Accor isn’t always top of mind for U.S. travelers considering where to book a hotel stay.
If we’re honest, it probably isn’t even next in mind.
But there’s plenty of reason to give the Paris-based hotel conglomerate behind brands like Raffles, Fairmont and Sofitel a second look. Part of that stems from Maud Bailly, Accor’s CEO of Sofitel and Sofitel Legend, and MGallery and Emblems — two of the company’s soft brands competing in the boutique hotel space.
Bailly took on her role at the start of 2023 after serving as Accor’s CEO for Southern Europe. She has her work cut out for her: Sofitel turns 60 this year, and while it commands major brand recognition in the luxury hotel space, it faces stiff competition from newer brands that seem to be announced almost daily from each of Accor’s competitors, such as Marriott, Hyatt and Hilton.
Emblems is a luxury collection launched at the end of 2021 and is still awaiting the opening of its first hotels. MGallery shows signs of being a major growth driver for Accor, but it also competes head-to-head with Marriott’s Autograph Collection and Hilton’s Curio Collection.
But one year into her tenure as the top boss over the three brands, signs point to early success under Bailly’s tutelage.
TPG caught up with Bailly in Cannes, France, last month at the International Luxury Travel Market conference, and the Accor executive gave her assessment of spending nearly a year traveling the world to embark on a three-phase plan for growth under the brands she oversees.
“We literally traveled the world to see almost 240 hotels to get a really clear understanding of where we stood, where we lacked clarity, how our network was — you know, really understanding,” Bailly said. “This is the beginning of the mission. We’ve been fed by these trips.”
What do Sofitel, MGallery and Emblems stand for?
Digesting the messages and experiences seen on the field helped modify plans originally designed at Accor’s headquarters back in Paris. The second step of Bailly’s plan entailed conveying what each brand’s DNA and expertise is.
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MGallery is known for its design-forward luxury hotels and “Memorable Moment” experiences for guests.
TPG toured the new Domaine Reine Margot Paris Issy last month, and among several memorable moments, one included the rum-forward Le Monastic speak-easy housed in a former chapel. The only original sin during the tour is that it couldn’t last longer for another round of drinks at Le Monastic or a helping of roasted vegetable bouchee with the fun, friendly staff at the hotel’s restaurant, Le Marguerite 1606 (named for the year when Queen Margot first used the property as a royal country retreat).
Additional MGallery hotels are slated to open this year in Kenya, France, Japan and Poland.
Accor launched Emblems to be the ultra-luxury soft brand sibling to MGallery, focusing on independent-minded properties that are flagship hotels for a destination.
Sofitel is the trio’s luxurious, formal hard brand under Bailly’s watch. The brand is known for offering French “art de vivre” and hospitality while providing local touches in each destination. But travelers also might point to Sofitel as where Bailly faces her biggest challenge.
Sofitel has some incredible properties like Sofitel Legend Old Cataract Aswan overlooking the Nile River in Egypt and Sofitel Legend Casco Viejo, a TPG Best Hotels of 2023 winner and part of the Sofitel Legend offshoot brand. However, the brand also has some properties that need renovations and upgrades to align with the luxurious level of other hotels in the Sofitel network.
“We identified some hotels clearly in need of renovation, and we started renovating with a lot of support from the owners,” Bailly said. “The vast majority of the owners welcome this approach.”
Sofitel Bangkok Sukhumvit underwent a renovation in the last year to its lobby and also opened Maison Mizuki, a Japanese restaurant and whiskey bar. The acclaimed Sofitel Legend Metropole Hanoi is undergoing upgrades to its guest rooms and suites. Sofitel Dubai The Palm debuted a new mix of suites and private villas at the end of last year.
That’s likely just the beginning for Sofitel, Sofitel Legend, MGallery and Emblems.
Phase three for the brands is about growth mode, and it appears Accor chose wisely to move Bailly into the role of brand builder: As CEO of Southern Europe, Bailly oversaw nearly 2,000 hotels across all price points, from the budget-oriented Ibis to Accor’s more luxurious brands.
Overseeing a 240-hotel portfolio might seem like a much easier task. Still, it’s clear that the figure is on track to rise quickly — and having someone with experience in operations and growth across an entire region can help maintain and fuel the momentum.
There are 120 Sofitel hotels currently open and an additional 26 in the development pipeline, according to Accor’s development page. There are 43 MGallery hotels in the works on top of the 121 hotels already open. Emblems has five hotel deals signed with plans to hit 60 openings by the decade’s end.
“We’ve never received so many calls from investors to develop new hotels with us,” Bailly said in response to whether or not the current financial climate of high interest rates and construction costs could slow things down. “People have cash.”
“We’re going to have a record year, and the number of phone calls we do receive every week to get a hotel is increasing,” she later added.
But what about the US?
Talks of brand consistency and growth are all fine and good, but Bailly admits the U.S. remains “by far our most difficult market” in terms of gaining a bigger footprint. She still sees significant potential in MGallery expanding within the U.S.
The brand currently operates three hotels in North America, including the Hotel Andra Seattle, which opened at the end of 2022. MGallery also has hotels in Miami and Vancouver, British Columbia, with an additional property in Tulum, Mexico — Mayaliah Tulum Hotel & Residences — slated to open later this year.
“The potential of development with MGallery [in the Americas] is amazing,” Bailly said.
While it might seem hard to convince a hotel owner in the U.S. to ink a deal for an MGallery hotel when Marriott’s Autograph Collection or Hilton’s Curio are better known here, strong early performance at the MGallery properties in the Americas — all have opened since early 2021 — are enough to attract more deals.
With Sofitel in the U.S., Bailly admits there’s work to be done.
“We have a legacy, and my biggest challenge is to prove to people that Sofitel is entering a new era with greater clarity, more commercial and marketing animation, powerful standards, people who truly care for the brand and a dedicated brand organization really obsessed with Sofitel power,” she said.
While Accor leaders aren’t getting too specific on what the future conveys for the brand here, it appears renovations are certainly in store for many Sofitel properties. This helps introduce the brand to travelers who might have had great experiences at leading hotels for the brand in the Americas — like Sofitel Mexico City Reforma or Sofitel Baru Calablanca in Colombia — but aren’t finding a similar vibe at Sofitel properties in the U.S. The brand currently has hotels in Philadelphia, New York City, Chicago, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C.
“In many regions, Sofitel is super strong and very well respected. In the U.S., we had some properties which desperately need a renovation,” Bailly said. “We have had very constructive discussions with our owners, and it’s our shared interest to renovate. It’s a win-win dynamic the same way it’s a lose-lose dynamic when you don’t do anything.”
In short, don’t chalk Sofitel up to being a luxury brand past its prime just because it’s celebrating its diamond jubilee in 2024. If the recently opened Sofitel Legend in Panama or Sofitel Baru are indicators, travelers to the Americas have plenty to be excited about in the region for the years to come.