be leading its prestigious luxury brands. But for at least one of them, the company seems to have had a relatively easier task- after all, it found the person for the job within its own ranks: Mark Willis, who was previously the CEO for India, Middle East, Africa, and Turkey at Accor overseeing a portfolio of more than 520 hotels in operation and development (across more than 20 brands within the group) is now the CEO of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts.

We got to chat with Willis approximately 90 days after he officially stepped into the new role, and he was clearly excited about his new duties and responsibilities, while already keeping an eye out for the Fairmont's future prospects. "It's a unique challenge and opportunity, shifting from leading a regional team, where everyone was at maximum a few hours away by flight and in similar time zones, to engaging with leaders and hotels based all over the world," Willis says. "I set a personal goal to not only build upon the 100-year legacy of this esteemed brand, but also to disrupt and surpass expectations within the hospitality industry, reinforcing and strengthening Fairmont's position as a global leader in luxury."

And in order to get a head start on these new goals, Willis has already assembled a team of exceptional talent to back him up. "I could not think of a better partner than Yigit Sezgin [formerly the Chief Commercial Officer at Accor] to take lead as the Global Chief Brand and Commercial Officer," he reveals. "I have known and worked with him for over 15 years and fully trust in his capabilities to take the brand to new levels, and this applies to the rest of my executive committee as well." In addition to Sezgin, Willis' cherry-picked list of hospitality experts includes Aline Barhouche for leading the brand's global human resources strategy, Sahar Davodi for its environmental, social, and governance strategy, and Sami Nasser for overseeing global operations as Chief Operating Officer.

A few of the executives supporting Willis will be maintaining dual roles- Laure Morvan, for instance, will be steering the strategic development of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts's global portfolio, while also spearheading development for Accor South East Asia and India, Middle East, Africa, and Turkey for all of Accor's luxury brands. Similarly, Johny Zakhem will serve as Chief Financial Officer for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, and he will play the same role for Accor's Luxury and Lifestyle brands. Meanwhile, Barbara Kilner brings her expertise to oversee legal affairs for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts on a global scale, while also remaining responsible for the legal supervision of Accor's luxury brands in North America.

Related: Champions Of Change: Accor's Maud Bailly And Yigit Sezgin

Mark Willis and his team at Fairmont Hotels and Resorts' new headquarters in Dubai. Source: Fairmont Hotels and Resorts

When describing his team, Willis says that they are "people who color outside of the lines," and also that "they are the ones who are in to change the world." But Willis himself is no different, with the executive known for going above and beyond in the work that he does- and one example of this can be seen in his decision to personally meet with as many of the Fairmont Hotels & Resorts workforce that he possibly can. And note that this is no easy feat, considering that Fairmont Hotels & Resorts currently operates 90 hotels (more than 33,000 keys) across 32 countries, and counts over 25,000 employees globally; plus, it has 30 new hotels (more than 8,000 keys) in the pipeline as well.

"One of the first things I did upon my appointment as CEO was to get on a plane, and over the past few months, I've visited more than 75 Fairmont hotels (pretty good out of 90!), spending invaluable time with the teams who are on the ground, bringing Fairmont to life," Willis says. "I'm also reachable all the time! I make sure that anyone who is a part of Fairmont, wherever they are in the world, has direct access to me, and, most importantly, knows that they do. I always end conferences, meetings, etc. by reminding everyone that they can reach me and receive a near-immediate response, particularly through WhatsApp and Instagram." Willis also recently invited all global leaders and general managers of Fairmont Hotels & Resorts to the brand's Global Leadership Conference with an aim to "get them all together quite early in the process of the repositioning of the brand." He adds, "Our intent was to actively involve our leaders in the process, listening to their perspectives, and empowering them to build the future of the brand together."

Fairmont Hotels and Resorts has an exceptionally rich heritage that dates back to the opening of the Fairmont San Francisco in 1907, exactly one year to the day after the Great Earthquake and subsequent fire that destroyed the city. And it is to its credit that in the more than 116 years of its existence, the name Fairmont has become synonymous with "place of occasion." Being at the helm of a storied brand, Willis says that he is choosing not to be deterred by the burdens that might come with leading an enterprise with such a rich history, but instead to focus on setting up and deploying the new vision for the future of the brand. "Leading iconic properties that are beloved worldwide is an interesting exercise," he says. "There is a lot of emotion tied to the brand, which is both incredibly exciting, but also adds an additional layer of complexity when striving to bring innovation and fresh perspectives. It will be about consolidating our relationships with key stakeholders and building on a strong and strategic expansion with regards to further hotel developments-not small tasks."

Another massive change for Fairmont Hotels & Resorts -apart from being acquired by the world's most powerful hospitality group, and consequently getting a new CEO is that the brand has relocated its global headquarters to Dubai. This decision becomes very interesting when learning that some of the world's main cities were strong contenders for this privilege- after all, history was made in so many of the brand's hotels around the world.

French painter Claude Monet painted evocative scenes of London during several of his visits to The Savoy London, English playwright Noël Coward finished his comedy Private Lives in the penthouse of Fairmont Peace Hotel in Shanghai. Then, 50 world leaders came together in the Garden Room of Fairmont San Francisco in 1945 to sign the Charter establishing the United Nations. Also, the legendary singer of the Beatles John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono made the 1742 suite famous with their week-long Bed-In for Peace at Fairmont The Queen Elizabeth in Montreal. Having in mind these historic moments in the Fairmont properties around the world, Willis reveals that when it was time to decide on the location for the Fairmont brand's global headquarters, there were many options. "New York made sense because half of the brand's current portfolio is located in North America, and Paris was already home to the Accor global headquarters," Willis says. "However, Dubai kept coming back as a strong contender."

Related: Accor's MEA CEO Mark Willis On How His Hospitality Brand Handled The Impact Of The COVID-19 Pandemic

Fairmont The Palm in Dubai. Source: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

When asked why Dubai had such a strong value proposition, Willis explains that the city often being viewed as the epicentre of global progress was enough for the global leadership at Accor to consider it as well positioned base that will help Fairmont Hotels & Resorts to continue making history. "Fairmont is truly a global brand, and Dubai holds a strong position as a global hub, with key strategic proximity and easy access to a large portion of the world," he explains. "Over 70% of the current development projects for Fairmont sit across Europe, Middle East, Africa, and Asia Pacific, including exciting new hotels opening from Bangkok, to the Red Sea in Saudi Arabia, to Prague. A strategically positioned headquarters, plus leadership and offices in key cities around the world, such as London, New York, and Singapore, further positions us to expand to many more beautiful and attractive destinations around the world where the brand currently does not have a presence, such as Jeddah, Bali, or Paris."

Going back to the last year's decision of Accor's Chairman and CEO Sébastien Bazin to create a premium, midscale, and economy division, and a brand-led luxury and lifestyle division, Willis adds here that Accor's luxury and lifestyle division is committed to a number of things. These include strengthening the identities of the Group's iconic brands like Fairmont, investing in top talents, selecting the best locations, and offering unique and innovative experiences, specific to the individual brands, their unique personalities, and positioning.

"For Fairmont, this means that we will be focusing on elevating the brand to bring Fairmont into the new era of luxury hospitality, building upon our more than 100 years of history and setting the stage for the next century," he adds. "We will stay true to our mission of turning moments into memories, and we will balance strengthening loyalty with our existing guests with attracting new guests, namely Gen Z, social culturalists, and HENRY's (high earners, not rich yet)."

Before we part ways, I ask about Willis' main skill for keeping Fairmont Hotels & Resorts on the success trajectory. "I'm listening like crazy," he says. "I take every opportunity, from sharing an elevator, to grabbing coffee in the morning, to check in with the Fairmont team. It's so important through a time of transition to know how people are feeling, and get their insights on how things are going, and where we are headed." As for Willis himself, he is reminding himself to always be unafraid to innovate in his tenure as the CEO of Fairmont Hotel & Resorts. "It might sound crazy to others, but being different is how you make your company stand out and move forward," Willis concludes.

Yigit Sezgin, Global Chief Brand and Commercial Officer at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts. Source: Fairmont Hotels & Resorts

FUTURE FORESIGHT: Yigit Sezgin, Global Chief Brand and Commercial Officer at Fairmont Hotels & Resorts, on the trends that will influence the hospitality sector in 2023.

1. Digital is set to come further into the fore "Digitization continues to increase in importance for luxury hospitality brands, with online platforms, influencer partnerships, and content creators playing a key role in reaching and engaging new audiences. We are seeing some notable investments in digital solutions to enhance the guest journey, including mobile check-ins, keyless entry, facial recognition, and personalized recommendations, though the human touch is still critical to the luxury experience."

2. An increased focus on e nvironmental and social responsibility "Sustainability remains a top priority for travellers, and luxury hospitality brands are taking substantial steps to reduce envi ronmental impact. For example, Accor and Fairmont have removed single-use plastics from the guest experience. We are also working towards making major commitments in the reduction of carbon emissions, and we have implemented management systems to significantly reduce food waste as well."

3. A demand for authentic travel experiences "Wellness will also remain a priority because travellers are looking for both resorts and urban sanctuaries within busy cities to relax and unplug. Authentic travel experiences that provide a taste of local culture are also in demand, while 'bleisure' travellers, who combine work and personal travel, as well as those who work from home away from home, are still on the rise."

4. A rise in F&B-oriented travel "Finally, with the uptick in demand for 'lifestyle' F&B is more important than ever because travellers are choosing their next destination based on the culinary experiences on offer."

Related: Experiences Matter: Yigit Sezgin, Chief Commercial Officer - MEA, Accor, On How The Hospitality Brand Is Driving Its Offerings In The Post COVID-19 Era

Tamara Pupic

Entrepreneur Staff

Managing Editor, Entrepreneur Middle East

Tamara Pupic is the Managing Editor of Entrepreneur Middle East.

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