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The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Thomas Dubaere

25 January 2013 by
The Caterer and Hotelkeeper Interview – Thomas Dubaere

Thomas Dubaere is the managing director of French hotel group Accor in the UK & Ireland. He talks to Janet Harmer about how he is set to grow the company to more than 300 properties within the next two years, making it the country's third largest hotel group behind Premier Inn and Travelodge.

Accor has set itself the ambitious target of having 300 hotels in the UK & Ireland by 2015. Is the company on target to achieve this?

Our future growth is primarily focused on two areas: owned and leased properties in London and managed and franchised properties in the provinces. Ultimately we want to move toward a model of 40% managed, 40% franchised and 20% owned or leased hotels. For this year, we already have 20 concrete openings in the pipeline.

Will growth come from new hotels or rebranding of existing properties? There are unlikely to be many more new build hotels. Our expansion is more likely to come through the upgrading and rebranding of existing hotels - particularly outside London where 60% of all hotels are currently non-branded or independent.

It is very difficult for hotels to exist in a highly competitive market without a brand and as a result we are finding that more 
and more independent hotels are joining us, either through franchise agreements or on management contracts. They find that they benefit from our experience in sales and 
marketing, IT, etc.

Which Accor brands are currently operating within the UK? We have a variety of brands - both standardised and non-standardised - so we can offer owners the opportunity to partner with us across a variety of different segments within the market. Our standardised brands include Novotel (mid-scale), Ibis (economy), Ibis Budget and HotelF1, while the non-standardised brands range from Sofitel (luxury), Pullman and MGalley (both upscale), to Mercure (mid-scale) and Ibis Style (budget).

Accor's economy brands have been repositioned with the launch of Ibis as a mega brand. What improvements has this brought about? The repositioning of Ibis (which has seen Ibis remain as Ibis, All Seasons become Ibis Styles and Etap become Ibis Budget) has been the perfect opportunity to grow awareness of the brand across nearly 1,600 Ibis hotels worldwide. Before, the brand was purely functional and practical. Now it is all about creating an experience and an emotional connection.

Although the hotels are at the economy and budget end of the market, we have added some luxury elements by identifying four things that are a priority for guests.

First, in order to differentiate ourselves from other budget brands, we have designed our own bed (Sweet Bed by Ibis) with the help of engineers in Germany, France and the UK and have added a 7cm topper - something that is only usually found within the luxury sector. We now also include a flat screen TV, which allows for the plug in of an iPad or iPhone, in every bedroom, along with a large work space and big, powerful showers.

But as well as providing these practical elements, we have also aimed to improve the guest's emotional experience when staying at an Ibis by revamping the public areas and giving them freedom to eat wherever they want - be it in the restaurant, bar or central lobby, as well as engage in Tweet Art (an app that turns messages into art, which is then projected onto walls). As a result, as well as training our staff on the rational side of their roles, we are also doing more training on the emotional elements of a guest's stay.

The rebranding of Ibis is costing around £150m across Europe and has involved a big bang TV campaign, which, for the first time, has included the UK. We are already seeing an improvement in brand awareness through 
TripAdvisor and guest satisfaction surveys.

How important is franchising to the future growth of Accor in the UK? Very important - we expect around 60% of our new hotels will be through franchised properties. We now have a full-time franchise department with a strong team, which helps us build a good relationship with our franchisees. We don't just supply the logo, we have a whole support programme behind each agreement, which will help the franchisees improve their top line and become more efficient.

One of the most significant features that shows franchisees how we can help drive business is through our loyalty programme, Le Club, which covers all brands and has 10 million members, 1.2 million of whom are in the UK.

We don't fund the development of a brand in a franchised hotel, we have contacts with investors and can bring the two parties - investors and owners - together.

Which brands will be providing the strongest growth in the future? Mercure and Ibis Style. Both are non-standardised and largely franchised brands. In 2011, we saw 40 franchised Mercure hotels joining Accor and we now have 71 across the UK.

Pullman is a new upscale Accor brand for the UK, with the opening of its first property last year. Will there be any more? Yes, there is definitely potential to grow the brand, maybe up to eight or 10. The main driver is finding the right location. The first one opened on the Euston Road in London, but they don't all have to be in the capital. However, they have to be within a city that has strong MICE business.

The 312-bedroom London hotel, which was converted from a Novotel, is performing well. It is a leased property and by the time the conversion is complete in May, we will have spent £13m on its refurbishment. That is money we need to get back by increasing the room rate. There are currently 55 Pullmans worldwide, including 25 in Europe. The idea is to double the number in Europe over the next two to three years.

MGallery is another relatively new brand to the UK, with just two hotels. What does it offer the market? We have two at the moment - the St Ermin's in London and the St Francis in Bath. 
MGallery is a soft branding and the hotels have a very different DNA from one another. The hotels do not have to be in major city centres, they can be in secondary cities, but they do require the owners to be willing to invest the necessary amount of money needed to upgrade the properties, but always keeping the soul and originality of the building. So our ambition is to find partners who are willing to make the investment.

Does Accor have plans to introduce any new brands into the UK? Yes, we shall be opening the first Adagio in Liverpool this year. It is a mid-scale aparthotel, focused on the mid- to long-stay guest. Adagio is mainly in Europe, but there are 88 worldwide. We won't be operating the Liverpool property - which will have 125 units from studios to two-room apartments - directly; it will be looked after from Europe. However, there is the potential for 10 to 15 Adagios to open in city centres across the UK.

Accor has recently undergone a reorganisation of its structure and operational setup in Europe. How has that impacted your role? Alongside being managing director for the UK & Ireland, I have also taken on responsibility for the Ibis brands across Northern Europe. The idea is that, by having a head of each brand across a number of countries, there will be greater coherency, enabling each brand to grow faster and stronger.

With such rapid growth across Accor in the UK, how are you ensuring that you have a solid workforce to staff the new hotels? We currently have 5,000 staff in the UK and expect to take on an extra 3,500 by 2015 as a result of our expansion. Our new Académie Accor, which opened a year ago at the Novotel Hammersmith, helps provide high visibility training for our franchise partners.

We have 50-60 different training packages, covering every department including the kitchen, reception and accounts, as well as different programmes for the different brands. It provides the opportunity for staff to become multi-skilled, so, for instance, a breakfast waiter knows how to work as a receptionist.

Many staff come into the industry with a low level of skill, but training allows them the opportunity to move into a different job, brand or location. Around 65-75% of Accor's UK managers started their working life in hotels as receptionists or waiting staff.

You have now been in the UK for two and a half years. Do you intend to stay? We very much like the vibrancy and multicultural nature of living in London. You often think your children - ours are eight and 10 - will be the biggest problem, but they really like being here. I'm also enjoying the professional challenge. In France we are number one, but not here, so there is no comfort zone.

THOMAS DUBAERE - CAREER TO DATEThomas Dubaere is a graduate of the Brussels Hotel School and has a masters degree in management from the University of Leuven.

He began his career with Accor in Belgium in 1990 at the Novotel Bruges Centre and held several general manager positions before being appointed delegate director, economy brands (Ibis, Etap & F1), Belgium in 2004, and then director of operations, economy brands, Belgium and Luxembourg in 2005.

Dubaere arrived in the UK two and half years ago as managing director, budget brands, Accor UK & Ireland. During his time in the job, he played a key role in the expansion of the budget brands network and helped develop the Ibis megabrand, which was launched in 2012, and saw Ibis, Etap and All Seasons evolve into a three-strong brand of Ibis (previously Ibis), Ibis Styles (All Seasons) and Ibis Budget (Etap).

Dubaere was appointed as Accor's managing director for the UK & Ireland in February 2012, replacing Jean-Jacques Dessors, and has recently added responsibility for the Ibis brands across Northern Europe to his portfolio. He also sits on the board of directors at the British Hospitality Association.

ACCOR - A BRIEF HISTORY

The origins of Accor date back to 1967 when the first Novotel opened in Lille Lesquin, France. Following the launch of the first Ibis in Bordeaux in 1974, the acquisition of the Mercure chain the following year and the addition of Sofitel - the jewel of four-star French hotels - in 1980, Accor formally came into being in 1983. Today it operates 12 brands (Sofitel, Pullman, MGallery, Grand Mercure, Novotel, Suite Novotel, Mercure, Adagio, Ibis, Ibis Styles, Ibis budget and hotelF1) across 3,436 hotels in 92 countries worldwide.

In the UK, Accor operates 188 hotels across nine 
brands (3 Sofitel, 1 Pullman, 
2 MGallery, 71 Mercure, 30 Novotel , 55 Ibis, 3 Ibis Styles, 18 Ibis Budget and 5 hotelFI).

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