What motivated you to pursue a career in luxury hospitality?
My family moved frequently when I was growing up and that gave me the taste for travel. We lived in places like Finland, Belgium, Uruguay, France and finally Switzerland. My parents enjoyed entertaining and my father was a hobby cook and a wine connoisseur. This piqued my interest in good food, wine, hosting people, and the art of conversation, which have become my passions. When it came time to choose a career, I wanted to continue traveling the world and so the hotel business seemed to be a natural choice. Looking back, I still think I made the right decision and I’ve enjoyed every day of my business life.
How has the definition of luxury changed in the past years?
When I started my career, luxury hospitality was focused on fine products and good service. Impressive buildings, marble, chandeliers, expensive restaurants. The new luxury is clearly more experience driven with a more causal engaging approach. Luxury travellers today are more discerning and everyone has a different view of what luxury means to them. There is no cookie cutter approach and a high level of personalization is key to success. The luxury travel industry has become a very crowded place compared to a few years ago when the big established brands were dominant. Excellent small luxury hotel groups have emerged and independent hotels are challenging established operators and attracting luxury travellers with a highly personalized and experience driven service approach.
Which do you regard as long term disruptors and which are the opportunities the luxury hotel sector should focus on?
First, I would say finding ways to deliver luxury experiences in eco-sensitive ways. Protecting the health and welfare of our destinations is as important to our guests as it is to our own long-term sustainability. Recent research from Skift shows that 73% of millennials choose companies with strong environmentally sustainable practices, so this is an important demographic shift.
Second, macroeconomic risks are increasing, in terms of climate change, health, safety and security issues, and unprecedented migration streams. The lack of predictability and the magnitude of such events can see a local market risk quickly escalate to a global scale. Hybrid operations could become a market disruptor; hotels finding that perfect mix between local adaptations and global standards.
Third, tech-augmented hospitality is helping us service guests in a significantly more connected way, striking the right balance between automated solutions and human interaction. For example, our ″smart room″ conceived by Accor’s Design Solutions department is designed for people with reduced mobility, but not exclusively. A connected tablet allows guests to adjust the lighting or music, close the curtains or tilt the bedhead. The closet is replaced with easy to access shelves and sliding rods, and LED motion sensor lighting at the foot of the bed makes it safer to get up during the night. This innovative concept will appeal to many guests who increasingly want greater flexibility, simplicity and personalization.
What makes up the DNA of a successful luxury hotel brand? Unlike other luxury sectors, how would you define desirability when it comes to luxury hotels?
More than ever, the ability of a luxury hotel to personalize the guest experience is what determines success. We have a greater capacity for gathering, sharing and tracking guest data, we have staff who are skilled at understanding the balance of providing personal care with professional discretion, and we have more resources to allow for the design and communication of customized travel experiences.
When a brand does it well, the local soul of a place is not only preserved, but celebrated – with the resources to provide more cultural programming, more local producers and more community involvement. A great example of this is The Savoy, A Fairmont Managed Hotel set along the River Thames in London, in the midst of the vibrant arts and theatre district of Covent Garden. From the hotel’s famous Afternoon Tea, to The Savoy Book Butlers, to the classic Rolls Royce chauffeur service, the hotel is as intrinsic to London’s culture as it was 120 years ago when Claude Monet painted the Waterloo Bridge and Charing Cross Bridge from the vantage point of his suite at The Savoy. A suite, which by the way, many guests enjoy to this day.
How important is consistency of a luxury hotel offering given properties operate in a distinct context and most often under different ownership?
The quality of our guest experience, and our ability to deliver consistently seamless and welcoming service of the highest caliber across our network, is at the centre of our being. Every one of our luxury hotels around the world strives to not only uphold, but continuously improve on the quality and consistency of their unique, brand-distinct offering. Luxury demands an exceptional product and absolutely requires us to surpass the expectations of our guests, every single time.
Accor owns several luxury brands split across several layers. Tell us more about the competitive advantages of each brand.
With world-leading brands, Accor is the steward of an extraordinary network of remarkable hotels, iconic properties and grand landmarks. We honor the distinct personalities and histories redolent in each of our magnificent hotel brands and we support and foster the unique positioning that each brand has carved out within the luxury hospitality marketplace.
- Dating back to 1887, Raffles is an illustrious brand known for its distinguished addresses and service that is both gracious and intuitive. Known as havens for royalty, film stars, writers and artists, Raffles locations appeal to well-travelled guests who appreciate discreet and charming hotel experiences.
- The Orient Express brand rises again with the opening of the Orient Express Mahanakhon Bangkok later this year. The vision is to build a collection of prestigious hotels, steeped in tradition, legend and luxurious adventure.
- Debuting in 1907, the Fairmont brand is known for its grand and awe-inspiring hotels and thoughtful and engaging colleagues who aim to make each and every stay a cherished and memorable experience. Wherever Fairmont resides, its extraordinary hotels are at the cultural and social epicenter of the community.
- Sofitel offers the finest of French modern luxury, where global voyageurs can indulge in chic experiences that capture the brand’s art-de-vivre spirit and celebrate the joie de vivre of daily life, the French way. Sofitel Legend, with its heritage addresses, offers the ultimate luxury experience that is both timeless and elegant.
- SO/ Hotels & Resorts reveals an unmistakably playful and audacious interpretation of luxury. As the place to be and be seen, each address has a distinct personality, style, and even its own fashion signature by a renowned designer.
- Rixos Hotels, a fast growing, all-inclusive resort brand located primarily in EMEA markets, caters to travelers seeking traditional Turkish hospitality, fine cuisine and unique spa experiences.
Beyond a well-defined interior design aesthetic, how are customer service standards calibrated specifically to each brand?
Sofitel is a great example. As the first international luxury hotel brand to have originated from France, the brand is a global ambassador of French style and art de vivre. As a result, guests feel the influence of French culture throughout all touch-points of their stay. Upon arrival, they are welcomed in French by impeccably dressed staff wearing designs from a chic French fashion designer. The hotel interiors are styled with French flair, providing a style of soft power and subtle glamour that is uniquely French. And of course, the culinary team infuses the menus and dining experiences with an intriguing blend of French traditions and modern gastronomic techniques, from apéro chic in the bar to afternoon le goûter, to gastronomie française in the dining room.
In contrast, at Raffles, the brand has developed an elite and bespoke style of service to appeal to guests at a very personal and VIP level. For instance, there is an art concierge at the Royal Monceau – Raffles Paris, who will secure tickets to elite exhibitions and provide private guided tours; while a marine butler with biology credentials at Raffles Maldives Meradhoo will lead guests through private underwater explorations that are both educational and exhilarating.
So you can see how each brand puts its own twist on guest experiences and engagement, with very different styles and service standards.
How is Accor prepared to respond to the demands and expectations of investors, developers and owners of luxury hotel properties?
We have experienced, knowledgeable and well-resourced development teams in place at a central level and across our core regions, all of which are very conversant with our current and potential ownership groups. This is appreciated by the development community, who appreciates working with a collaborative group that understands their needs and supports their business objectives.
Increasing our commitment to developers is in line with the overall repositioning of our business from a traditional economy and midscale hotel owner and operator to where we are now a more balanced group with critical mass in the luxury travel & lifestyle segments as well. This new asset light business model allows us to deliver greater value in marketing and management skill to our owners; while creating stronger and more differentiated brand experiences for our guests.
This shift has been widely embraced by hotel owners, investment groups, and developers as we continue to set a record pace of signing new letters of commitment for luxury developments and hotel conversions.
For Europe, which are the luxury hotel brands of Accor which are likely to see the biggest growth in terms of expansion? Are there any particular European markets which you are particularly focusing on?
Fortunately, all of our luxury brands have excellent growth opportunities in Europe. This will be driven through organic growth, reflags and/or future acquisitions. Thinking of rapid growth and development opportunities across Europe, where Accor is the largest operator, it’s important to note that only 32% of hotels in the hospitality industry are branded. This provides a huge opportunity to Accor in a market where we already have the leading position, as we can very easily look to bolt on new hotels to our brands where there is a cultural and stylistic fit. Raffles Europejski Warsaw is a perfect example of how we brought a historic and iconic former independent hotel into our fold. Fairmont Golden Prague and Fairmont Windsor Park are two more reflag projects currently in the works.
Marc Dardenne, who most recently served as Chief Operating Officer of Amaala an ultra-luxury resort destination project on the Red Sea sponsored by the Public Investment Fund and former Interim CEO and Chief Operating Officer at Jumeirah Hotels & Resorts in Dubai, will now oversee the operations of around 50 luxury hotels in Europe and 9 properties under development. This includes top tier brands like Raffles, Fairmont, SO/, Sofitel and others as well as flagship properties such as Raffles Europejski Warsaw, Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam and The Savoy, A Fairmont Managed Hotel in London.
Dardenne is an accomplished hotelier with nearly four decades of global hospitality experience in both hotel and real estate groups. Earlier in his career, he worked with Ritz Carlton, then Emaar Hospitality, where he collaborated with Giorgio Armani to shepherd the expansion of the Armani brand into hospitality with ultra-luxury hotels in Dubai and Milan. Dardenne has also been involved in developing unique luxury and lifestyle brands such as The Address Hotels and Resorts, Patina Hotels & Resorts and Zabeel House.
Throughout his career, Dardenne has been recognized with several industry awards and commendations, such as the Feigenbaum Leadership Excellence Award (Middle East); CEO of the Year, by the Hospitality and Tourism Sector, CEO Middle East; and General Manager of the Year by Hotelier Middle East. Originating from France, Belgium and Switzerland, Dardenne studied at the Hospitality School in Lausanne and is fluent in English, French and German.
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