Poised for growth

Christophe Landais, MD, Accor, Middle East, talks to SHAFQUAT ALI about the company’s plans to become the biggest hotel group in the region
Landais … ‘Our confidence stems from the diversity of our products’

EARLIER this year, Accor, Middle East, announced its plans to become the biggest hotel group in the region.

As part of a reorganisation exercise to facilitate the massive expansion drive, Christophe Landais was promoted as managing director, Accor, Middle East. Even though Landais, who was earlier the French hospitality group’s Middle East regional director, tries to play down the responsibilities his new assignment has brought with it – “nothing has changed really – whether it’s a coffee machine or a person’s ability, the responsibility is always the same,” he joked with TTN – he is in no way unmindful of the huge task before him.
“Four years ago, in the region, we had nine hotels – hotels which were not necessarily matching their own brand specification but now they are,” he says. “A year ago, we increased to 22 hotels. Now, we want to double our presence in the Middle East to over 40 properties and have in excess of 10,000 rooms over the next three years. Already, five new hotels are under way in Saudi Arabia the all-suite Mercure Grand is nearing completion in Bahrain and 1,500 new rooms are due to come on-stream in the UAE. In addition, we are at an advanced stage of negotiations for new developments in Qatar, Kuwait, Syria, and Lebanon as well as in other countries where we already have a presence.”
But what makes Landais so confident about achieving the company’s ambitious target and, more to the point, succeeding in a highly-competitive market in which every international hotel chain worth its brand name is fighting it out? “Our confidence stems from the diversity of our products – from budget to upscale hotels, we have it all,” Landais explains.
He goes on to add: “In Dubai, we are overwhelmed by the response to Novotel and Ibis. Both these properties, offering value-for-money accommodation for middle-level executives, have filled a gap in the market and we are not surprised that, only a year after they opened, the occupancy at both Novotel and Ibis stands at over 90 per cent. We are now planning to develop further the Ibis products throughout the Gulf region – in Dubai alone we expect to have in excess of eight Ibis properties in the near future.”
Landais points out that now that these brands have made their mark in the market, it will make it easier for Accor to promote them. “Arab investors, in particular, prefer to put their money in a tangible concept that they can touch and feel,” he adds. “Given that the success of the Novotel and Ibis brand is before the people, there has been a huge increase in investor enquiries. If anything, we are now taking a very selective approach and have even turned down a few prospective investors, who didn’t meet the criterion we have laid down.”
It’s true that Ibis has addressed a growing demand in the market and Novotel has filled another gap, but what plans does Accor have for the luxury market? “Sofitel is recognised as one of the top luxury brands in the world now and we want to further develop it. We plan to have eight Sofitel flagship hotels, with new specifications, by 2007. Sofitel Jumeirah Beach Residence, due to open by the end of 2006, will be among the first to showcase our offering.”
The Middle East is one of three regions Accor has identified as growth ‘hotspots’ for outbound sales activities – the others being China and Russia – and Landais feels the 40-percent growth target for outbound sales set by the company in the region is very “realistic”. According to him, one of the key factors in Middle East growth is Accor’s representation by Airlink, one of the region’s biggest movers of cargo and people with annual sales of more than $68 million. Airlink corporate members benefit from exclusive hotel rates at Accor properties worldwide that can be pre-booked through a toll free number connecting Dubai and the Gulf countries. Accor’s Dubai international sales office for outbound activities is now managed from Paris in close cooperation with Airlink. Besides the potential growth expected to be generated out of the Dubai office, Accor is also strengthening its presence in Saudi Arabia and plans to extend its sales representation there. “The potential of the KSA region is tremendous,” says Landais.
Landais goes on to stress that the expansion programme underlines the company’s commitment to the region. “Our policy, as committed citizen company, is to recruit and train local personnel so that our hotels reflect the national culture and character of the region,” he explains.
That Accor has entered into a unique training partnership with The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management and launched the ‘Académie Accor Arabian Peninsula’ is further proof of Accor’s long-term commitment to the Middle East, Landais says. “The ‘Académie Accor Arabian Peninsula’ acts as the focus for training design, ensuring overall consistency of course content and its coherence with the Accor group culture,” he says. “I am sure all existing and future Accor hotels in the region will greatly benefit from the training provided here as it will help enhance the quality of service and employees’ professionalism.”