Maud Bailly isn’t a dyed-in-the-wool hotelier. In fact, had it not been for a chance dinner, she would have probably been currently employed in the private banking industry. Bailly previously worked as the head of the economic and digital department at French Prime Minister Manuel Valls’ office. Six years ago though, she found herself at a power dinner with the likes of Pascal Lamy, the former director-general of the World Trade Organization; Louis Gallois, the former CEO of SNCF, France’s state-owned railway company and none other than Sébastien Bazin, CEO of Accor Group. As the conversation that evening drew on from Brexit to other matters, at some point Bailly found herself engaging directly with Bazin. “I was considering a move to the private banking industry after having spent 10 years as a civil servant. We started discussing [the hospitality industry], and Sébastien said, ‘You should join Accor.’ ” Given that Bailly already, as she says, admired her potential boss’ commitment and dedication to the hospitality industry, she didn’t require much further convincing.

Bailly joined Accor in 2017 as its chief digital officer at a worldwide level in charge of diverse functions including the group’s IT, data, sales and guest experience programme. She previously worked as the director of Paris Montparnasse station and the deputy director of the TGV product, where she says that her experience in rethinking guest experiences in ecosystems such as stations and trains came in handy when doing the same with hotels.

But Bailly with an extensive career in finance, realised that her core competency was business and crunching numbers. “After three years at Accor, I went back to Sébastien and told him that I wanted to have a P&L once again, and have my own business. That’s when he gave me Southern Europe to run.”

The Southern Europe market for Accor comprises France, Spain, Italy, Greece, Portugal, Malta and Israel. It represents the biggest P&L for the group and covers 1,900 hotels. Bailly was handed the baton when the global hospitality industry was suffering its worst catastrophe in several decades. She took charge of the Southern Europe market in October 2020 when most countries in the world were at their strictest levels of lockdowns. “We went through hell, but we survived…and we even got a bit stronger,” says Bailly of that time. “Even during Covid, we managed to open a hotel every four days.”

Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo in Panama City (Image: Supplied by Accor)
Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo in Panama City (Image: Supplied by Accor)

Digging deep
Accor has some of the world’s most recognisable hotel brands within its portfolio and has grown from roughly 13 brands a decade ago to over 40 today. It includes the likes of Sofitel, Raffles, Orient Express, Fairmont, Banyan Tree and Emblems, among dozens more.

Recently released figures by Accor suggest that its pandemic strategy not to stall expansion was a prescient one. In 2022, the group’s revenue climbed 80 per cent year-on-year to €4.22 billion. Last year, Accor opened 299 hotels, corresponding to 43,000 rooms. It resulted in a 3.2 per cent net organic growth in its network. By the end of December 2022, the group had a global hotel portfolio of 5,445 hotels (802,269 rooms), with a pipeline of 1,247 hotels (216,000 rooms).

In October last year, Accor also announced a significant internal reorganisation to streamline performance among its different brands. There are two main divisions: ‘Economy, Midscale and Premium Division’ and ‘Luxury and Lifestyle Division’. The former includes ibis, Movenpick and other brands all the way up to its Pullman offering. The latter division comprises of Accor’s upmarket brands including Ennismore.

“The two divisions are not independent, but autonomous. The economy, midscale and premium division is organised around geographies. Our luxury and lifestyle division is organised around maisons. So you have one maison looking after Sofitel, Sofitel Legend, MGallery and Emblems based in Paris. One maison based in Dubai is in charge of Fairmont. One maison based in London is in charge of Ennismore brands – so Mama Shelter, Tribe and 21c. One maison, based in New York, is in charge of Orient Express and Raffles,” explains Bailly.

Bailly, at the time that the reorganisation took effect at the start of this year, was handed the global P&L for the maison based out of Paris and tasked to look after the worldwide portfolio of Sofitel, Sofitel Legend, MGallery and Emblems. She classifies Sofitel and Sofitel Legend as hard brands – those that have to follow strict brand guidelines. MGallery and Emblems are what she calls soft brands, which are more flexible in their approach and requirements.

She explains that there are 111 Sofitels around the world. We caught up with Bailly at the Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk. The idea behind Sofitel, according to Bailly, is to introduce French flair, but without crushing the local culture. A recent example of a high-profile Sofitel opening is the Sofitel Barcelona Skipper, while the global pipeline for the brand stands at approximately 24 hotels. Sofitel Legend, sits one level higher than Sofitel and there are only six in the world – Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi, Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan in Egypt, Sofitel Legend The Grand Amsterdam, Sofitel Legend Peoples Grand Hotel Xian in China, Sofitel Legend Santa Clara Cartagena in Columbia and the Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo in Panama.

“MGallery and Emblems follow a different rationale compared to Sofitel and Sofitel Legend. MGallery hotels are between four- and five-star properties and have a maximum average of 150 keys in each hotel. We have a network of 120 MGallery properties worldwide and a pipeline of 52,” says Bailly. MGallery hotels are built around what the brand calls ‘memorable moments’ attached to each property – you can take a boat ride from the hotel in Brittany to watch dolphins, lounge poolside in the Molitor property in Paris where the bikini was believed to have been invented and first showcased, or stay in the Cabourg hotel in a region where French writer Marcel Proust searched for the perfect madeleines.

“Emblems sits above MGallery and is five-star only. Emblems is all about fairytale places. It has to meet three very strong criteria: handpicked location, intimate feel with privacy, and charismatic allure. You have three further categories of Emblems: Heritage which are conversions of historical buildings; Signature which I think would be really interesting for [the Middle East] where you can have a famous architect or designer create an Emblems building; and the third category is Retreat with a focus on sustainability.”

Accor is yet to open its first Emblems property. Plans have already been unveiled though for two Emblems in China, one in Vietnam and another in the Philippines. The goal is to develop 60 Emblems around the world over the next 10 years. “I’m mostly saying no to many leads, because I’m launching this new brand and I want to ensure that we have a consistent and undiluted collection,” reveals Bailly.

The Middle East is a market that Bailly characterises as “booming”. Figures released by Accor for all its brands in the India, Middle East Africa, and Turkey (IMEAT) region showed that RevPAR there was 73 per cent higher in Q4 2022 compared to Q4 2019 which was the pre-pandemic period. While Bailly says that her team has identified the opportunity for a new Sofitel branded residences and Emblems project in the UAE – but were still to sign on the dotted line – she singled out Saudi Arabia as a major destination for expansion. The RevPAR for the full-year 2022 for all of Accor’s brands in Saudi was 47 per cent higher than in 2019. “Saudi Arabia is clearly the new El Dorado. We’ve just signed two properties for Saudi Arabia – a Sofitel and an MGallery – and it’s only the beginning. People are telling me that Riyadh would be a perfect destination for Sofitel, and also for Sofitel branded residences, while Jeddah will be a paradise for MGallery and maybe even Emblems,” notes Bailly.

Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk (Image: Supplied by Accor)
Sofitel Dubai The Obelisk (Image: Supplied by Accor)

Looking ahead
Bailly pulls no punches in her assessment of the perception of the hospitality industry’s sustainability standings in the eyes of some external observers. “Our industry is so far very much considered as a predatory one, and I think we need to prove that we can also give back,” she says. “Hospitality in 2030 will be more sustainable, and carbon neutral. [Our] hotels will be eco-certified – otherwise they will not have any MICE activity. They will need to be chosen during the RFP stage according to their [commitment to] being eco-certified. Hotels will also have to go one step further and bring a positive impact to their local environment i.e. regenerative hotels. CSR norms need to be embedded from scratch in the new projects. When you’re a company as big as Accor – 5,300 hotels worldwide – we have a major responsibility to contribute to the hospitality of tomorrow.”

Geographically, Bailly’s maison is evenly spread across major markets. Sofitel and MGallery are well-represented in Europe. Though Bailly points out that there is potential for Emblems and Sofitel Legend properties to open in Europe too. She adds that the Asia Pacific region is “on fire” and there are upcoming openings in Australia, Vietnam and Greater China. She says that there are 22 Sofitels in Greater China alone.

Over to the Americas, and Sofitel has several high-end properties including the Sofitel Mexico City Reforma and the Sofitel Legend hotels in Panama and Colombia. “The challenge though is still the US market,” admits Bailly. “We started working on the renovation of the network and increasing our awareness there. Every time I fly to the US, I feel like the challenger…which is a good humility lesson. If you look at the immensity of the US market, you can imagine the crazy potential for the development of Sofitel, Emblems and MGallery there. It’s going to be my homework for the coming years.”