Jean-Jacques Dessors, Accor's new managing director for the UK and Ireland, has a passing physical likeness to Napoleon, and it's tempting to describe his, and also Accor's, march into the UK in a Napoleonic light.
But such a characterisation would be unfair to all parties. The 43-year-old Dessors is a much more sympathetic figure than his lookalike - amiable and approachable. And he has lived in the UK with his wife and two daughters for the past four years, so his is hardly a campaign of rapid conquest.
Accor's invasion of the UK, while more successful than Napoleon's, has been achieved more by stealth and, despite now having 93 hotels, it's a long way from dominating the UK hotel sector. "We have a long-term strategy, which is why we sometimes seem a little cautious," says Dessors. "We're taking care of the details."
Despite this, he reckons that Accor is about to raise its game in this country. Already the biggest hotelier in Europe by room numbers, Accor has targeted the UK as a key territory in Europe. It's already by far the biggest player in France, and is number one in Germany, Benelux, Switzerland, Poland and Portugal. But the UK, along with Spain and Italy, has so far been a difficult market to crack.
"The opportunity exists in the UK, whichever brand you speak about," says Dessors. And the numbers of rooms his company has in key European countries certainly supports his view.
Accor divides its hotels by brand, and takes pride in its clear brand structure, covering the range from one-star through to five-star.
At the bottom end of the grading scale are the Formule 1 and Etap brands, slotted into a niche that has few competitors. Next is Ibis, which is caught in the pincer between Travelodge and Premier Travel Inn. All three of these brands are what Accor calls economy hotels.
Moving up a notch, Accor has the midscale Novotel and Mercure brands. Novotel properties are typically new-builds, while the Mercure badge is designed to be hung more readily on existing hotels.
At the very top end there's Sofitel. And it is at the UK flagship hotel for this brand, the Sofitel St James, just off London's Pall Mall, that Dessors tells Caterer about his vision for further UK conquest.
The key focus is in the economy segment, particularly Etap. Given that Dessors's job for the past four years was to run the Ibis, Etap and Formule 1 hotels in the UK and Ireland (he has added Novotel to his empire since the start of the year), this is not surprising.
But Accor is an atypical hotel company in that its emphasis is firmly at the economy end of the spectrum. While its midscale and luxury brands are numerous, in most countries it has more rooms in the economy segment. It invests economy hotels with as much importance as more upscale outlets, if not more. Economy hotels may not have the glamour but they do deliver the returns and, for a business, this is what matters.
There are just three Etaps at present in the UK, but there are another 10 under construction and due to open by the end of next year. "We've launched the first wave of hotels in highly visible locations," says Dessors. "These will be company-operated."
The target is to have 50 Etaps within three years, with a longer-term aim of 100. Although Accor has already launched a franchising programme for this brand in the UK, the first openings are expected all to be run by Accor. "We're not just chasing [franchise] fees," says Dessors. "We have to demonstrate we have the right level of return for our investors."
Originally, Accor had planned to roll out its Formule 1 brand across the UK, but the British public didn't take to bathrooms down the corridor rather than in the room. British tastes have generally been more demanding than those in Continental Europe, particularly in France. This time around, though, Dessors believes the offer is right. "We don't want it to be cheap and nasty," he says. The brand has been refreshed but its basic no-frills offer remains.
Accor's initial push in the UK was with Ibis, but it has proved tough to go head-to-head with market leaders Premier Travel Inn and Travelodge. Dessors says there are opportunities for Ibis in city centres but he doesn't anticipate taking on the bigger (at least in the UK) rivals in roadside locations. "We're too late to be along the road," he admits.
This doesn't mean that Ibis won't grow, however. Three hotels are due to open this year and, most notably, Accor has secured a management contract for a 600-room hotel in London's Trocadero, in the heart of the entertainment district.
With Etap, though, Dessors believes he has a product that undercuts the price point of the two leading UK budget brands. Typically, a room will cost less than £40. Last November, a flagship product opened in Birmingham. This 250-room hotel charges just £39 per room despite its city-centre location, just a short walk from the main rail station. While offering no frills, still each room has air conditioning, a television, a desk and an en suite shower. Breakfast is extra but is available for £2.95 in the property's 24-hour restaurant.
As well as attacking the established budget hotel brands, Dessors argues that Etap will take custom away from Britain's bed-and-breakfasts. He feels the inconsistency of B&Bs is their Achilles' heel, and that a strong brand that delivers on its promise will soon prove the preferred choice of guests. "Even good, independent B&B operations have the challenge of convincing customers that their expectations will be met," he says. "Brands can offer that reassurance."
On the marketing front, simplicity is Dessors's watchword. "Keeping things simple makes the message easier," he says. Rather than mass advertising, which he says is not always cost-effective, other methods of building awareness will be used. The first stage is establishing hotels in visible locations, then there will be a lot of focus on the internet.
A key part of the Etap rollout is managing costs. Thanks to Accor's experience in Continental Europe, Etap properties can be built for about £35,000 per room, with the land cost the main variable. Modular construction techniques are used, with components being imported from Belgium.
The rule of thumb Dessors hopes to stick to is that room rates should be set at roughly 1,000th of the cost of construction. So a £35,000-per-room hotel will cost £35 a night. Cost-consciousness doesn't mean being cheap - Dessors points out that a well-built room will ultimately cost less, thanks to lower running costs.
New sites are being sought. In Glasgow, for example, an Ibis is being built above a car park, and Accor is looking at possible sites above shopping centres.
While Accor has built its global presence mostly through its economy hotels, it has quietly been growing its more upscale offerings as well. The midmarket offer Novotel could double its number of properties in the UK over the next five or six years. Dessors says that between 20 and 30 could be added to the existing total of 30.
The Novotel brand has been refreshed with a number of design and service-level improvements. This helped it win the title of AA Hotel Group of the Year 2005-06. The growth of Sofitel, however, is likely to be more subdued. Accor runs the Sofitel St James and also has two franchised properties, one at Gatwick, the former Le Meridien, and one at Heathrow's Terminal 5, due to open in 2008.
As Sofitel is under the control of Dessors's boss, Michael Flaxman, he's reluctant to comment on this brand.
The success of Napoleon was driven as much by his administrative skills as by his mastery of military tactics. Dessors seems able to emulate his doppelganger's brilliance in strategy, but he's pragmatic enough to avoid Napoleon's folie de grandeur and keep his feet firmly planted on the ground. The Accor invasion is only just beginning.
Accor hotels at the year-end 2005
|Country||Economy/budget rooms||Upscale/midscale rooms||Total|
Accor brands in the UK and Ireland