AccorHotels grabbed headlines two years ago when it announced its ambitious $3 billion purchase of FRHI Holdings Ltd., owner of the Fairmont, Raffles and Swissotel chains and landmark hotels such as London’s Savoy.
This added new luxury properties to a strong portfolio of budget and luxury brands including Ibis, Mercure and Adagio.
Alongside the process of absorbing these huge upscale and luxury brands, the group is going through an ambitious process of digital transformation that aims to put the customer experience at the heart of the group’s operations. Leading this digital charge is Maud Bailly, who became chief digital officer (CDO) of the group on April 3 this year.
Bailly brings with her an impressive track record in public administration and government. She started her career in 2007 at France’s general inspectorate of finances and subsequently worked at France’s public rail operator, SNCF. Her previous role to this current one was in the French Prime Minister’s Office, where she oversaw tax, industrial and numerical affairs under Manuel Valls. Her position of CDO is a brand new one at AccorHotels.
Her role is one where she must leverage technology to bring about changes in how business is done. Though not a techie by training, her work on various digital transformation initiatives in her previous jobs helped prepare her for the current position at AccorHotels. “In my former career, I used to work a lot on digital and technical issues,” she explains. “When I worked in the French administration, in the audit body, I worked in different missions on digitalisation, then I moved to SNCF and I used to work a lot on digitalisation.”
One of her key tasks was to help staff working in the field feel more engaged with company. “They are travelling all the time and don’t see their manager very often. We managed, through digital tools, to reconnect them and make them feel they belong to the company. We managed to create a more dynamic dialogue with a manager they didn’t often see.”
In the French government, Bailly also used to work on IT security issues, something that has familiarised her with the issues surrounding collection of customer data. While the CDO clearly needs a working knowledge of technology, Bailly sees educational leadership as a large part of the job. “I’m not sure that the role of CDO is to be a high level techie guy or lady,” she says.
“After six months, with a lot of humility, I would tell you that my main role is to explain and to lead an educational process. Not to be the techie, but to understand enough to be able then to transmit and share the vision of why we should embrace digital transformation.”
“CDO is about understanding technology, understanding digital tools and being able to develop innovative tools for the hotels, but at the same time I need to educate everyone and help the hospitality sector, which is not a digital native sector, understand everything about digital. I think my main responsibility is about educational process.”
For any customer facing organisation today, a key objective is personalisation of the customer experience. Here, everything is about data and one of Bailly’s key projects is the creation of a worldwide shared database, covering every single property under AccorHotels’ management.
“Therefore, if you travel in an Accor hotel, the ambition is to make sure I have the knowledge of your former stay and I have the knowledge of your preferences so that I can improve your stay in the hotel and personalise it,” she explains. “Because what I strongly believe is that our key lever of differentiation is personalisation. The idea is to be able to launch and implement a worldwide database between all our hotels, all segments, allowing the people in the hotels to better know their customer.”
Personalisation does, of course, mean collecting data on what a customer does and what they like. Bailly is first to point out that she and AccorHotels are well are aware of the ethics around collecting customer data and the possibility of changing customer attitudes towards the practice.
“Data security is very important in Accor,” Bailly stresses. “Sebastien Bazin [AccorHotels CEO] has created the role of chief data protection officer, which not all companies have. The CDPO works very closely with us and the idea is to find the right balance when using this great amount of data about our clients.”
Asked whether or not people might object to their behaviour being logged and stored, she replies: “It depends on the way you do it. If you’re doing in it in an intrusive way, it’s not going to work, but you do it in a delicate way. Those little unexpected services really work and they can touch people.”
As well as delighting customers, the customer data initiative could also help boost employee morale and engagement. Bailly believes that it’s the kind of initiative that enables employees to do their job better and boosts their satisfaction and enthusiasm.
“It is an example of a tool allowing our experience with the client to be better, but at the same time, it also allows us to improve the experience of the employees,” she says. “If you receive the arrival list two days before arrival, you can prepare a better stay and do something special for the customers. The feedback from the employees is great because they have received a great response from the clients. It is what we call ‘Sparkle Stories’ and today there are more than 2000 Sparkle Stories. If you are good at your job and you feel good in your job, the client is going to benefit.”
Another key initiative for Bailly, and another intended point of differentiation for the group, is development of an intelligent chatbot. Known as ‘Phil Welcome’, the bot will interact with a customer when they go online on their smartphone or laptop.
“The way you’re going to create a journey is going to be dramatically changed,” she explains. “A chatbot is about, instead of just typing a request on your laptop or mobile, you have something with machine learning and artificial intelligence that can interact with you. We will no longer have to wait for your request to be typed. We will offer you, by anticipating your desire, a journey. This way of using AI, machine learning and the personal assistant in the conception of your travel experience is going to be key in the future.”
Ultimately, Bailly and her colleagues hope that initiatives like the universal database and chatbot will boost revenue and loyalty. The first step towards that is to create what she calls “client preference and stickiness”.
The backdrop to all this is that the hospitality market is diverse, with lots of operators competing for customer loyalty, and third party online travel agencies (OTAs) taking bookings, often at low rates. These OTAs appeal to guests making last minute bookings, often on smartphones through apps. “Our competitors are not only other hotel groups, but also the pure players in the digital market,” Bailly says. “It’s symptomatic of the digital revolution that our whole economy is facing; therefore, we need to be able to make a difference and remind our customers why we deserve to be chosen.”
Machine learning, artificial intelligence and new technologies are also allowing AccorHotels to improve internal efficiencies. For hotels, a major challenge, and also opportunity, is revenue management and being able to price rooms at the right level depending on a host of factors.
“Revenue management is about predictive tools and having the right pricing strategy depending on the context. Those revenue management tools are really key to maximising the net profitability of the hotels,” Bailly says. “We are developing a new revenue management tool and this tool will be pure machine learning.”
Built into the system, she says, is the option for a human to immediately to take back control, however. “There is no, to me, 100% digital tool. It’s the best use of machine learning and human skills.”
Back to the whole question of collecting and using customer data, Bailly stresses AccorHotels’ complete commitment to General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a pending European Union regulation that governs the collection, protection and use of customer data.
“It’s more demanding, but at the same I feel quite comfortable with that,” Bailly says. “If we have a chief data protection officer, it’s not just to say we have one. We are working really closely with... our chief DPO to ensure we are compliant and consistent with the use of the data.”
“Personalisation isn’t just a great experience for the customer, it must also be about respect. I don’t think it’s going to be easy; for sure, we need data. But I’d rather have a secure and respectful approach to data than collecting every kind of data.”
Another internal initiative is the transformation of IT systems so that new properties and business units can simply be ‘plugged in’ to the group’s IT systems. As the group moves towards a model where it has fewer owned properties, it must function more as a service provider.
“Tomorrow, we’re going to be asset light, we’re going to be a service provider, so we have to be chosen by the final customer and the hotels,” Bailly explains. “We have to not only create stickiness for the customers through loyalty and personalisation, we also have to convince our hotels to choose us. We have to develop booking suites for the hotels, e-procurement tools, we have to develop many, many tools that are also going to make the GM and the management staff in the hotels’ lives easier.”
While a solid technical understanding is necessary in her role, Bailly returns to the theme of the CDO as a person helping to transform how business is done and enthusing colleagues about the changes.
“Yes, I know about digital, I know about data, I know about IT,” she says. “But my role is also about helping people follow a transformation in behaviours. To switch to an asset light, service provider mode requires also a more commercial attitude. As CDO, I’m leading a technological, digital and a cultural transformation.”
Bailly is a member of AccorHotels’ executive committee, but insists the authority to achieve digital transformation is, “also about your capacity to explain and convince people. If people see the utility of your strategy, they are going to buy it.”
As part of her job, she travels regularly to properties to meet with general managers and staff, and understand what digital tools they need. The strategy under which she is driving digital transformation, dubbed ‘Impact’, is part digital, part technological and part cultural. “It’s also about co-design of the solutions,” Bailly adds. “Otherwise, it doesn’t work.”
She also notes that digital transformation is not, for AccorHotels at least, about making do with fewer humans. “In hospitality, transformation is never about giving up people because everything is about the people. I’m just using the technology to empower one thing: the quality of the human stay in the hotel.”
Subscribe to Arabian Business' newsletter to receive the latest breaking news and business stories in Dubai,the UAE and the GCC straight to your inbox.