As sustainability and wellness become increasingly important drivers for guests, Accor CEO Sofitel, MGallery and Emblems, Maud Bailly tells HM how the hospitality giant is elevating the guest experience in the luxury and lifestyle division.

Maud, it’s just over three months since you started your new role under Accor’s global restructure. How is it going? Do you think having a laser focus on a specific segment will deliver better outcomes for brands?

In my previous role, I was lucky enough to be CEO of Southern Europe. I was in charge of all the brands across seven countries, 1900 hotels – it was a lot to deal with. In the new organisation, which is officially live since January 1, we have two distinctive divisions; one is fully dedicated to Premium, Midscale and Economy brands, organised around geographies, the other division is Luxury and Lifestyle, organised around Maison. In my case, this Maison is dedicated to four brands – Sofitel, Sofitel Legend, MGallery and Emblems – at a worldwide level.

The idea is more simplicity, laser focus, and more accountability – this is what owners are looking for. The obsession is to get into the nitty gritty of the power and potential of each of our brands. I’ve been traveling everywhere since October, and even more since January, because, having only 241 hotels, it’s big enough to have an impact but small enough to give me the chance to get to know each property and to meet each owner – they all have a different story and profile because every region is different. You need to be culturally relevant.

Is luxury a particular passion of yours? And how do you think that luxury consumer has changed in recent years as a result of the pandemic?

To me, luxury is really interesting because it’s about people. You can have the best hotel in town with the most beautiful product quality but if the service is not there, you will never have the impression of luxury. I often say that luxury is an attitude. It’s about seamlessness, refinement, elegance – elegance of the design, refinement of food – but it’s not enough. It’s a bespoke approach. Within the Maison, we are going to develop the network, refurbish many assets, and we are going to build a culture – because it’s really human driven. We are going to relaunch major training about luxury codes, but also about emotional intelligence – this is a great way to take care of people, to know their preference.

I think post COVID, especially in the luxury industry, people want something that is genuinely authentic, with emotion and experience, not simply transactional. It’s about value for money. They want memories and more than ever, especially in luxury hospitality, we need to be memory makers.

As guests become more and more conscious about their environmental footprint, how do you balance demand for sustainability while delivering on the expectations of the luxury guest?

Accor has always been a pioneer on ESG. We have a program, Planet 21, which is an internal certification and CSR that we launched years ago, far before it became something we had to do. We don’t want to wait for regulation to be compliant. I do strongly believe that the hotels of tomorrow must be sustainable, or they won’t exist anymore. Last year, we launched our roadmap around seven pillars: eliminate single-use plastics, achieve carbon neutrality, fight against food waste, introduce eco-certified hotels, promote diversity, and give back.

In the guest experience, I think it’s about communication and even education. The day we stopped having plastic bottles in our hotels we had a very mixed reaction from guests. Some were super happy and even more choosing us for that; others were complaining because they felt they were losing a privilege.

We’re here in The Porterhouse Sydney, which is a beautiful MGallery hotel. MGallery was initially positioned in the Premium segment, but it has since moved over into Luxury. What has changed to elevate it to that level across the group?

I often say that a good sign of success of a brand is its premiumisation, and that is what has happened with MGallery. Recently, the MGallery hotels opening all around the world are four and even five stars. Our goal is to ensure we are elevating the entire network, opening only flagships. And today, to us, it’s clearly belonging to luxury as a boutique hotel. It’s not the traditional big luxury hotel, it’s below 150 keys, homely, cozy, a dedicated unique destination [with its own story to tell].

These unique properties and collection hotels are becoming more and more popular. Are you seeing guests moving towards that and away from the traditional style of hotels?

You can see from the figures in our pipeline what people are looking for. Today, we have 120 MGallery hotels all around the world and we’ve got 52 in the pipeline. They’re all beautiful, all unique, and the idea for us is to make MGallery the most famous network of [collection hotels]. You arrive as a guest and leave as a ‘Collectionist’ – you are looking forward to discovering new MGgallerys because you know it’s going to be a different experience.

The new kid on the block in your Maison is Emblems – there is currently one hotel in Guiyang in China. What can we expect from this brand in the future?

Launching a new brand from scratch is tricky and very demanding because you have to be really consistent with what you want to do. Otherwise, you are saying a property is an Emblems when it’s not and you’re just killing the brand from scratch because you are diluting the brand standards. Emblems belongs to the soft brand collection in a boutique hotel collection.

You have MGallery which is between four- and five-stars, boutique hotel, and Emblems is an exclusively five-star layer of this boutique hotel collection. We’ve got three criteria for Emblems: epic location – it has to be fabulous; the second is intimate feel – the very first one in China looks huge but there are only 64 suites so you will have this unique feeling of intimacy; and charismatic allure.

Then there are three categories of Emblems: Heritage, which is mostly about conversion of historical buildings – recently we have been pitching a very famous historical building. Then you have Design, it could be new buildings, providing they embody the signature look of very famous designer or architect.

Then there is the Retreat category, which I think will be ideal for Pacific. This is about deep connection to nature and a deep CSR commitment for luxury boutique hotels. It could be a beautiful eco lodge in Queenstown in an eco-regenerative building with a strong CSR commitment around plastic etc. plus a strong wellness offer. The promise will be to be sustainable in all these dimensions.

How is the wellness offering evolving across the luxury segment?

I’m often saying that the traditional approach of wellness is a bit old fashioned. Spending one week in a bathroom, starving, and waiting for a burger? No. I think post COVID people don’t want to just look good, they want to feel good. It’s about realignment, disconnection, rejuvenation. We are currently working on a label that will be attached to each of our brands called The Purist.

We started a pilot in June in the MGallery in Normandy, in the north of France. We want to be very humble and prove it works first. It will be a holistic approach to wellness through four pillars: treatments, sleep, nutrition, and sport. The combination of these four pillars is, to me, what people are looking for post COVID – something more bespoke, tailor made.

There is a lot of talk about market challenges this year with inflation and a potential recession in the latter half of the year. What’s your outlook for 2023 and how these challenges might affect the luxury guest?

We have had the same concerns for a while, especially after COVID, but I can say so far, it’s not happening. Accor’s 2022 results show business is back, even above 2019 results. Yes, there is inflation, there is geopolitical tension; unfortunately, there is a war, there is tension on energy – nevertheless, the industry is literally booming. Plus, China, Asia hasn’t really reopened yet.

The development perspective in Pacific is really good, which makes us super happy, but there’s still many destination where we can be.

I’m always confident and humble, you never know. We are cautious, but that doesn’t time we shouldn’t be happy and celebrate, because the industry is back.