We aren’t in the museum business, we are in the peoples’ business

India is a huge hospitality market and more brands from Accor’s diverse portfolio will arrive here in the near future, says Mark Willis, CEO, Middle East, India, Africa And Turkey

He is an Englishman in a french corporation who kick-started his career in the hospitality industry as a steward in a London hotel, a fact he shares without any qualms. And today, about four decades on, Mark Willis heads Accor Group’s Middle East, India, Africa and Turkey operations as its CEO. Willis also doesn’t shy away from telling us that he failed to finish school as he didn’t pay enough attention back then, but worked his way up the ladder in an industry which he says has been a blessing.     

“I loved the hospitality industry from the word ‘go’ and feel happy to be its integral part as it continues to grow forever, above and beyond other sectors. The beginning from the base level helped me learn the key functions of a hotel. It has been an amazing journey. I consider myself fortunate to enter the industry in London during the Food Revolution of the 80s and work in a Michelin star restaurant as well as some fabulous hotels. Moving out of the kitchen, I couldn’t believe that I got to the position of a General Manager a few years later. Thereafter, I completed my MBA,” says Willis. 

An avid photographer and a social media enthusiast, Willis is a die-hard Manchester United fan who relishes good food as much as he loves to cook it. “The hospitality industry allows me to work and play within the same infrastructure. What else would one want in bargain?” says Willis, adding that India is his second home. “Having travelled 85 countries, if there are two places I love globally, they have to be India and Africa,” adds Willis who loves Indian delicacies, especially Delhi’s street food. “Many times, the only way to see Delhi is not in a car. You need to get out on the street and just walk. And with it comes street food but also weight gain. If you want to lose weight, don’t come to India,” he says with a smile.    


Be it the Middle East, Turkey, India or Africa, a majority of Willis’ career has been in the region which he says has been one of opportunities, growth and key locations. “Not everyone thinks of Dubai and Saudi Arabia immediately from a growth perspective but look at India or Africa from the same lens. There has always been a world of opportunities, and now more so than here in India. If you look at inbound and outbound tourism, it has been a wonderful journey, especially over the last 10-15 years,” feels Willis. 

   Fairmont Jaipur


If you look at India, Accor has Raffles, Novotel and ibis, says Willis. “All these epitomise the opportunity for India as a destination. It doesn’t matter which hotel you go to. Without the team, it’s just infrastructure. We are not in the museum business where you go and see a beautiful thing. We are in the peoples’ business, and without them, it’s just a beautiful shell. We’ve opened a Raffles, a Novotel and an ibis, so that’s a clear spread across all the brands from midscale economic to ultra-luxury. India is a place of diversity and you’ll see that we will continue to increase our presence,” he puts in.    


Novotel and ibis are here and another Raffles is coming soon, informs Willis. “There is a continued desire to invest in hospitality in India as it is a huge growth market. There are wonderful cities, super infrastructure and a great opportunity for a wider brand spread, whether it is luxury, ultra-luxury or lifestyle,” feels the CEO for Accor Group for the Middle East, India, Africa and Turkey.   

Raffles Udaipur


Willis feels that key performances like occupancy or RevPAR don’t matter much. “If we look at where we are today, we’re 40 per cent over the previous year. Last year was devastating for the industry but we can see recovery as India is one of the most resilient places globally when it comes to recovery and talent. After the second wave, we had a 10-12-week recovery and that is unbelievable. It is such a resilient location, driven by culture and people. It is such a positive environment in the face of adversity. Globally, people expect recovery by 2024-25 but I think we will well exceed our expectations across our area by 2021-end,” he feels.    

Talking about the market share in India, Middle East, Africa and Turkey, Willis says, “If you look at the area as a whole, with the addition of India and Turkey, I think it’s fair to say that we perform at a very high level vis-à-vis our competitors. Across the area, I have a Room Generation Index (RGI) that exceeds 110 which lets us know where we are placed versus competitors from an occupancy perspective. We continue to do well in the entire region and have a wonderful portfolio supported by amazing owners who are our business partners,” he puts in.   

Novotel and ibis Chennai OMR


Willis says he has been in the Middle East for a long time, where it is fair to say that women rights and the amount of diversity at workspace has been under scrutiny for years. “If I look back 10 years, I appointed the first female General Manager in Saudi Arabia. At that time, it was not particularly a well-received statement as we recall now, but if you look today, it’s a totally different world. We had a GM gathering recently where of the three newly appointed GMs, two were women. This is a positive sign. Without diversity, especially in the GM structure, you definitely miss something. We’ve a solid pipeline of women coming through the system and making it up as a GM or Head of the Department,” shares Willis.    


Business relationships with owners, investors, and asset owners is something very critical and Willis spends most of his time doing that. Transparency, for him, has been the key element. “I have made a career out of being honest and conscientious and now more so than in the last 18 months, we have had some difficult discussions with our business partners. And they’ve responded as always wonderfully well in the face of such a difficult period and it is not just about financials. That relationship or communication is all about trust or proactive transparent communication,” he says.    

SLS Dubai


Willis says he is optimistic regarding the key segments of business but they’re taking longer than he expected to return. “There are various aspects to it: the impact of government and legislation with regards to the size of the gatherings and social distancing. Then there is the financial impact over the last 18 months plus. So, it will take a longer time but the desire to be together, be it from a business or a family’s perspective, will surely return,” he feels.     


“Sometimes I feel leadership is overstated, with regard to impact. There’s only so much you can do as an individual. If you can create a culture where people feel empowered and positive about the business they are doing, it will affect their businesses commercially, service quality and all other vital elements. Puneet (Dhawan) and the team in India, the GMs across the region and the teams with them have brought about a change and I’m humbled by the way we’ve handled the pandemic over the last 18 months. It is unbelievable,” says Willis. He also thanked his team for all the hard work they do at so many different levels and often in difficult circumstances. “We work in this wonderful industry where if you’re not smiling then you are in the wrong place,” he shares.  


Talking about digital disruption being the newest paradigm, Willis cites the example of a recently attended investment forum in Riyadh with Accor Chairman and CEO Sebastian Bazin. “He did an interesting panel on this topic with the CIO of Zoom. Though I don’t remember the figures mentioned there, it was interesting to know about the new dynamics of working from home on different platforms. All of it may have increased over the last 12 months plus, but then a high percentage of people still want flexibility. So, it may be a new paradigm but then it may not necessarily be working from home. One needs to work in an environment that is available, open and supportive from work perspective. I think we will see that shift happen soon. Not everybody wants to complete their nine-hour day from a kitchen table. So, there is a downside as well as an upside to it. The new paradigm will surely be a business contribution to the hotels,” avers Willis.   


“Three years back, we were 160 or 170 hotels across the area and then we acquired Movenpick Hotels & Resorts. We now stand at over 420 hotels so it has been a huge expansion. Accor is a very entrepreneurial organisation and the portfolio and footprints of brands we have across the area enable every tool at our disposal. We have all the segments you would like to entail, be it from an investment perspective or customer outlook,” says Willis.    

One would assume that between 2019 and 2021, things would have slowed down due to the pandemic but that has not been the case at Accor. “Our signings of hotels across the area have been the same for 2019, 2020 and 2021. This year, we’ll open around 30 hotels, similar to what we did in 2019,” Willis shares, adding that over the period of negativity the world has faced, especially in 2020 due to Covid19, the industry is recovering fast. “There’s a desire to travel, to experience places and new cultures. I choose to remain optimistic as always,” avers Willis.   

Promising to be back in India for a longer trip before Christmas as he is yet to visit the latest addition to the Accor family, Raffles Udaipur, as also a few other key openings in the pipeline, Willis hopes he will be accompanied by his wife this time who he says is often jealous of him for he visits India alone every time.

This article was published in BW hotelier issue dated '' with cover story titled 'INVESTMENT SPECIAL ISSUE VOL 7, ISSUE 6'


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