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Accor’s Mark Willis on the rise of lifestyle brands

  • Accor’s Mark Willis on the rise of lifestyle brands: “I’m fully in”

    The CEO is overseeing a new chapter for the hotel group in the region

    Someone walks past our photo shoot and does a double take at the man sitting in the chair having his photo taken (the picture is the one you can see on the opposite page). Ten minutes later the passer-by returns, just as we move on to another pose and a more casual outfit (much like on the one you see on the cover of this month’s issue). “There’s the Mark Willis I know and love,” he says. “That’s more like it.” He’s referring to Willis being out of a suit and into a T-shirt and jeans, which is a far more usual look for him around the Accor office. There’s nothing out-of-the-ordinary about someone dressing casually for work in 2021, of course, but when it’s the regional CEO of the sixth biggest hotel group in the world, you can understand why it can become a talking point. It’s not something the man himself thinks is too important, however.

    He says: “I don’t want to make too much about the way I dress. I dress appropriately for the setting. If I’m in Saui Arabia, with a hotel owner or in the presence of royal family I dress appropriately. If I’m in my office and with my team then I get a T-shirt on. People aren’t used to seeing me in a suit here. You need to dress to who you are, and I’m not so comfortable in a suit day-to-day.” It is a stark difference to his peers in the Middle East, though, who look a little more obviously corporate than Willis.

    “It’s a group of very different people, but we all get on,” he says of his fellow CEOs, COOs and presidents in the Middle East. “We don’t get together enough, to be honest. We’re competitors but in a positive fashion. There are some wonderful senses of humour in there, as well as knowledge and talent. We’re always available to each other for help or assistance and there’s an open book between us all, especially over past 12 months. We stick together when it’s needed.”

    And what about amongst his own team and his colleagues around the world? He explains: “There are pluses and minuses to not being super corporate. Being more casual is not everyone’s cup of tea when you work in a big corporate but once people grasp that you are who you present yourself as, you bridge any concerns or gaps. I’m seen as honest and transparent, a little carefree, perhaps, but I don’t think that’s a bad thing.

    “I’m not always like that, of course, there are serious topics and conversations that need addressing from time to time. I’m quite a calm individual but of course I take work seriously. We’re not brain surgeons, though, we’re in the hospitality sector. We’re in the ‘making people smile’ business. You can be serious but still have a positive outlook.”

    It’s an outlook that has served him well. A pastry chef by training, Willis got into the hospitality industry in the English Lake District, working in a café in Windermere. He says of the time: “I was amazed that the people working there could cook 200 meals in two hours. That whole vibe in the kitchen I just loved. I was hooked.

    “I found an affinity with food. I’m quite a creative individual and was super-passionate about food. In the 1980s, Nouvelle Cuisine was coming out, I worked at some of the top restaurants in London in my spare time.”

    A man constantly on the move, Willis’ spare time came between college lectures. He’d work two jobs – one after college in the evening and then one overnight doing a bakery shift. “I’m lucky I don’t need to sleep much so I always have a few more hours in my day than most,” he adds.

    Joining Radisson (or Rezidor as it was at the time), Willis worked for legendary hotelier Kurt Ritter, which encouraged him to move out of the kitchen.

    He says: “[Ritter] was adamant that I could be a GM and they could develop me. He sent me on that journey and a few years later I was a GM. He really encouraged me to be more adventurous. Inside the kitchen I was totally confident but outside it, not so much. I had many great years with Radisson as a result.”

    After Radisson, where he rose to be senior area vice president Middle East, Turkey and Africa, he moved to Mövenpick in 2018 and became president of the company’s Asia division. That came with a move to Thailand. Before too long Accor acquired the Swiss brand and Willis was back in Dubai.

    The move to Accor wasn’t one he saw coming. “I didn’t ever think I’d work for Accor,” he exclaims. “I thought it very bureaucratic but I was wrong, and clearly under [CEO] Sebastian Bazin, the company is transformed, and nowhere more so than here in the Middle East.”

    It’s a relationship that Willis says is perfect for him and his personality. He adds: “Luckily I have a CEO with a similar mind set to me. Sebastian is happy to comment on anything as he sees fit, so I don’t get in too much trouble with him for anything I might say. He’s a wonderful guy, a very charismatic individual with an entrepreneurial spirit.

    “Since Sebastian came in there’s been a real change in culture. The company reflects him, he’s open and fun and you see that ethos rippling through the country. Here in the Middle East the area is so dynamic. It’s ever-changing and we have no time for being hesitant.”

    The same can be said for Accor’s regional team under Willis. Comments from colleagues while we’re conducting the interview in the group’s local office show a group of people at ease in the presence of their leader. Even the office itself has been remodelled into a much more social space, complete with casual seating spaces, colourful murals and a cool coffee area.

    The makeup of Accor’s portfolio is also changing – in addition to the company’s cornerstone brands such as Novotel, Mercure and Ibis, and luxury hotels like Raffles, Fairmont and Sofitel, are new signings and partnerships that are firmly in the lifestyle camp. In Dubai alone there’s the SLS Dubai, 25hours Hotel Dubai One Central, Mama Shelter in Business Bay and Th8 Hotel on Palm Jumeirah coming up. And then there’s the partnerships with Ennismore and Faena.

    Willis says: “Alan Faena is a wonderfully flamboyant individual, and his hotel in Miami is one of the best in the world. The atmosphere and how it’s set up is not typical. It’s a wonderful experience. As we go forward with the partnership there’ll be some great projects. It’s never going to be a hundred hotels. They’ll be in special locations. Should Dubai have one, absolutely. Dubai has so much to offer so it would be a super collaboration.
    “The relationship with Ennismore will take us in a different direction. We have 12 brands with a super portfolio across the globe. Look at Dubai and there’s only five percent [of hotels] that is lifestyle. There’s so much scope to grow. I’m a lifestyle guy so I’m fully in.”

    The future of Accor looks healthy, then, with 100 hotels in the pipeline for the next 24 months to add to the 500 almost in operation. But 2020 was not kind to the group, with losses in line with the global pandemic. However, some good did come from the turmoil. Looking back Willis says: “We made decisions very quickly and took a very harsh view as to how the rest of the year would pan out. I’d love to say we made good decisions based on sound information but we didn’t, we guessed. Thankfully we guessed right.”

    Keeping staff informed of what was happening was key, he add: “It was wonderful to see how everyone pulled together but communication, which is always important, became integral. Clear, concise information was needed, and we carried that on throughout the year.

    “It’s amazing to see how people react to adversity. It’s human nature to see how people step forward – no more so than in the hospitality industry and no more so than here in this region. People remained positive throughout the adversity. The year was awful but we made the best of it we could.”

    One of Accor’s innovations was the ALL Heartist Fund, that allowed Accor employees who were affected by Covid-19 access to a EUR70 million pot. With more than 4,000 grants given out so far, it’s a point of pride for the CEO.

    He says: “There I was standing in front of the board asking for millions of our shareholders’ money. It was discussed and finalised and rolled out within two weeks. I really had some hesitation when presenting it but l look at the rest of the big companies around the world, not just hospitality, and people should have done more. That we were able to help people, I’m very proud.

    “Here in the region we’ve lost nearly 20 team members and being able to assist those people was wonderful to be able to do. We’ve changed lives for the better in a really negative situation. Whole teams have been in need of support in some cases.

    “When things are good they’re good, when they’re bad and your team is impacted, to be able to reach out and assist has been a joy. Without Sebastian we’d never have got this to the board who looked past the P&L to the hundreds of thousands of people that work for Accor and agreed it. So hats off to Sebastian and the board.”

    Other things implemented over the course of the year were ALL SAFE, the group’s health and safety measures in partnership with Bureau Veritas, and ALL CONNECT, a hybrid meeting model.

    Willis says: “People are travelling between countries and there’s no aligned infrastructure for what’s acceptable, so it was important for us to be able to put that in place from our perspective. Working with Bureau Veritas has been super.”

    There’s also the little matter of the region’s catchment area expanding, with India, Pakistan and Turkey added to Willis’ remit. He adds: “India is totally new for me, but luckily we have a wonderful office there with some super individuals and a really solid portfolio of hotels with some great flagship properties to open. There’s a lot of inter-country travel.”

    Moving into new territories isn’t something that fazes this seasoned hotelier, however. “You very quickly get your head around the semantics of culture in a location,” the keen photographer explains. “It doesn’t matter where I go I can interact with people. I make a big point of meeting as many people as I can with people at all levels. Especially if you’re in a senior role you need to put the effort in to do that.

    “I am on Instagram a lot and I interact with a lot of team members on there. If I’ve been to a property and I’ll have 40, 60 messages from people at the property. It’s a lot and not everyone will be able to deal with it but for me it’s worth it. If you can make someone smile, it’s important.”

    It all comes back to being a people person, he says: “You need to be yourself. Too many times you see people acting in a certain way, doing what they think is what is expected. You’d always rather meet the real person and get their real perspective on things. I am very open and very transparent, I don’t always have the answer to every question I get asked and that’s okay.”

    And that is the essence of Mark Willis. The man his colleagues have come to know and love. T-shirt and all.

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