Sébastien Bazin tackles politics and technology as Accor looks to the future

With the “ten-year transformation of Accor now complete”, Sébastien Bazin, chairman & CEO of Accor, unveiled what comes next at the IHIF EMEA 2024 on Monday.

Speaking to Victoria Hills, partner, Freshfields Bruckhaus Deringer, Bazin said that geopolitics was “messy” and that he “hated technology” in a provocative debate which tackled everything from the calibre of world leaders to the carbon net zero challenge. 

Bazin has been chairman and CEO of Accor since August 2013, following 16 years at Colony Capital where he led European operations for the private real estate investment firm. He was famously offered the Accor job after writing a paper about where the hospitality giant should go next. Last year, in addition to his current role as Accor’s group chairman & CEO, he also took on the leadership of the group’s luxury & lifestyle division.

Bazin said that as Accor’s CEO, he now felt “serene” after completing the business plan he had envisaged over a decade ago. “I had a clear idea about what Accor needed – I wanted to shake this company upside-down in terms of business model, segments and geographies,” he said. “I’ve done that. Now that that transformation is behind me – it took three years longer than expected – I feel serene.” He added: “A leader has to be good at assembling a team, at listening to the market. There is a point where there’s a bit of a tailwind. That has currently lasted 18 months, and exceptionally, it might last another two years.”

However, he underlined that the group wouldn’t be resting on its laurels, and would continue to innovate, as it had done recently by venturing into yachting via Orient Express.  “I want to navigate new waters,” he said.

Leadership style

In terms of his personal management style, Bazin revealed that he travels “all the time – around 300 days a year” – and that he sees as key “the ability to listen before you talk”. He added: “I love listening to someone I don’t know. They know better, they think differently, and I am learning all the time. I was in India last week, to deliver a speech, which I never write down. But I did spend a week reading and listening to many Indian professionals. I was fascinated. You have to listen and then trust that they know better than you.”

When asked if there were political leaders that he looked up to, Bazin grimaced. “The world is a mess – the leaders are doing what they can, but 50 years ago, all of us would have been able to spot two, three or four extraordinary leaders that you admire, want to resemble, want to lead you. That’s hard to answer today,” he said. He added that “it’s the toughest job on the planet to rule a country” and that social media didn’t help – “you are defensive all the time, politics is an open book, you have to hide to gain privacy”. He summarised: “What I want from a leader is stability. The rest, leave it to the private sector which has more adaptability, more agility. We have better teams as we’re better remunerated, we can go faster.”

Commenting on his peers in hospitality, he said that the ”CEOs of many great companies have done well” in leading the sector’s resurgence.

ESG challenge

Despite an overall message of success, Bazin warned that the ESG challenge remained fiercely complex. “We have been driven by our ability to scale, our ability to grow… but every time you go to a hotel you increase your carbon footprint.” Bazin said that he took a “two column approach” before opening a new hotel, weighing up the pros and cons the structure would deliver to the local territory and community. A chief issue, he said,  was water security, noting that a third of the world population has no access to drinkable water. “Are you taking water away, taking energy away, by opening that hotel?” he added. Yet, looking on the positive side, he credited the hospitality industry with creating “some 12% of jobs in the world” and predicting that “one job in four” in the next 10 years would be in hospitality.

Touching on key future topics, he wondered if “the world would become even more messy” in the light of the current, complex geopolitical scene. He said he was wary of AI but that he “needed to grasp it better” while confessing to “hating technology” and the idea of smartphone check-ins.

Growth story

Accor displayed robust operational and financial achievements in its 2023 results, announced in February. The company surpassed its 2023 guidance, seeing resilient demand and solid growth across all regions and segments following the post-Covid pandemic recovery in 2022.

Accor achieved a record EBITDA of over €1 billion, which it said was driven by global demand, resulting in a 49% increase in EBITDA compared to the previous year. The RevPAR of the premium, midscale, and economy (PM&E) division increased by 12% compared to Q4 2022, primarily influenced by price adjustments rather than improvements in occupancy rates.

In 2023, Accor opened 291 hotels, adding 41,000 rooms to its network, representing a net network growth of 2.4% over the last 12 months. The group now boasts a hotel portfolio of 821,518 rooms across 5,584 hotels, with a pipeline of 225,000 rooms across 1,315 hotels.