INTERVIEW: ANDRÉ GERONDEAU, CHIEF OPERATING OFFICER, MELIÁ HOTELS INTERNATIONAL
Having been immersed in the hospitality world since childhood, André Gerondeau knows a thing or two about running a hotel. Here he tells Sophie Harper how there is light after the pandemic and a number of new Meliá projects to get excited about.
Responsible for Meliá Hotels International’s operations worldwide and in charge of development, global distribution and marketing, as well as the company’s portfolio of brands, André Gerondeau is undoubtedly a busy man. “I guess I am one of those fortunate people that very early on in life had a very clear idea of the path to follow,” he tells me as he explains that his father has been a hotelier all his life. “I was born in Tokyo; French father, Chilean mother, Mexican wife, living in Spain. I am a true son of this magnificent industry. Walking the corridors, taking a tour of the back of house, and seeing my dad check the main results of the day before was customary before going to school in the mornings.”
André tells me how he has always been passionate about food and drink, and soon understood how relevant it was to have a 360-degree vision of the hotel business, a strong sales and marketing orientation, solid operational skills, mastering the P&L and understanding that hospitality is a people business. “Taking care of our employees means they will take care of our guests; the team is the backbone of any successful story. This same philosophy took me to my first general manager position in a five-star hotel before I’d even turned 30.” André joined Meliá Hotels International over two decades ago, starting out as GM in the Dominican Republic, then Regional Director for France, Vice President for the Americas, and now in his current role as Chief Operating Officer.
“I have the privilege of leading one of the best teams in the industry,” says André. “We are globally responsible for all hotel operations, also in charge of the management, innovation and development of the group’s brand portfolio.” Currently, the group has 326 operating hotels, and a pipeline of 62 hotels, which totals close to 400 hotels, with hotel staff made up of over 40,000 people. “We are organised by a combined matrix of regional vice-presidents very close to the business, our partners and the market, and also global functions in charge of strategy,” he explains.
I ask André what he most enjoys about being part of the hospitality industry and his current role, “This is a two-fold answer,” he says, “on one hand, personally, it gives the opportunity to understand the world from different angles – the travel, culture and way of life in different parts of the world is the best education you can provide to your kids and to yourself. On a professional level, it is the excitement and the drive of doing business and performing at high level with people from different parts of the world and industries. Many of our hotel owners have investment interests in different sectors; the hotel is usually the trophy asset; the showcase of their companies, and it can reflect their philosophy. The responsibility of our company to always exceed those expectations is a great motivator.”
André is such an advocate for the hospitality industry and takes his role at Melia so seriously, I want to know his thoughts on what makes a good leader in the business of hotels. “Our Chairman, Gabriel Escarrer, who founded the Company 65 years ago when mass tourism was at its very beginning, always says that a good hotel executive needs to have the following attributes: a clear set of priorities with an absolute focus on the customer, a desire to excel, empathy and a strong orientation towards people management, a fondness for innovation, and of course, a commercial vocation. I fully agree with him that these are the qualities that any successful hospitality leader should possess.”
Asking André about different challenges he’s faced over the course of his career he tells me about incredible moments that have provided insight and clarity, like the category five hurricane in the Caribbean that forced everyone in the hotel to take shelter in the ballroom for more than 18 hours, but that ultimately brought people together. COVID has been an altogether different challenge, and one that has left many businesses shattered in its wake, but André can see there is light at the end of the tunnel. “COVID has had a serious impact in the tourism industry, since it has directly hit the essence of our industry: the mobility of people,” he says. “Besides the fact that hotels had to be closed during the hardest months of the pandemic crisis in most of the world, there is a feeling that travel that will take much longer to dissipate, and most likely, travellers won’t feel comfortable travelling until there is an effective and available vaccine. Nevertheless, I must say that the industry has made exceptional efforts to increase health safety and confidence, and with programmes such as the ‘Stay Safe With Meliá’, certified by Bureau Veritas, we have made sure that our customers enjoy a great experience, whilst feeling “safer than they are in their own homes”, as many of them have told us.”
Thanks to the Stay Safe With Meliá programme, the group has been able to open more than half of its portfolio (almost 180 hotels) and, after a complicated summer season, they are reporting recovery in some European countries as well as China – hopefully with the Caribbean following suit in the coming months, too. “Regarding the post-COVID paradigm and trends, I think that in the future, travellers will give much more importance to health safety and to sustainability and social empathy and solidarity,” says André, “so responsible brands like Meliá will become more popular and successful. Besides, I think that slow and domestic travel will be preferred by many travellers until trust is fully restored. In any case, our top priority is to come out of this crisis stronger than before.”
With a potential shift in travel trends following the pandemic, I ask Andre if he thinks design will still play an important role in the industry, and he responds with one answer – “Absolutely” before expanding: “The magic that a hotel conveys highly depends on its spaces and the design that shapes those spaces to create an atmosphere, and the perfect scene for our guests to live experiences.” He adds, “Our company places a strong importance to our hotels’ design and functionality, and we have always understood how important a hotel project is (as well as its location) and the importance of open spaces, as well as aesthetically pleasing gardens and outdoor areas with impressive swimming pools. I think the fact that our company has been established for many years in iconic destinations such as Bali, where they feel a great reverence for the harmony and balance of things, has influenced us and the great importance we place on having inspiring and well-designed indoor and outdoor spaces.”
Meliá has a number of exciting projects in the mix at the moment. Keep your eyes peeled for ME Dubai, that André describes as, “An amazing hotel designed by the late genial architect Zaha Hadid that is a real game-changer – not only for its amazing design, but for its service and experience concepts as well.” Also on the horizon are: Paradisus Playa Mujeres in Mexico; Gran Meliá Zhengzhou and Gran Meliá Chengdu in China; ME Doha; Innside Newcastle, Innside Amsterdam, Meliá Frankfurt, ME Malta, and ME Barcelona, as well as a number of rebranding projects taking place over the coming years.